The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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Themes and Colors
Innocence and Ignorance  Theme Icon
Boundaries  Theme Icon
Family and Friendship  Theme Icon
Nationalism  Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
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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.
Nationalism  Theme Icon

During World War II, the Nazi Party, which gained control of Germany, operated on the idea that ethnic Germans were superior to the rest of the world, particularly the Jewish population in Europe at the time. Nazi rhetoric and propaganda operated heavily on the idea of the “other”—emphasizing an “us vs. them” division, and demonizing and dehumanizing “them.” In practice this meant attempting to prove, using pseudoscience, the Bible, nationalism, and scare tactics, that Jews were an inferior race that needed to be “exterminated” to solve Germany’s problems. Adolf Hitler’s government created concentration camps in which to ruthlessly kill Jews, resulting in the death of over six million people. The Nazis also imprisoned and killed up to five million others—including Romani people, gay people, the mentally disabled, and other minorities—all in the pursuit of creating a nation of idealized “Aryan Germans,” the most perfect of which were believed to be blond-haired, blue-eyed Christians by faith and by blood.

Though Bruno, due to his age and isolation, understands very little about the political situation of Germany when his family moves from Berlin to “Out-With,” his tutor and his Father have still indoctrinated him to an extent to believe in the superiority of Germany and its right to rule. When Shmuel tells Bruno that he is from Poland, Bruno’s immediate response is that Germany is superior to Poland, simply because Germany is better than any other country in the world. Lieutenant Kotler, with his striking blond hair, good looks, and cruelty towards Jews, is meant to represent Hitler’s ideal Aryan man. However, when it is revealed that Kotler’s father fled for Switzerland, which was “neutral” territory during World War II, Father dismisses Kotler from his roles at Auschwitz. This represents the instability inherent in the philosophy of the Nazis—when anyone can become the “other” and be demonized as unpatriotic or even subhuman, people will eventually turn on each other with paranoia and a mob mentality. The Nazi Party ultimately collapsed and was defeated at the end of World War II.

The nationalism displayed by Bruno’s father and his sister Gretel is not universal to all the Germans in the book. Father’s militant nationalism creates a rift in his family before they leave Berlin—his mother, Bruno’s Grandmother, objects to Father’s new position as head of Auschwitz, and denounces his role in the Nazi Party. She then dies while the family is still in Poland, before she and her son have a chance to be reconciled. Later in the novel, Mother also refuses to stay at “Out-With,” saying the assignment is Father’s and not hers. Even Maria expresses her distaste for what Father orchestrates at the camp, but she still expresses gratitude for her job and the fact that Father took her in after her mother died, as Maria’s mother had worked closely with Bruno’s Grandmother for many years.

Bruno has a difficult time understanding exactly what his father does, and why it is so important to “correct” the history of Germany. He, like some other characters, also has a difficult time reconciling how men such as Father and Lieutenant Kotler act in their personal, day-to-day lives, and the horrors they inflict on the prisoners in the name of Germany and the “Fury.” Bruno cannot yet comprehend that the militant and unequivocal idea of German superiority allows the soldiers and other members of the army to separate their own families and lives from those of the Jews, and thus carry out atrocities while still conducting their own personal lives as normal.

The novel also shows how German nationalism under the Nazi regime began to fail as the war dragged on. This is played out on a personal level through the dysfunction of Bruno’s family (Mother’s affair with Kotler) and the disloyalty of Kotler’s father, who fled to Switzerland. Father himself was first brought to Auschwitz to “correct” the failings of the previous Commandant, showing how unstable policies and beliefs could be within the party itself. When Father realizes that Bruno was killed in a gas chamber in the camp that he commanded, he loses all national pride and even the will to live, and submits himself to punishment (likely a trial, and then execution) when he is arrested by Allied soldiers.

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Nationalism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Nationalism appears in each chapter of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Nationalism 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 Nationalism .
Chapter 1 Quotes

“It’s a very important job,” said Mother, hesitating for a moment. “A job that needs a very special man to do it. You can understand that, can’t you?”

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Bruno, Father
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno comes home from school one day to find the family maid, Maria, packing his belongings into wooden crates. When he enters his mother's bedroom to ask why Maria is doing this, he finds the family butler, Lars, packing up Mother's belongings as well. Mother takes him downstairs and explains that the entire family—Bruno, Mother, Father, and Bruno's sister, Gretel—is moving away from Berlin. Mother tells Bruno that Father has a very important job, and that the man who employs him has a new, special job for him away from the city. 

Mother's hesitation to tell Bruno more about his father's new "special job"—serving as the commander of a concentration camp—speaks to both her own discomfort about the job and to the sheltered world in which Bruno and Gretel are kept. Despite the fact that she is not happy with the prospect of moving her family to a Nazi concentration camp, her role as a woman (and her complicity with the Nazi regime) makes her submissive to the commands of her husband, a high-ranking officer in Hitler's army. As a young child, Bruno is both protected from the grim nature of his father's job, and expected not to ask too many questions, as his parents seem to want to keep him ignorant and innocent of the realities of Germany at the time. Mother and Bruno's subordination to Father's orders is also indicative of traditional gender and family roles favored by the Nazi party.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

“But what does it mean?” he asked in exasperation. “Out with what?”
“Out with the people who lived here before us, I expect,” said Gretel. “It must have to do with the fact that he didn’t do a very good job and someone said out with him and let’s get a man in who can do it right.”
“You mean Father.”

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker), Gretel (speaker), Father
Related Symbols: Out-With
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno had many friends to play with back in Berlin, but in Auschwitz, he and Gretel only have each other. Though they don't often get along, the one thing the siblings do agree upon is the fact that they miss their old home.

Like Bruno, Gretel is sheltered from the true facts of their father's job. However, being three years older than him, she has a better grasp as to what brought the family to Auschwitz (even though her broader understanding is still limited, as she believes Auschwitz is the name of their new house rather than the camp around it). While she cannot pronounce the name correctly and calls it "Out-With" like Bruno does, she understands that the relocation has something to do with a perceived superiority of one group of people over another. 

Unlike Bruno, Gretel more readily accepts Father's orders. She senses that there is something unpleasant about the nature of Auschwitz, but rather than questioning it, she fully believes that Father has been appointed to fix a pressing problem. Boyne shapes the character of Gretel to represent the Nazi Youth culture that pervaded Germany during this time period, in which young and impressionable children became indoctrinated with the values of the Nazi party and were trained to spread its message without question. 

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). 

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 11 Quotes

What a horrible man, thought Bruno.

Related Characters: Bruno (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Fury
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno thinks back to the night that The Fury (his mispronunciation of Führer, the title that Hitler assumed when he rose to power) visited the family's home in Berlin for dinner. Bruno is very taken with Hitler's his companion, Eva Braun, but he finds Hitler to be very rude. The reason for Hitler's visit is to offer Father the job at Auschwitz, so Bruno associates this night with being taken away from his beloved home in Berlin. 

Bruno's parents parade Bruno and Gretel out to greet Eva and Hitler when they arrive. It is very important to show Hitler that the family is obedient, traditional, and in line with Nazi values. Bruno is used to being addressed and treated with relative respect by the other older men in his life (Father and Grandfather) and is very off-put by Hitler's dismissiveness. Eva is kind to the children, and Bruno is then personally offended when Hitler is rude to her as well. The fact that Bruno does not know exactly who Hitler is, or what his relationship is to the government of Germany, shows how (almost impossibly) sheltered and innocent his world in Berlin is. 

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.

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. 

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.