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.
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance ThemeTracker
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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?”