Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and The Power of Words

I have a special interest in books about war. I know it may sound sick but it’s really just the history buff in me kicking and resurfacing. You can also blame my dad since he was the first one who made me get into this stuff.

I find wars hard to understand – from how and why they start to how they rage on down to how they end – there’s a certain mechanism to all of it. Wars are ugly. Wars are messy. Wars are complicated and it is something I don’t want to happen.

But they still do until now.

And that is why I think we need more books about war. We need more things to remind us just how destructive they are because, apparently, the reminders that we already have now are still not enough. We humans have real short memories sometimes.

I’m happy I picked up Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief even if I know it’ll break my heart. True enough, it lived up to my expectations. It broke my heart. It made me think about the effects of war. Most importantly, it made me do a double take on just how powerful words are.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is a story about the power of words.

Set in the middle of Nazi Germany, the novel follows Liesel Meminger’s life during the Second World War as told from Death’s perspective. It covers the events of 1939 -the start of World War II- down to 1943 -the start of the Germans’ fall.

I just have three words to describe this novel: Important. Beautiful. Heartbreaking.

I must admit, my knowledge about World War II is limited to its effects in Asia Pacific because, well, that’s the only thing they teach us in school, which makes me think that World History should be made a compulsory subject. Maybe if we all learn about each other’s, each country’s past struggles we’d be able to understand one another more. We’d be more compassionate. Anyway, that’s just me throwing in my two-cents’ worth into the conversation. Going back, yes, I may have a limited knowledge about WWII but I do know that Adolf Hitler was a gifted and charismatic orator.

Hitler started a war using his words. He knew its powers and he used them to accomplish what he thought was for his people’s good.  Zusak couldn’t have put it better:

“Yes, the Fϋhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany… It was a nation of farmed thoughts.”

So the war began and with it came the prosecution of the Jews and the death of millions of people. All of those because of words. The words of one man became the thought of one nation. Well, almost.

There were still people who resisted Hitler’s words, of course, and they risked their lives just by doing so. Some helped and hid their Jewish friends. Some did not support the Nazi’s cause. This is the conflict provided in Zusak’s novel. He used the Huberman’s to illustrate this point, showing his readers the other side of Nazi Germany. Most importantly, however, the author showed just how important words were during that time. While Hitler destroyed people with his words, a poor girl kept a handful of people alive by reading the words from a stolen book. Later on, she writes her own story amidst all the ugliness of the world surrounding her, and it saved her life. In a way, it is like stealing back the life Hitler’s words took.


I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

Our words have great power. Put them together and they can do whatever you want them to do – be it to uplift or to hurt; to inspire or to down. Good or bad, it’s our choice. Words become thoughts which in turn can be picked up by a handful of people then passed on to many more.  The effects are tremendous.

That is why we should all be careful about the way we use our words. They are our reflection, they express our thoughts. Yes, the thoughts inside our heads may not always be good but we have the choice to not say them, to not act them out. We should always keep in mind that by saying them out loud our thoughts could reach other people and influence them. It is challenging but it can be done. Being the thinking beings that we are, we should know how to be responsible for the things that come out of our mouths.

Many of the world’s wars, even every day arguments, could have been stopped if people were just more careful about the words they use. More people could feel empowered if only more of us chose to use our words to inspire others. Our words can make so much difference.

I feel like I’ve already stressed so much about how words can work so I’m not going to bore you out any further.  I just hope that somehow I was able to get some important things out. This is, after all, how I choose to use my words.

Originally posted on The Bright-eyed Wanderer 22 June 2013