All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

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World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Analysis

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World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
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Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
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Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All the Light We Cannot See, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon

The vast majority of All the Light We Cannot See takes place during World War II. Although the novel itself covers many of the major European events of the era—the Holocaust, the Russian sieges, the invasion of Paris, the Allied invasion of France, etc.—Doerr doesn’t do much summarizing, and he assumes that his readers have a certain amount of knowledge of World War II. With this in mind, it’s important to consider more details about the war and how it relates to the lives of the novel’s characters.

In the 1930s, Germany fell under the control of the National Socialist (Nazi) party, a Fascist group that believed in strict government control, a strong military, and the racial purity of the German race. The Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, blamed the Jews of Europe (along with Communists and other minorities) for causing all of Germany’s social and economic problems. Hitler quickly rose to become the unquestioned leader—the “führer”—of Germany. In September 1939, Hitler launched a full-scale war, with the stated aim of conquering Europe and reclaiming Germany’s rightful place as the leader of the world. Hitler’s armies succeeded in conquering Poland and France, and, together with their Italian allies, waged war on Russia and the United Kingdom. The tide began to turn in 1944, when Russia won a series of key victories against Germany, and the United States entered the war on the side of Russia and the United Kingdom (collectively, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.A. were the “Allied Powers). By 1945, Germany’s forces had been pushed back to Berlin, and American bombers had destroyed Germany’s most important military outposts in Europe. The war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender in May of 1945. Needless to say, World War II impacts the lives of the two protagonists of All the Light We Cannot See, Werner and Marie-Laure, in many ways. Marie-Laure and her father Daniel are forced to leave Paris after the Germans invade, and Werner is caught up in the Nazi cause, but then begins to question his side’s morality after witnessing some of the horrors of war on the Russian front. Both protagonists then endure the bombing of Saint-Malo, where the Allies ruthlessly attacked the French town precisely because it was a key outpost for the German occupation.

Another important aspect of World War II for the novel is the French Resistance. Although Germany invaded and conquered France in 1940, there were many in France who opposed the German invasion in ways both large and small. Some resistance fighters, led by Charles de Gaulle, succeeded in assassinating key German officials in France, thereby weakening the German war effort. Even so, the French Resistance remains a topic of much debate among historians. It’s unclear how much of an effect the Resistance had on fighting the Germans, and it’s even been suggested that most of the victims of the Resistance fighters were minor Nazi soldiers with no real loyalty to Hitler. The moral ambiguity of the French Resistance—on the surface an unambiguously good thing—is captured in All the Light We Cannot See when Etienne LeBlanc, a reluctant Resistance fighter, admits that he’s not always sure who, or what, he’s fighting for. At the same time, however, the novel shows how all kinds of people—even children like Marie-Laure and old women like Madame Ruelle—could find ways of fighting against oppression and participating in the Resistance against the Germans.

While World War II is often presented—at least in the United States—as a simple distinction between good people and evil people, Doerr shows that the war blurred many of the moral distinctions that we take for granted. As All the Light We Cannot See suggests, World War II forced people to make extraordinary decisions, and drove everyday civilians to choose sides in the vast conflict between the Nazis and the Allies (or, more often, between complicity and resistance). European civilians—in Doerr’s novel, Werner and Marie-Laure—felt their lives being pushed and shaped by the enormous political forces in their countries, and they had to react to these forces with their own personal decisions.

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World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance appears in each chapter of All the Light We Cannot See. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See

Below you will find the important quotes in All the Light We Cannot See related to the theme of World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance.
One (1934): Something Rising Quotes

In the play, the invaders pose as hook-nosed department-store owners, crooked jewelers, dishonorable bankers; they sell glittering trash; they drive established village businessmen out of work. Soon they plot to murder German children in their beds. Eventually a vigilant and humble neighbor catches on. Police are called: big handsome-sounding policemen with splendid voices. They break down the doors. They drag the invaders away. A patriotic march plays. Everyone is happy again.

Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, told from the perspective of Werner Pfennig, a young German orphan, a theater troupe puts on a "play" for the children at Werner's orphanage. The play, we understand, is Nazi propaganda: designed to teach children, before they know any better, that Jews are frightening, loathsome creatures, who should be beaten and killed for their crimes. The words, "everyone is happy" convey the implausible, vanilla tone of the play: it's unrealistically cheerful in order to disguise the true brutality of anti-Semitism from the children.

The passage is important because it suggests that many of the people growing up in Nazi Germany aren't undeserving of sympathy. Some of those who would go on to fight on behalf of Adolph Hitler had been trained since before they could read to despise the Jews; the cruelty they showed the Jews was as much a product of their own ignorance as their sadism. Doerr certainly isn't trying to excuse the Nazis' actions, but by telling the story of a young, reluctant Nazi--Werner--he makes it clear that painting the Nazis as inhuman demons is overly simplistic--almost as simplistic as the anti-Semitic play from the passage.

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One (1934): Mark of the Beast Quotes

She cannot say how many others are with him. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book against her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, “They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.” The first boy moans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc
Related Symbols: Vision
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Marie-Laure walks though the streets of Paris, something she's learned to do only recently, with the help of her cane. As she walks, she overhears a gang of older boys tease her for her blindness, and even imply that when the Nazis inevitably invade Paris, they'll kill Marie-Laure because of her disability.

The passage alludes to many of the historical events of World War II. The Nazis did indeed invade Paris in June of 1940--and for the next 5 years, the city was under Fascist control. Beginning in the late 1930s, the Nazis began rounding up so-called undesirables (Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, etc.) and sending them to camps where they were isolated from the rest of society. By 1942, the Nazis had begun systematically murdering the people in these camps.

Marie-Laure can't understand the full extent of the Holocaust, of course, but she's still afraid of the "real world"--a world that, due to her blindness, she can't always understand completely. The 1940s are an especially dangerous time for anyone to grow up--let alone someone who can't see. Thus far, Marie-Laure's father has protected her, and also tried to train her to interact with the real world by building elaborate models, effectively allowing her to master the theoretical before she moves on to reality. In this scene, Marie-Laure tries and fails to protect herself with her book--a clear symbol of the fact that models and learning are no longer going to work for her.

Three (June 1940): Entrance Exam Quotes

On the second morning, there are raciological exams. They require little of Werner except to raise his arms or keep from blinking while an inspector shines a penlight into the tunnels of his pupils. He sweats and shifts. His heart pounds unreasonably. An onion-breathed technician in a lab coat measures the distance between Werner’s temples, the circumference of his head, and the thickness and shape of his lips. Calipers are used to evaluate his feet, the length of his fingers, and the distance between his eyes and his navel. They measure his penis. The angle of his nose is quantified with a wooden protractor.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig
Page Number: 113-114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Werner is examined for entrance to a prestigious military academy. But as we can see, his examination has little if anything to do with his intelligence or bravery--the focal point of the exam is his Aryan appearance. The Nazis celebrated a certain racial ideal: the blond-haired, blue-eyed German. Werner, an extremely blond, blue-eyed boy, is a natural fit for the academy.

In a broader sense, the passage is important because it suggests that science and curiosity aren't necessarily tools for good. Werner has sought to measure and quantify the world, using the knowledge he's learned over the radio. Here, Werner himself is measured and quantified--an allusion to the way that the Nazis measured millions of German citizens, and (if they weren't Aryan, or didn't measure up in some crucial way) sent them to die in concentration camps. Science divorced from morality is all too easily twisted into Nazi pseudoscience.

Three (June 1940): Don’t Tell Lies Quotes

“It’s not forever, Jutta. Two years, maybe. Half the boys who get admitted don’t manage to graduate. But maybe I’ll learn something; maybe they’ll teach me to be a proper engineer. Maybe I can learn to fly an airplane, like little Siegfried says. Don’t shake your head, we’ve always wanted to see the inside of an airplane, haven’t we? I’ll fly us west, you and me, Frau Elena too if she wants. Or we could take a train. We’ll ride through forests and villages de montagnes, all those places Frau Elena talked about when we were small. Maybe we could ride all the way to Paris.” The burgeoning light. The tender hissing of the grass. Jutta opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him. “Don’t tell lies. Lie to yourself, Werner, but don’t lie to me.”

