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.
Complicity Quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“Ah, those people,” said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. “Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
“I look just like you now,” said Bruno sadly, as if this was a terrible thing to admit.
“Only fatter,” admitted Shmuel.
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.”
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.
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.
Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.