In February 1941, the students at the National Institute are woken up at two am and sent outside to survey a prisoner. The prisoner, Bastian says, tried to escape from a work camp. Bastian assures the students that the prisoner would kill any of them in a second. Bastian orders every person in the school—both the students and the teachers—to soak the man with a bucket of cold water. It’s freezing out, and this will surely cause the prisoner to die eventually. Werner takes his place in line, and soaks the prisoner when it’s his turn, even though the man looks pathetic and harmless. When it’s Frederick’s turn, however, he pours his bucket of water on the ground. Bastian, furious, tells Frederick to soak the prisoner, but Frederick refuses.
This is one of the turning points in Werner’s life—a close friend of his, with whom he has a lot in common, chooses to disobey the Nazis, but Werner still goes along with the crowd and does his “duty.” The question, then, is why does Frederick disobey, but Werner doesn’t? The apparent answer is that Werner has more to lose. He has ambitions of becoming a scientist one day, and can’t risk losing his chances by disobeying his authorities at the National Institute—if he’s kicked out, he’ll be sent to war or back to the mines of Essen. Frederick, on the other hand, has a rich family to go home to, and no illusions about being in control of his life—paradoxically, this gives him more freedom to exercise his own set of moral values. Thus Doerr shows Frederick acting courageously, but also suggests that his actions are less courageous than Werner’s would have been (if Werner too had disobeyed, that is).