At Werner’s school, a new drill has been invented where a boy identified as weaker than the others is made to run while the others pursue him. Frederick fails the drill and is beaten in punishment.
Werner’s experiences at the Schulpforta school highlight the tensions and contradictions in his character. Werner is intelligent enough to be suspicious of the ideology of patriotism and power which is being forced upon the boys. The boys who attend the school are young and impressionable and attracted to the idea of becoming powerful men who can dominate others and control the world. But Werner questions the way they are being indoctrinated with Nazi ideology and feels fearful about what this training might lead them to do in the future. Still, he finds the experience exciting. Especially because Werner is an orphan who has never had any family except Jutta, being at the school gives him a sense of belonging and role models whom he wants to please and impress. Werner cannot help feeling proud when his innate intelligence earns him special attention and special opportunity. The opportunity to study calculus and specialized technology is something he would never have gotten at the orphanage, and it makes him feel as if coming to Schulpforta will be a positive thing in his life. A reader, however, may start to have suspicions about what Werner is being trained to do, and what awaits him.
The character of Frederick functions to display Werner’s inner self and foreshadow other vulnerable figures to come. While Werner is very intelligent and scholarly, he is also fairly athletic and can perform reasonably well in the drills and exercises the boys are required to participate in. Werner is also smart enough to put on a tough façade and identify people who are in positions in power. Frederick is, like Werner, more interested in thinking and studying than running and fighting. But unlike Werner, Frederick is not athletic or savvy and is quickly singled out for bullying and abuse. The way Frederick is treated by the boys at the school mirrors Nazi ideology: anyone who was considered “weak” or “undesirable” because they were different in any way deserved to suffer and even be eliminated. Only the strong were considered good enough to survive. Unlike Werner, Frederick lacks either the ability or the willingness to pretend to be something he is not. This puts Werner in a challenging position because he cares about Frederick and does not want to see his friend get hurt. At the same time, Werner does not want to jeopardize his own status and safety by standing up for someone else. Everything that Werner has is precarious and could easily be lost if it seemed like he is showing weakness. This tension foreshadows Werner’s later failure to protect the young girl who will be killed in Austria and also his desire to help and protect Marie-Laure in Saint-Malo.
Reinhold von Rumpel’s introduction brings an antagonist and villain into the plot. While the Nazi government as a whole represents an evil force that creates conflict in the plot, a single, identifiable villain helps to bring focus and specificity to the larger Nazi party. Von Rumpel’s character also shows how power and corruption can impact individuals at moments of historical crisis. Von Rumpel seems to have lived an ordinary life before the Nazi party came to power, and nothing in the novel suggests he is driven by any particular hatred or political belief. Instead, an alignment between his skill set and a moment of historical significance creates an opportunity for him to gain newfound power and wealth. Once he starts on the road toward these things, von Rumpel becomes obsessed with maintaining and acquiring more. All he has to do is follow orders and turn a blind eye to the atrocities which are occurring around him. In this sense, von Rumpel functions as a warning of what Werner might become if Werner continues to ignore his conscience and seek out opportunities to feed his ambition.
Information about Etienne’s past and his relationship with his brother deepen the pathos around this character. Etienne not only experienced his own suffering and pain while fighting on the frontlines, he also had to witness the person he loved most die next to him. This death of his brother (Daniel’s father and Marie-Laure’s grandfather) marks a gap in their family history and chain of memory. Etienne grieves by clinging to the belief that his brother is not completely gone, and his fascination with the radio and recordings of their program shows why this new technology played such a powerful role in capturing people’s imaginations. In modern times, it is easy to take access to recordings, memories, and the sound of someone’s voice for granted, even after they are gone. At Etienne’s time, limited technology meant that someone was totally absent once they died, so Etienne’s ability to still hear and broadcast the sound of his brother’s voice seems almost miraculous. This information also implies that Werner and Jutta were listening to these same broadcasts, which starts to foreshadow how these parallel storylines will eventually converge. Although Etienne does not know this, his whimsical decision to broadcast the program is affecting the lives of others. If he had not heard these programs, Werner might never have decided to pursue science.