Most of The Book Thief takes place in the small, and fictional, town of Molching, just outside of non-fictional Munich, Germany. Molching is on the way to the concentration camp Dachau (which the novel does not enter). Himmel Street, where the Hubermanns and Steiners live, is where much of the action takes place. "Himmel," Death informs us, translates to "heaven":
Whoever named Himmel Street has a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasn't. But it sure wasn't heaven, either. (5.87)
Yet, because of the acts of kindness occurring inside 33 Himmel Street, the Hubermann home, and because of the tenderness of Rudy and Liesel's friendship, there is something heavenly about Himmel Street.
Other important action takes place on Munich Street, the main street in town. It is on Munich Street that Rudy is beaten by Franz Deutscher, the sadistic Hitler Youth leader, and it is on Munich Street that Liesel and Max are reunited when he's being made to march to Dachau. This is a clue that the city of Munich is very important to the setting of the story, and we'll talk about this city in a moment. First, here's a run through of some of the times and places covered in the novel.
The bulk of the novel takes place from 1939 to 1942. In January of 1939, Liesel comes to live with the Hubermanns on Himmel Street. The story traces her life over the next four years, up to the night Himmel Street is bombed and (almost) everyone she loves dies in their sleep. 1945 brings the end of Hitler, the end of the war, and the reunion of Max and Liesel. The epilogue takes us far into Liesel's future, to the time and place of her death in Sydney, Australia.
The story of how Max's father, Erik Vandenburg saves Hans's life in 1916 takes us (briefly) to France during World War I. It explains some of why Hans takes Max in. In Max's life story (beginning with his birth in 1916 – the year his father dies) before coming to Himmel Street, we see (briefly) Max's hometown of Stuttgart. We return to Stuttgart and visit nearby Essen when Hans is conscripted into the "LSE – Luftwaffe Sondereinheit – Air Raid Special Unit" (65.2), or Leichensammler Einheit – Dead Body Collectors" (65.3), as punishment for giving bread to a Jewish man.
The other places mentioned – Poland, Cologne, and Stalingrad – are shown in Death's diary. They are places where he's working overtime and thinks we need to know about. Stalingrad is important to our knowledge of World War II. As Death implies, Russia is still reeling from Joseph Stalin's "murder of his own people" (45.15) when Hitler invades Russia.
Stalin is still in power when Hitler invades Stalingrad (named after guess-who), resulting in over 16 million civilian casualties (source) on top of the soldiers on all sides and war-related deaths elsewhere in Russia. But, Russia with Stalin at the helm did manage to hold back the Nazis. In fact, the Russian victory at Stalingrad marked a turning point in the war. When minor character Michael Holtzapfel comes back from Stalingrad, missing three fingers and his brother, the "snows of Stalingrad" (72.69) come into the houses on Himmel Street.
When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of the morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you're likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. (33.4)
It happened in a small town of Hitler's heartland. (80.1)
It's easy to see that both of these quotes refer to Molching. It's obvious to readers there's lots of Nazi activity in Molching, but "birthplace of Nazism" and "Hitler's heartland"? Death is being a bit cryptic. Some research into the history of Nazism show that Death places these labels on Molching because it's close to the city of Munich. It's not at all hard to see Munich as "the birthplace of Nazism" and "Hitler's heartland." Here are a few reasons why:
Laws and propaganda are important aspects of The Book Thief's setting in Nazi Germany. The laws and the propaganda set the mood of the times, and a sick mood it was, as the novel shows us. Before the war, Nazis passed laws to effectively legalize the crimes they were committing and the crimes the intended to commit. From 1933 (when the Nazi Party took power) to 1939 (when the war began), the Nazis issued thousands of laws restricting every aspect of Jewish life (source).
The novel alludes to many of these laws and restrictions, such as Jews being required to wear yellow stars and otherwise identify themselves as Jewish. Jews were barred from government jobs, from being teachers, from attending school, from practicing their professions, from joining the military, from admission to hospitals, and from living among non-Jewish people. The Nuremburg Laws stripped Jewish people of their German citizenship and their right to vote, yet barred them from leaving the country. Laws authorized the confiscation of all Jewish property, the arrest, detention and torture of Jews in concentration camps, and, ultimately, the large scale murder of Jewish people.
As we discuss in the theme "Language and Communication," Hitler and the Nazi Party used mass communication technology – radio, film, and print material – to involve the German people in carrying out the Holocaust. In this propaganda, Jews and other groups were spoken of in dehumanizing terms, referred to as vermin, cockroaches, as "a world plague," and represented as dangerous to society.
Nazi propaganda is also heavy on the euphemism. A euphemism is "an inoffensive or indirect expression that is substituted for one that is considered offensive or too harsh" (source). Nazis used words like "cleansing," "evacuation," "resettlement," "special treatment," and "extermination" to refer to the murder of Jewish people (source). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Propaganda site and the German Propaganda Archive are loaded with visual material, writings, speeches, a wide range of Nazi propaganda. Check it out these resources deeper look at the world Liesel is living in.
There are two basements in the novel, both on Himmel Street. One is in the Hubermann house, and the other in the house of the Fielders. On a practical level, both basements are places to hide, stressing the culture of fear and hiding afflicting everybody in Germany. Jewish people, like Max, if they are 'lucky,' are hiding from the Nazis in basements. German citizens, like the residents of Himmel Street, are hiding from the Allies' air raids. The basements are cold, uncomfortable and cramped. Life in the basement is uncertain. Each breath might be your last. There is a fine line between safety and danger in these basements.
But, something special, something besides hiding, fear, and temporary safety is going on in these two basements. The basement is where Liesel and Max forge their friendship, where Liesel learns to read, where Max writes his books, where Rosa, Hans, and Liesel have their snowball fight. There is love in the Hubermanns' basement. Similarly, in the Fielders' basement/bomb shelter, Liesel realizes that she can use her love of reading to provide much needed comfort to those around her. In the Fielders' basement, she becomes "the word shaker," when she begins reading to her friends and neighbors. Later, in the days leading up to the bombing of Himmel Street, the basement becomes a seat of creativity for Liesel as she writes her life story, as it was for Max when he wrote The Word Shaker.
Now, basements are under houses, right? Creativity and artistic expression are often believed to come from the subconscious, that place under the surface of our conscious thoughts. In addition to the practical uses of the basements in the story, Zusak seems to be drawing on that symbolic meaning of the basement as well. Basements are being used to help draw the mood of the story, but also to highlight the creativity of characters like Liesel and Max. There is also a bitter irony here. Liesel and Max are creative, loving people in spite of their circumstances, not because of them. They did not need to be locked in a basement to do creative work. At the same time, deep suffering and knowing they could die at any moment adds urgency and power to their work. We can celebrate that, while acknowledging that it would be better if they weren't in the positions they are in.