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The Ethics Of Thievery And Its Effects

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If it came down to it, would it make sense for one to steal something for their survival? What if it was only for the betterment of oneself? How about if one did not care or even fully realize what they were doing? Would all of these still be considered thievery? Questions like these have the power to shroud opinions about what is defined as right and wrong. These certain questions are able to challenge people on their take of the difference between stealing for survival and stealing for greed. Ideas like these, revolving around the rightness of thievery, present themselves many times throughout The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak. This novel follows the life of the main character Liesel Meminger as she adapts to her new life while trying to survive in World War II Germany. Throughout the novel, Liesel and many others discover that one of the only ways to thrive is by stealing. By doing this, the definition of what stealing really means is questioned due to the actions of certain characters. In The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, the theme of thievery is brought up multiple times and develops through the actions of the main character Liesel, various side characters, and Nazi population, along with their supporters.

Thievery has many different ways of portraying itself. In the case of this story, this theme is first evident in the main character, Liesel Meminger. She uses stealing as a way to find freedom in her life; thus, resulting in the action of thievery to play a large role in her upbringing. From the very beginning of the novel, Liesel used thievery to connect her to memories of the past, and uses it to remind her of her old life. “There was something back and rectangular lodged in the snow. Only the girl saw it. She bent down and picked it up and help it firmly in her fingers” (Zusak 24). This is the first instance of Liesel using thievery as an outlet. She was at her only brother’s funeral and she saw a dropped book so she used it as an opportunity take something to always be able to remember the last moment she had with her brother and not long after, her mother. Had she not stolen that book, her memory of her brother and mother would not have been as strong. While her brother may have died, and her mother may have left, she still connects and finds comfort with the idea of them being there with her in her times of need. This root ultimately goes back to the stolen book. While she may have a new family now, Liesel’s life of thievery did not end there. At one of the infamous Nazi book burnings, Liesel discovers books that have survived the flames, “The heat was still strong enough to warm her when she stood at the foot of the ash heap. When she reached her hand in she was bitten, but on the second attempt, she made sure she was fast enough. She latched on to the closest books” (Zusak 120). This implies how one of Liesel’s only loves, books, were often obtained through the use of stealing. She could have come up with other ways to get books, but she knew, that in that moment, stealing was the easiest way to get them. Liesel risked her life and her family’s life by stealing those books from the fire. That was not the only time Liesel used thievery as a way to get books. The novel reads, “But very calmly and cleanly, Liesel walked over, picked up the book, and made her way cautiously out”(Zusak 289). Liesel goes into the mayor’s library with the only intent of getting a book. She knew that it would not have been wise to steal anything more than she came for, even when her best friend was willing her to do so. In both of these instances, Liesel used her skill for stealing in a methodical sense, she never did anything more than she knew she should. Liesel always stuck to her plan and never tried for more. While the theme of thievery in this novel is found in many characters, Liesel Meminger shows one of the strongest connections with this theme. She steals multiple times throughout the novel; however, she always has a reasoning behind it.

