The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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Complicity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Innocence and Ignorance  Theme Icon
Boundaries  Theme Icon
Family and Friendship  Theme Icon
Nationalism  Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Complicity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Complicity Theme Icon

Though most of the characters in the novel are not explicit members or supporters of the Nazi party, many of them end up complying with the regime’s ideals and goals out of a sense of duty, fear, or apathy. Mother, though she is not thrilled with Father’s new job as a director of the concentration camp Auschwitz, does not actively fight his decision to move the family. This seems to stem from a sense of obligation towards her husband and country, and also due to her status as a woman in a patriarchal society. Indeed, her dislike of Auschwitz relates more to its bleakness and isolation than its role as a concentration camp, showing that she has no real disagreement with the Nazi belief that Jews and other minorities are less than human.

Likewise Bruno, though he is still very young and “innocent,” is also instilled with a belief that Germans, as a people and as a nation, are superior to every other country and culture in the world—even though he doesn’t truly understand what this means. Herr Liszt, the children’s tutor, teaches the children a biased account of history that glorifies Germany and likely the Nazi party as well. Though Lizst is not actively a soldier, this kind of complicity perpetuates the anti-Semitism and German nationalism that were hallmarks of the Nazi party’s ideology. Gretel, then, is a more active example of indoctrination at work—though she is a typical twelve-year-old girl at the beginning of the novel—her main preoccupation the rearranging of her collection of dolls—by the novel’s end she has become obsessed with following Germany’s expansion across Europe via pushpins in maps her father has given her.

While most of these characters (besides Father and Herr Liszt) don’t take an active role in perpetuating the Nazi’s regime of terror and genocide, complying with demands or turning a blind eye to these kinds of activities was ultimately a major factor in the party’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Women and people in subservient roles (such as Mother and Maria) often felt that they had no choice but to comply with the Party’s demands, especially after it became the ruling force in Germany. Likewise many soldiers, even those who carried out horrific executions in the concentration camps, claimed that they were “just following orders” in the wake of Nazi defeat in 1945. Because of the party’s fear tactics and ruthless militarism, going against the Nazis could mean danger to one’s life or family, but this also involved turning a blind eye to or complying with crimes against humanity. One of the more frightening lessons of the Holocaust, then, was how far the apathy and inaction of “normal” people can go in allowing for the perpetuation of horrors—as long as these horrors are themselves normalized and encouraged.

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Complicity Quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Below you will find the important quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas related to the theme of Complicity.
Chapter 5 Quotes

“Ah, those people,” said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. “Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.”

Related Characters: Father (speaker), Bruno
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In a moment of bravery, Bruno enters Father's office, which is usually off-limits, to confront his father about his unhappiness at Auschwitz. Though Father repeats what Mother and Maria have already told Bruno—that he must accept their new life away from Berlin—Bruno refuses. Angered, Father orders his son to go to his room. Before he goes, however, Bruno asks Father about the boys and men living on the other side of the fence. 

As a high-ranking Nazi official, Bruno's father subscribes to and perpetuates the anti-Semitic views held by Hitler and his followers. Supported by pseudoscience, much of the Nazi Party's rhetoric and self-conception rested on the claim that Jews and other minorities were less than human, and inferior to the blond-haired, blue-eyed "Aryan" image the party favored. In his new role as a director of the camp, Father is instrumental in overseeing the systematic torture and murder of the boys and men who are wearing what Bruno innocently sees as "striped pajamas." Here Father seems to confidently justify his actions—after all, if those being murdered aren't really human, then it isn't really murder. In this quote, Boyne also includes the image of Father's slight smile to underscore how key coordinators of the Holocaust, such as Father and Hitler, truly believed that their unspeakable actions were justified, and that those who did not agree were silly (much as Father seems to think Bruno's questions are silly). 


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Chapter 6 Quotes

“Bruno, if you have any sense at all, you will stay quiet and concentrate on your schoolwork and do whatever your father tells you. We must all just keep ourselves safe until this is all over. That’s what I intend to do anyway. What more can we do than that after all? It’s not up to us to change things.”