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Jutta Pfennig (speaker), Frau Elena
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner--who's just been accepted into a prestigious Nazi military academy--tries to justify his attendance at the school to his sister, Jutta, who's going to remain at the orphanage. Werner argues that his military education will be invaluable for his career: he could learn to be an engineer. Werner even suggests that he could use his training to fly Jutta out of the country. Jutta then accuses Werner of lying to himself.

It's important to understand what Jutta means when she calls her brother a liar. Werner seems convinced that he'll become a great engineer, someone who can use his intelligence and training for his own advantage. Jutta suggests that the opposite is true: Werner will be trained to become a cog in the Nazi military machine--he won't have any more freedom than anyone else in the party.

In an even broader sense, one could say that Werner is so blinded by his scientific curiosity and ambition that he can't see the obvious truth: his scientific training at the academy will imprison him, not set him free. Jutta always acts as Werner's voice of conscience in the novel, and here she points out the fact that science can never be divorced from morality and "real life"—Werner might learn important skills, but he will in the process be using these skills to help an evil cause.

Three (June 1940): Weakest Quotes

The fastest cadet is lunging for the back of the boy’s shirt. He almost has him. Black-haired Ernst is going to be caught, and Werner wonders if some part of him wants it to happen. But the boy makes it to the commandant a split second before the others come pounding past.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig , Ernst
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner and his peers are training at the Nazi military academy. Their commander, a sadistic man, orders the slowest and weakest of the students--an unfortunate boy named Ernst--to run as fast as he can. Then, the commander orders Werner and the other students to chase Ernst--if Ernst can make it across the field before being caught, he'll be allowed to stay in school; if not he'll be dismissed (and, it's assumed, attacked by the other students).

The scene is important because it shows Werner beginning to be seduced by Nazi propaganda. Werner isn't an evil person, but he gets caught up in the thrill of competition, and even notices himself wanting to catch Ernst, rather than rooting for him to succeed in staying in school. The fact that Ernst is black-haired suggests that Werner has even begun to believe the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority: he's come to think that dark-complexioned people are inferior.

Three (June 1940): Blackbirds Quotes

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third? “It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way.”

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Dr. Hauptmann (speaker)
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner works closely with his teacher, Professor Hauptmann. Hauptmann is a talented physicist who takes time out of his schedule to teach Werner the finer points of engineering, recognizing that Werner is a smart, ambitious young man. In the quotation, Hauptmann teaches Werner how to plan coordinates for Nazi soldiers, and ignores Werner's question about what the coordinates are for.

Hauptmann's mantra, "It's only numbers," is his way of telling Werner to ignore the horrors of war itself and focus on his job. In truth, Werner and Hauptmann are using their mathematical training to find enemy radio stations, which the Nazis then proceed to destroy. In short, Werner's intelligence and scientific turn of mind are being corrupted and put to use for the Fascist cause. Hauptmann seems ill-equipped to consider the lives he's endangering by working for the Nazis: he seems not to want to think about the war, either. Generally speaking, the passage shows the fallacy of embracing "pure science"--one must also consider the real-world ends for which science is being used, or risk doing immoral things (such as aiding the Nazis).

Four (8 August 1944): Atelier de Réparation Quotes

Atelier de réparation, thinks Werner, a chamber in which to make reparations. As appropriate a place as any. Certainly there would be people in the world who believe these three have reparations to make.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Frank Volkheimer , Walter Bernd
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

In 1944, Werner and his fellow soldiers are stationed in France. During a bombing by the Allied air force, Werner and his peers are trapped below the ground in a small, dark room--the atelier de réparation (basically, a repair room). Werner notes the irony that he's trapped in a room intended for "reparations" (i.e., payments). In a moral sense, Werner and his fellow Nazis certainly have reparations to make--they have to atone for the crimes they've committed against innocent people.

