While reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief with my ninth-grade Honors English classes, one question continually arises: How could people let the atrocities of the Holocaust happen? In order to help students better understand the power that Adolf Hitler held over Nazi Germany, I lead them in an exploration of propaganda, beginning with a poem written by Austrian children in the 1930s. Students are horrified to see “Thoughts on the Führer” elevate Hitler to a deity with the authority to lead—and cleanse—the people. I pose two questions to students as they consider the poem: How do the young people writing this poem feel about Hitler? How do you think they were stirred to feel so strongly?
Every class begins with Poem of the Day, which quickly engages students and directs their thinking to the day’s content, but this poem particularly sparks student interest. As the lesson progresses, I show pictures of propaganda in society today and in Nazi Germany, and students analyze the emotional impact of each example. The New York Times documentary “From North Korea, with Dread” even includes an example of contemporary students singing a tribute that resonates eerily with this poem. I also include primary source images of indoctrination in German classrooms and Hitler Youth, bringing to life the experiences of main characters from The Book Thief, Liesel and Rudy. Students then apply their knowledge of propaganda to The Book Thief, combing the novel for evidence of how Nazi propaganda influences characters’ actions.
When studying a historical fiction work such as The Book Thief, poetry proves to be an insightful window into the past that simultaneously facilitates student understanding of history and stretches their thinking.
Amanda Kloth is an English Language Arts student teacher and history enthusiast from southeastern PA.