Markus Zusak was born in Sydney, Australia, on June 23, 1975. He grew up listening to his parents’ stories of their childhoods in Vienna and Munich during World War II. One story his mother often told was about watching a group of Jews being marched down the street on their way to the concentration camp in Dachau. An old man was struggling to keep up with the rest of the group. When a boy ran up to the man and offered him a piece of bread, the man fell to his knees, crying and kissing the boy’s ankles. Then German officers took the bread from the man and whipped the boy. This scene became the basis for “The Book Thief.” In the book, it is the main character’s foster father who offers the old man the bread and is whipped by the officer. Zusak has said the story symbolized for him everything that is beautiful and everything that is horrible about humanity.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Zusak explained his motivations for writing a sympathetic portrait of Germans during World War II, saying, “We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the ‘Heil Hitlers’ and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn’t follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there’s another side to Nazi Germany.”
By the time The Book Thief opens, in January of 1939, Hitler had been self-declared “führer,” or leader, of Germany for more than four years. The Nuremberg Laws, implemented in 1935, declared anyone with Jewish blood non-Aryan, and removed their civil rights. Communists, Socialists, and anyone else considered an enemy of the Nazi Party was arrested and sent to labor camps in Dachau. In “The Book Thief,” the biological parents of the main character, Liesel, are Communists. Germans were encouraged to boycott Jewish businesses and held book burnings to destroy texts considered non-patriotic. Like Liesel and her friend Rudy, sixty percent of German youth were members the youth group Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth. Zusak has said his father was a member of Hitler Youth as a boy. In 1936, three years before the beginning of the book, Berlin hosted the Olympics, where the African-American athlete Jesse Owens dominated in the track events, winning four gold medals. In the novel, Owens’s feat inspires Rudy to paint himself black and race on the local track.
In June 1941 Germany invaded Russia. The invasion lasted the remainder of the war, and resulted in more than 30 million deaths due to combat, starvation, exposure, and disease. Several of the characters in The Book Thief are sent to the Eastern Front, including Hans and Rosa Hubermann’s son, Hansi, and Frau Holtzapfel’s sons, Michael and Robert. Although the war wouldn’t end in Europe until 1944, Liesel’s story ends in October of 1943, with the Allied bombing of Munich and Stuttgart and the fictional town of Molching, where the book is set. Zusak’s mother, who, like Liesel, grew up a foster child, described to her son watching Munich burn after being bombed.
Like Liesel’s foster father Hans Hubermann, Zusak’s father was a house painter, and the writer originally thought he would be a painter as well. But after accompanying his father on jobs he realized painting bored him. As a teen, he loved the novels What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and The Outsiders and Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton, and he began writing fiction at the age of sixteen. After many years of rejections from publishers, he published his first young-adult novel, The Underdog, in 1999. The sequels Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry followed. In 2002 Zusak published The Messenger, which won the Prinz Honor for young adult literature.
Initially, Zusak imagined The Book Thief as a 100 page novella, with Death as a boastful, remorseless narrator. But after writing more than half the book, Zusak realized he needed his narrator to be more sympathetic, and decided to make Death as afraid of human beings as they are of him. The Book Thief was published in 2005 and has been translated into 30 languages, as well as being a best-seller in many countries. Zusak is frequently asked whether he intended the book for a young adult or adult audience, and has said he simply wanted to write a book readers would love.