All The Light We Cannot See is informed by the rise of the Nazi Party, the occupation of France by Germany, and the efforts of Allied forces to liberate France. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and by the summer of 1934, he had consolidated power. His increasingly domineering system of government promoted ideologies of racial purity, total loyalty to the state, and fitness for military service. The Party also introduced economic reforms which helped to restore economic stability and lift Germany out of Depression. In the novel, while Werner and Jutta are growing up, they witness this shift in the political landscape and see both the benefits and dangers manifest in their personal lives. Through their access to radio, they are exposed to the propaganda of the Nazi regime as well as reports of atrocities being committed by the German state, especially as it began to invade surrounding territories. In an effort to train future generations for total loyalty and military preparedness, the Hitler Youth organization and associated state schools emphasized physical fitness and ruthless courage. Werner witnesses how these principles are instilled in young boys during his time at the school at Schulpforta (a real-life school, which had been founded centuries earlier as a monastery).
In September 1939, France and England declared war on Germany in response to the German invasion of Poland. War between France and Germany created a perilous situation, and by spring of 1940, it seemed increasingly clear that an invasion of Paris was imminent. The novel depicts the historical reality of thousands of people trying to flee Paris in May and June 1940, anticipating the arrival of Nazi troops. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, 1940, and would hold it for the next four years. They also maintained a military presence in other locations, which is reflected in the German garrison in Saint-Malo. Throughout the years of German occupation, French citizens all over the country engaged in small acts of resistance to try and undermine the power of the German army. In France and other occupied countries, Nazi officials would often seize precious cultural artifacts and works of art. While the Sea of Flames is a fictional jewel, the measures taken to protect it reflect concerns held by many museums and galleries throughout occupied territories in Europe.
The bombing of Saint-Malo plays a central role in the novel and reflects the historical context of the Allied invasion of France in 1944. By this time, the Allied forces were driven by the powers of the United States (which had entered World War II in December 1941), the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, along with numerous smaller powers. Together, they launched a coordinated attack on German-occupied France which began on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The process of gradually re-taking German-held territory in Normandy and Brittany stretched over the subsequent months. Because Saint-Malo was heavily fortified, it was almost entirely destroyed by a combination of shells and bombs dropped by American airplanes and British naval gunfire from ships stationed off the coast in the English Channel over multiple days in August 1940. German forces finally surrendered the city on August 17, 1944. A few days later, on August 25, the city of Paris was liberated by a combination of Allied troops and French resistance forces. The loss of France was a significant blow to Nazi Germany and hastened the Allied victory. Berlin was captured in spring 1945, and the Germans surrendered completely in May 1945.
Along with the historical context, the novel is shaped by the technology of the 1940s. It features an epigraph from Joseph Goebbels, a leading Nazi politician who was responsible for much of the propaganda produced by the regime. Goebbels comments that it “would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” Widespread radio broadcasting had become available in the mid-twentieth century, and it allowed for political movements like Nazism and Fascism to centralize power and disseminate their propaganda over a much wider range. The use of radio also impacted the nature of warfare, making it possible to track and locate enemies or communicate and coordinate long-distance attacks. Werner’s experiences as a German soldier reflect the impact of radio transmissions on warfare, while his experience listening to the radio as a young child shows how the radio democratized education and made it possible for a wider range of people to learn about the world around them.
All the Light We Cannot See was published in 2014 and is Anthony Doerr’s second novel. It received a positive critical reception and was a New York Times bestseller. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015.