Related Characters: Maria (speaker), Bruno, Father
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

After a few days at Auschwitz, Bruno encounters Maria and asks her how she feels about the family's move. Maria avoids any chance Bruno gives her to speak ill of his Mother and Father, and instead tells him that he must follow his parents' wishes. Bruno goes on to complain that his father has made a "terrible mistake" in moving the family.

In this quote, Maria tells Bruno that he is not allowed to constantly state how he feels. As a young child who is still figuring out the world and his social situation, Bruno has difficulty with processing and containing his emotions. (Furthermore, he is rather rich and spoiled, and so is used to getting his way when he complains.) Maria, who is better versed in the political and social situation in Germany, knows that one wrong, overheard sentence can have someone thrown in jail, or worse. As a maid, her livelihood is at the mercy of Mother and Father—she is not only a woman, but also a social inferior to the Nazi couple. If she were to be found speaking ill of the family, or found to have encouraged any such thoughts in Bruno, Maria could potentially be fired or more harshly punished.

While Maria's fearful silence seems totally justified, it also means that she becomes unwillingly complicit in the crimes that her employer (Father) is perpetrating. She would endanger herself if she spoke out, but she endangers many more by remaining silent. This shows the very difficult choices that faced everyone in Nazi Germany—except for those who could still remain as ignorant and innocent as Bruno.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“Young man,” said Pavel (and Bruno appreciated the fact that he had the courtesy to call him ‘young man’ instead of ‘little man’ as Lieutenant Kotler had), “I certainly am a doctor. Just because a man glances up at the sky at night does not make him an astronomer, you know.”

Related Characters: Pavel (speaker), Bruno, Lieutenant Kotler
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In an effort to defeat his boredom, Bruno creates a swing out of an old tire and a tree just outside the house. He soon falls, and hurts himself. Pavel, one of the new butlers at Auschwitz, runs out of the kitchen and takes the injured boy inside to clean up his scrapes. Bruno insists he must be taken to a doctor, but Pavel tells him he will be just fine with the bandage he has made. Bruno argues that Pavel cannot know this since he is not a doctor, and Pavel says he used to be one.

As a prisoner of the Nazis, Pavel has been captured from his home and career as a doctor to serve Father, his family, and the Nazi soldiers that visit. Able bodied Jewish men and women from every profession were forced to work in labor camps; the young, old, and those who could not work were often immediately killed. Boyne once again emphasize's Bruno's innocence by showing that he has no understanding as to why someone who is trained as a doctor would peel his vegetables and serve dinner. Bruno has been taught that the prisoners at Auschwitz are "not people at all," but this idea doesn't seem to fit with what Bruno now learns about the intelligent, friendly Pavel.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Herr Liszt made a hissing sound through his teeth and shook his head angrily. “Then this is what I am here to change,” he said in a sinister voice. “To get your head out of your storybooks and teach you more about where you come from. About the great wrongs that have been done to you.”

Related Characters: Herr Liszt (speaker), Bruno
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Herr Liszt is a tutor hired to oversee Bruno and Gretel's education while living in Auschwitz. Herr Liszt is particularly fond of teaching the children about the history of Germany. He tells Bruno that he wants to teach him of the "great wrongs" that have been done to the German people throughout history.

Herr Liszt is hired by Mother and Father because he subscribes to the same anti-Semitic notions held by the Nazi Party, and can help indoctrinate Bruno and his sister into Nazi ideology. Bruno is still young and innocent, so if he learns propaganda as history, then he will internalize it as truth—and thus see his father's work as justified and righteous. The idea of the German people as victims of wicked lesser races and countries was crucial to the philosophy of Nazism and the rise of German nationalism before and during WWII. If people saw themselves as the victims of corrupting outside influences (like Jews and Romani people), it was easier to hate non-Germans, dehumanize them, and remain silent and complicit as atrocities were perpetrated against them.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“Poland,” said Bruno thoughtfully, weighing up the word on his tongue. “That’s not as good as Germany, is it?”
Shmuel frowned. “Why isn’t it?” he asked.
“Well, because Germany is the greatest of all countries,” Bruno replied, remembering something that he had overheard Father discussing with Grandfather on any number of occasions. “We’re superior.”

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Shmuel (speaker), Father , Grandfather
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

The boy on the other side of the fence tells Bruno his name is Shmuel, and that he is from Poland. In this quote, Bruno repeats what Father and Grandfather have said about Germany being a separate and "superior" nation compared to others. 

