Werner is sitting at his entrance exam for the National Political Institute of Education. He and 100 other boys in Essen will complete a rigorous examination that lasts many hours. The first part of the examination concerns the boys’ parentage. Werner is forced to answer written questions about his mother and father, both of whom were from Germany. In the afternoon, he has to complete physical challenges—pushups and obstacle courses. On the second day, Werner is examined for his race—doctors examine his body to make sure he’s “pure” German. In the evening of the second day, Werner answers patriotic questions like, “Who is our greatest writer?” and “what is the Führer’s birthday?” The most difficult challenge comes on the seventh day. Werner must climb a tall ladder and jump without hesitation, to be caught by a flag held by the other recruits. Though many fail this test, Werner succeeds in this challenge—showing no fear of heights whatsoever.
The description of the exam is as interesting for what Doerr shows us as what he doesn’t show us. In other words, we see Werner being examined for his bravery, his hair color, etc. but we see no evidence that he’s examined for his knowledge or intelligence—the thing that caused Siedler to recommend him in the first place. It’s as if the Nazi state is so obsessed with race that it overlooks what really distinguishes people—their minds, characters, and personalities. It’s chilling that the only non-race-related challenge that Werner faces is jumping from a tall ladder: apparently, the only quality the Reich values in its soldiers is an unhesitating willingness to die.