Werner's thinking in this scene suggests that he's fully aware of the sins he's committed as a Nazi. Based on his experiences in the military academy, one might think that Werner truly believed that he was doing the right thing by joining the Nazi army. Instead, it seems that Werner was lying to himself all along: he recognizes that he was committing war crimes by working for the Nazis. Trapped below the ground, Werner seems to be condemned to a version of hell--beneath the earth, he's forced to relive his horrific crimes again and again.

Five (January 1941): Prisoner Quotes

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”
Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”
The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. “I will not.”

Related Characters: Frederick (speaker), Bastian (speaker)
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Frederick and his peers at the Nazi military academy are asked to torture a prisoner. One by one, the boys are ordered to empty a bucket of cold water on the prisoner's shivering, frail body. Each boy--including Werner--follows orders. but when it's time for Frederick to comply, he refuses, dumping his water on the ground.

Frederick's behavior is remarkable because it's one of the few times in the entire novel that a potential Nazi student refuses an order. Sociologists have written thousands of pages on what it must have been like to live in Germany during the 1940s: peer pressure and the fear of disobedience led millions of "normal" Germans to commit or sanction atrocious crimes. But Frederick's actions prove that it was possible for normal, everyday people to exercise their own moral values rather than complying with orders—but only if they were willing to deal with the consequences. As we'll see, soon after this Frederick is beaten to the point that he loses his sanity.

Five (January 1941): Intoxicated Quotes

Mostly he misses Jutta: her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.
Though in Werner’s weaker moments, he resents those same qualities in his sister. Perhaps she’s the impurity in him, the static in his signal that the bullies can sense. Perhaps she’s the only thing keeping him from surrendering totally.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Jutta Pfennig (speaker)
Related Symbols: Radio
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Werner begins to resent his beloved sister, Jutta. As Werner sees it now, Jutta partly represents everything he is trying to suppress about himself: his natural "weakness" (which we recognize as kindness), his innate sense of right and wrong, etc.

Werner's thoughts in this quotation walk a fine line between ignorance and willful denial. On one hand, Werner seems to genuinely believe that he's doing the "right" thing by trying to become the perfect Nazi--he sees his weakness and compassion as barriers to being a good soldier and a good servant of the Nazi regime. And yet on some level, Werner seems completely aware that what he's doing is morally wrong on every level--it's no coincidence that he thinks of his service to the Reich as a form of "surrender." Werner knows, deep down, that by becoming a Nazi he's surrendering everything that matters to him, including his curiosity and his love for his sister. Not until 1944 will he be brave enough to admit his self-deception.

Seven (August 1942): The Bridge Quotes

He says, “The war that killed your grandfather killed sixteen million others. One and a half million French boys alone, most of them younger than I was. Two million on the German side. March the dead in a single-file line, and for eleven days and eleven nights, they’d walk past our door. This is not rearranging street signs, what we’re doing, Marie. This is not misplacing a letter at the post office. These numbers, they’re more than numbers. Do you understand?”
“But we are the good guys. Aren’t we, Uncle?”
“I hope so. I hope we are.”

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc (speaker), Great-Uncle Etienne LeBlanc (speaker), Henri LeBlanc
Page Number: 360
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Etienne takes his place alongside Marie-Laure as an opponent of the Nazi occupation in France. Etienne and Marie-Laure will work together to oppose the Nazis in any way they can. Although their actions may seem small and insignificant, Etienne explains, he and Marie-Laure are actually taking a major step toward defeating the Germans. By sending radio broadcasts to other enemies of the Nazis, Etienne and Marie-Laure will effectively be killing Nazi soldiers.

As the passage shows, Etienne doesn't take his responsibility lightly. As a man who lived through World War One, he's reluctant to kill anyone, whether on the enemy side or not. Indeed, Etienne questions whether he's doing the right thing by opposing the Nazis at all.