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Everyone has the power to steal, and there are many people who decide to act on that power. Liesel might be the main culprit creating the theme of thievery in The Book Thief, but there are multiple other side characters that use that idea in their own ways. This book takes place in World War II Germany, so it is understandable that there would be multiple characters that turn to the life of crime. When rations are low and stomachs are empty, Liesel’s best friend, Rudy Steiner, takes matters into his own hands. He decides to go to the market and try to steal the biggest potato there. During this process, the novel quotes, “Inconspicuous as he was, however, he managed to take hold of the biggest potato in the lot…They all looked on as the thirteen-year old fist rose up and grabbed it” (Zusak 293, 294). When Rudy stole this potato, it was not out of necessity, it was out of greed. This is significant because it shows the different ways that thievery in incorporated in the story, because many different characters have different motives for why they have resorted to stealing. Further in the story, there is a group of kids that go and steal apples from orchards. Arthur Bergs happens to be the leader of this group and the story states, “Fruit stealers…they noticed Fritz Hammer-one of their older counterparts-eating an apple…’Where did you get those?’ Rudy asked. The boy only grinned at first, ‘Shhh’”(Zusak 150). By showing this group of thieves, it helps the story progress. Readers can infer just how bad the lifestyle was starting to get. Even kids had to band together to get enough food to stay healthy. If this use of thievery was not included, readers might have underestimated just how hard the characters had it;Thus, progressing the story. For most of the story, characters are stealing objects needed for survival or simply for greed; However, there has been no mention of stealing people. Liesel’s father, Hans Hubermann shows the theme of thievery by stealing the jew, Max Vandenburg. In Germany at that time, it was considered a crime to be associated with a jew at that time, and it was an incredible risk to keep one in your basement; However, those were risks Hans was willing to take when he let the Jewish man stay. As stated in the story, “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew”(Zusak 211). The use of thievery in this case is inferred to show the kindness of Hans. When someone thinks of thievery, most seem to deem it as bad; but in this case, thievery is actually used to demonstrate humanity. Hans knew the trouble he could get into, but he also knew he needed to help Max just because he knew it was right. There were many instances throughout The Book Thief that used a multitude of different and unique characters as a way to incorporate the theme of thievery into every aspect of the novel.

While physical stealing is something that commonly happens, indirect thievery is also a very common concept. A key part of The Book Thief is how the Nazis are terrorizing people such as jews, political opposers, or people of color. This leads into the idea of how the Nazis are stealing the humanity, lives, and families from many characters in the story. There were many place holding characters that seemed as though they have lost all human decentity, “Max, with the rest of the Jews, was steadily rejected and repeatedly trodden”(Zusak 192). This line clearly infers that Max, a Jew, was starting to get outcasted from society. This is exactly where thievery is involved, there are people in the story who have started to deprive others of their basic human rights. While some of these characters might not know what they are fully doing, this is an action that is not ignored as thievery. The lives of many people were also stolen. From wars to concentration camps, many unnecessary lives were stolen throughout the story. Death brings mention to this, “There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished…”(Zusak 112). Over the course of forty million people, approximately three million of them were people who would have been applicable for concentration camps. The Nazis stole the lives of millions of people in attempt to have their “perfect world.” The lives stolen from the Nazis were had very hard effects on the families of the dead; That is, if that was not already stolen. During this time, families were broken apart because of different members taking sides on the matter. When it came to the Hubermanns, this was the case between Hans and his son. “‘You’re either for the Fübrer or against him-and I can see you’re against him. You always have been’…watching a father grab hold of his son and begging him to stop…’Come back!’ The boy was gone”(Zusak 105,106). While the novel did include that Hans and his son have never had the closest relationship, the actions found in this quote show just how badly families were pulled apart. To certain characters, their family was all they had left, so by them being ripped apart over sides of a war, it really brought out the worst in the actions of Nazis. The Nazis stole some of the most precious things that people had left, even people who were not in the minority could still have their family stolen from them because of a disagreement of politics. It is inferred that there were multiple different families that felt this affect of thievery, either from a disagreement or from the death or loss of their family. Stealing something is never a good thing; However the actions of the Nazis stealing humanity, lives, and families is something that have a powerful impact on the theme of thievery in The Book Thief.

The idea of stealing has been one that people have questioned for a rather long time due to morals. Throughout The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, the theme of thievery shown itself in many powerful ways that have proved to show both ethical and unethical uses of this power.. It was present in simple acts of thievery from Liesel and other characters, to large ideas such as the Nazis stealing humanity, lives, and families. There were some characters who needed stealing to survive, while others did it only for greed. The same question still remains. In the novel, are characters still considered having good intentions even though the theme of thievery was very prominent between all of them? While questions like that may never truly be answered, one thing is for certain. People will always question the morals behind thievery; However, it is only the thieves intentions that matter.

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The Ethics Of Thievery And Its Effects. (2021, September 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“The Ethics Of Thievery And Its Effects.” Edubirdie, 21 Sept. 2021,
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