Bruno believes that Germany is a superior nation only due to what he has heard his elders say, and not due to a personally held belief (or any kind of truth he has experienced). This system of indoctrination is how the Nazi party cultivated a younger generation of nationalistic party supporters. It is also indicative of the role that parents, in any society, play in shaping their children's beliefs. Here, Boyne shows that prejudices are often passed from one generation to the next, so that when a boy such as Bruno grows up, he continues to believe that Germans are superior and cultivates a disdain for other cultures. It is this dangerous cycle that fed into the widespread Nationalism and anti-Semitism of World War II. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

Shmuel looked very sad when he told this story and Bruno didn’t know why; it didn’t seem like such a terrible thing to him, and after all much the same thing had happened to him.

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Shmuel
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno continues to visit Shmuel along the Fence every day. Shmuel tells Bruno of how he arrived at Auschwitz from his home in Cracow. First, he and his family were forced to wear armbands with the Star of David, indicating that they were Jews. One day, they were told they were not allowed to live in their home anymore, and had to move to a small apartment with many other families. They were then herded onto a train and brought to the camp, where Shmuel's mother was separated from Shmuel, his brother, father, and grandfather. 

As Shmuel tells the story, Bruno keeps thinking that the same thing happened to him—that he too boarded a train and lost his home due to the Fury. In this sense, Bruno can relate to Shmuel's upset at having left his home, but Bruno's privilege and ignorance also means that he cannot comprehend the horrors that Shmuel encounters behind the fence. To Bruno the two boys' situations seem similar, but we as readers know that they couldn't be more different. Here Boyne suggests the inability of an outsider to ever truly empathize and understand the plights of another person—Bruno considers Shmuel his friend, but he doesn't really understand Shmuel at all.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“There aren’t any good soldiers,” said Shmuel.
“Of course there are,” said Bruno.
“Well, Father, for one,” said Bruno. “That’s why he has such an impressive uniform and why everyone calls him Commandant and does whatever he says. The Fury has big things in mind for him because he’s such a good soldier.”
“There aren’t any good soldiers,” repeated Shmuel.
“Except Father,” repeated Bruno, who was hoping that Shmuel wouldn’t say that again because he didn’t want to have to argue with him. After all, he was the only friend he had here at Out-With. But Father was Father, and Bruno didn’t think it was right for someone to say something bad about him.

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Shmuel (speaker), Father
Related Symbols: The Fury
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

One day at the Fence, Bruno and Shmuel discuss what they want to be when they grow up. Shmuel notes that he wants to work in a zoo, while Bruno says he wants to become a soldier like Father. In this quote, Shmuel counters Bruno to claim that there are no good soldiers, and Bruno refutes his statement out of respect for his father.

As a prisoner in a concentration camp, Shmuel has no reason to believe that there are any good soldiers in the world. The only soldiers he has encountered are ones that taunt and torture him and the other prisoners in the camp. Even Bruno understands that someone like Lieutenant Kotler has a sadistic side, and thinks that he would not want to be that kind of soldier, but he defends Father by default, as he does not understand that Father's true role in Shmuel's suffering. This again shows Bruno parroting the ideology he has been taught, as even in his relative innocence he still places country and family over his new friendship with Shmuel.

What happened then was both unexpected and extremely unpleasant. Lieutenant Kotler grew very angry with Pavel and no one—not Bruno, not Gretel, not Mother and not even Father—stepped in to stop him doing what he did next, even though none of them could watch. Even though it made Bruno cry and Gretel grow pale.

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Gretel, Mother , Father , Lieutenant Kotler , Pavel
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno notices that Pavel, the Jewish servant who once treated his wounds and claimed to be a doctor, becomes weaker each day. One night at dinner, he continually blunders his serving job, until he finally loses grip of a bottle of wine and spills it onto Lieutenant Kotler's lap. It may be inferred from this quote that Kotler beats Pavel mercilessly as punishment, and perhaps even kills him.

