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.
Nationalism Quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.