Etienne's questions may seem odd--it's easy to say that the French were "good" and the Nazis were "evil." Paradoxically, the very fact that Etienne stops to question his own actions suggests that he really is doing good by opposing the Nazis. The merits of Etienne's approach to Nazi resistance become clear if we contrast his behavior with Werner's. Where Werner is ordered, again and again, to focus on "pure numbers," Etienne knows very well that his radio coordinates are "more than numbers"--they're directions sending human beings to their deaths. And while Werner's commanders never discuss the morality of what they're doing, except in the blandest terms, Etienne is genuinely thoughtful about his service. In short, the very fact that Etienne wonders if he's doing wrong suggests that he's not.

Seven (August 1942): White City Quotes

Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind. Name me someone who does not.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig , Frank Volkheimer , Neumann Two
Page Number: 368
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner has directed his fellow soldiers to a house, where, he believes, a family is hiding a radio. When Werner and his fellow troops arrive at the house, they find no evidence of a radio of any kind. Before the troops leave, a soldier, Neumann Two, is startled and shoots a child. Werner then watches the body of the dead child in horror.

Werner's behavior in this scene makes it clear that he feels personally responsible for the child's death. By calculating the location of the secret radio--a location that, it quickly becomes clear, was improperly calculated--Werner allows Neumann Two and the other soldiers to murder innocent women and children. If there is a silver lining in this scene, it's the fact that Werner seems totally aware of his situation: he's aware that as a Nazi soldier, he's ordered to obey, look out for himself, and repress any feelings of guilt or compassion. In short, the Nazi "facade" is cracking--Werner is beginning to see how corrupt and hypocritical his Fascist orders have been all along.

Nine (May 1944): The Girl Quotes

Neumann One raises a single steady hand. His mouth is expressionless, but in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, Werner can see despair. “In the end,” murmurs Volkheimer as the truck heaves away, “none of us will avoid it.”

Related Characters: Frank Volkheimer (speaker), Werner Pfennig , Neumann One
Page Number: 424
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Volkheimer, the commander of Werner's corp, sends Neumann One and Neumann Two to the front line, where the German army badly needs reinforcements. The soldiers are terrified, but Volkheimer insists that they're going to face the same fate that everyone will experience in the end.

Volkheimer, it would seem, is saying that Neumann One and Neumann Two are going to the front lines to die--a fate that everybody experiences in the end, and which Volkheimer and Werner will probably experience very shortly. The mood of the passage is quiet and hopeless: the fact that the German front lines are now begging for reinforcements is a sign that the German war effort is crumbling away--it's pretty clear now that the Allies are going to win the war. In no small part, the passage is so hopeless because it conveys a sense of fatalism: the idea that people have no control over their destinies. Werner began his military career believing that he could use his engineering training to freely choose a future for himself. But now, at the end of the war, his traumatizing experiences in battle have taught him that there's no such thing as freedom--people have no choice in the face of the vast movements of war and history.

Ten (12 August 1944): Comrades Quotes

“The cease-fire is scheduled for noon, or so they say,” von Rumpel says in an empty voice. “No need to rush. Plenty of time.” He jogs the fingers of one hand down a miniature street. “We want the same thing, you and I, Private. But only one of us can have it. And only I know where it is. Which presents a problem for you. Is it here or here or here or here?”

Related Characters: Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel (speaker), Werner Pfennig
Related Symbols: The Sea of Flames
Page Number: 464
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic scene, the villainous von Rumpel surprises Werner Pfennig inside Etienne's house. Von Rumpel has come to the house to find the famous jewel, the Sea of Flames, that's supposedly hidden somewhere inside. Although Werner has only come to the house to save Marie-Laure's life, von Rumpel naturally assumes that he's looking for the jewel, too.

The contrast between von Rumpel and Werner in this scene--the former a parody of Fascist greed, the latter a heroic individual, endangering his life to save Marie-Laure's--makes it clear how much Werner has changed since arriving in France. For a long time, Werner appeared to be headed down the path of corruption: he seemed to be enjoying being a Nazi, are at least felt that he has "surrendered" his will to the cause. But recently, Werner has remembered his youthful innocence--a mental transformation caused when he rediscovers the radio broadcasts he listened to as a child. Reminded of a time in his life when he was neither a soldier nor a murderer, he summons the courage to protect other people.