Though Pavel works in the home of Mother and Father, he is still considered a prisoner, and as a Jew, he is seen as less than human by the Nazis. Though such dehumanization and violence is constantly occurring on the other side of the Fence, this is seemingly the first time Bruno experiences it up close, and he is shocked. This is an important passage because it shows how complicity can be just as bad as negative action. Kotler is the one actually beating Pavel, but Father and Mother's unwillingness to stop him ends up with the same result. This is a point often made about the Holocaust—it might have been a minority of the population actually perpetrating atrocities, but the majority who stood by and did nothing about it were guilty as well.

This scene, which makes Bruno cry, also shows him further losing his innocence about the reality of his situation. It then becomes more far-fetched that he continues to remain so "innocent" and ignorant in his ensuing interactions with Shmuel. This suggests that Bruno too is trying to avoid thinking about things he doesn't want to, and thus is, in his own way, becoming complicit in the crimes he doesn't speak out against.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“I’m asking you, if we’re not Jews, what were we instead?”
“We’re the opposite,” said Gretel, answering quickly and sounding a lot more satisfied with this answer. “Yes, that’s it. We’re the opposite.”

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Gretel (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

As Bruno and Gretel continue to study with Herr Liszt and live at Auschwitz, Gretel becomes more and more interested in Nazi ideals and the progression of the war. Instead of arranging her dolls every day, she instead moves around pushpins on a map Father gave her, in an attempt to track the movement of armies. Bruno goes to her one day to ask her about the people who live on the other side of the Fence. Gretel tells him that they are Jews, but she is unsure as to who exactly she and Bruno by comparison. In this quote, she settles on the idea that whatever she and Bruno are is the "opposite" of what Jews are.

Gretel also tells Bruno that the "opposite" don't like Jews, and that they must live on different sides of the Fence. Though no one specifically told Bruno this before he asked, his feelings about not telling his family about Shmuel indicate that he had some premonition that the division created by the Fence served some greater purpose. Neither Bruno nor Gretel understands exactly what the word "Jew" means, but Gretel does understand that as a German, she is supposed to feel disdain for this group of people. This kind of senseless indoctrination is how the Nazi party raised young supporters—they didn't have to have facts or reasoning to back up their propaganda. Boyne uses this instance to represent how hatred was spread between the generations without proper understanding of what its implications were. 

“I look just like you now,” said Bruno sadly, as if this was a terrible thing to admit.
“Only fatter,” admitted Shmuel.

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Shmuel (speaker)
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Gretel discovers a tiny egg in her hair, and Mother soon realizes that both of the children have head lice. While Gretel is treated with a special shampoo, Father decides that Bruno should shave his head. When Bruno and Shmuel meet at the Fence, they realize that with two shaved heads, they look more similar than usual. 

Both boys are conscious of the fact that Bruno is fatter and more well-nourished than Shmuel, though only Shmuel fully comprehends the reasoning behind this. Bruno understands that Shmuel looks sickly, and Bruno also has absorbed the belief that as a person on the other side of the Fence, Shmuel is somehow divided from and inferior to him, so here Bruno feels "sad" about this new resemblance. Previously in the novel, the two boys also discover that they have the same birthday. Boyne continues to create similarities between the two boys in order to highlight their most pressing difference: that Shmuel is being starved and tortured behind the Fence, whereas Bruno lives in comfort. By continuing to illustrate how well the two boys get along, and to show that they are more similar than they are different, Boyne shows how the prejudices against Jews (which had been present in Europe for centuries) were exacerbated by the Nazi party in order to use the group as a scapegoat for all of Germany's problems. Just like Gretel's inability to name what a "Jew" or an "Opposite" is, this hatred was senseless. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

He paused for a moment and looked out the window to his left—the window that led off to a view of the camp on the other side of the fence. “When I think about it, perhaps she is right. Perhaps this is not a place for children.”

Related Characters: Father (speaker), Bruno, Gretel, Mother
Related Symbols: Out-With, The Fence
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, Father calls Gretel and Bruno into his office. He explains that he and Mother have been discussing the possibility of returning to Berlin, though he himself would remain at Auschwitz to command the camp. In this quote, Father expresses that Mother has told him that she did not think Auschwitz was a suitable location to raise her family. 

This quote is a rare moment of introspection by Father, a character whom the reader hears about but seldom sees speak. Father is largely characterized as a cold person, a figure whom Bruno longs for more time with and respects, but is also somewhat scared of. Furthermore, as a commander of a concentration camp, Father oversees the torture, starvation, and murder of thousands of people each day. At Mother's urging, he comes to understand that this kind of environment could be toxic to his children. This moment of reflection shows that while he is capable of extremely horrific acts of war, he simultaneously harbors compassion for his family. The stark mental divide many Nazis held between their work and their personal lives was something psychologically studied after the Holocaust, as men who otherwise seemed like decent, moral human beings could commit atrocities while staying sane and otherwise "normal."

Chapter 18 Quotes

Shmuel bit his lip and said nothing. He had seen Bruno’s father on any number of occasions and couldn’t understand how such a man could have a son who was so friendly and kind.

Related Characters: Shmuel (speaker), Bruno, Father
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

Shmuel remarks to Bruno that he hates soldiers, since he knows that they hate him and the rest of the prisoners on his side of the Fence. Bruno, confused, asks him if he hates his Father. Shmuel wants to say yes, but holds back his answer. In this quote, he wonders how Bruno could be so kind when his Father is so cruel. 

Bruno, meanwhile, seems unwilling to accept that his Father is directly in charge of the misery that Shmuel faces every day. Bruno remains very naive and ignorant, but the more he learns the more uncomfortable he grows with the truth of his and Shmuel's situation. Here Boyne also makes his usual point about the inherent innocence of children, as the division between Father and Bruno represents the idea that hatred is not instinctive, or naturally divided along racial or national lines, but rather that it must be taught. Boyne contrasts Bruno and Father to show that it is possible for a younger generation to fix the toxic and prejudiced views of its elders. 

Chapter 20 Quotes

He looked into the distance then and followed it through logically, step by step by step, and when he did he found that his legs seemed to stop working right—as if they couldn’t hold his body up any longer—and he ended up sitting on the ground in almost exactly the same position as Bruno had every afternoon for a year, although he didn’t cross his legs beneath him.

Related Characters: Father (speaker), Bruno
Related Symbols: The Fence
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno's absence is quickly noticed by his family, who search everywhere to no avail. Mother and Gretel stay at Auschwitz for a few months in the hopes that Bruno will return, though they eventually return to Berlin. Father remains at Auschwitz for one more year, and eventually forms a theory as to what might have happened to Bruno. When he reaches the hole in the Fence that Bruno crawled through, he realizes what happened to his son. 

In this quote, Father literally collapses under the weight of the realization that Bruno died in the concentration camp. Father is in fact indirectly involved in Bruno's murder, since he was one of the soldiers in charge of overseeing the systematic execution of the Jews. Though Nazis believed there were many physical and spiritual differences between Germans and Jews, when Bruno and Shmuel dressed similarly, there was no determining who was Jewish and who was German. Shmuel, a Jew, may have just as well been raised an Aryan German like Bruno, and vice versa. Here, Boyne points out the tragedy of scapegoating marginalized members of society, as these prejudices are completely manufactured by ideologies such as Nazism and have absolutely no basis in fact. By committing a crime against the Jews, Father was ultimately committing a crime against humanity, including his own son.

Interestingly, Boyne continues to use his childlike language and the tone of a parable even after his young protagonist is dead. This sort of detached, innocent view of things helps put the horrors he is describing in a different perspective from typical WWII or Holocaust books.

Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.

Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

A few months after Father realizes what happens to Bruno, World War II ends. When the Allied soldiers come to arrest him for his war crimes, he gives himself up, and no longer cares what they do to him. 

This quote represents the crux of Boyne's reason for writing the allegorical tale of Bruno and Shmuel. After a tragedy, people tend to claim that such an event will never happen again, though centuries of wars and genocides show that this is not the case. A mass genocide on the scale of the Holocaust is an important reminder of just how dangerous prejudices between groups in society can be. It is crucial that all of humanity remember the horrors of the Holocaust so that it never happens again. But as with everything in history, some things can become forgotten by later generations, for whom the sadness and fears of war are not as fresh—and then the cycle of violence and complicity continues. This last line of the novel serves as a warning: this story, though set in the 1940s, could potentially happen anytime, anywhere, if people do not put friendship and common humanity before hatred and prejudice.