A New Yorker staff writer investigates his grandfather, a Nazi Party Chief, in this “unflinching, gorgeously written, and deeply moving exploration of morality, family, and war” (Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain).
“Fatherland maintains the momentum of the best mysteries and a commendable balance.”—The New York Times
“Unflinching and illuminating . . . Bilger’s haunting memoir reminds us, the past is prologue to who we are, as well as who we choose to be.”—The Wall Street Journal
As a boy growing up in Oklahoma, Burkhard Bilger often heard his parents tell stories about the Germany of their youth. Winters in the Black Forest, when the snow piled up to the eaves and haunches of smoked speck hung from the rafters. Springtime along the Rhine, when the storks came home to nest on rooftops. His parents were born in 1935 and had lived through the Second World War, but those stories, vivid as they were, had strange omissions. His mother was a historian, yet she rarely talked about her father’s relationship to the Nazis, or his role in the war. Then one day a packet of letters arrived from Germany, yellowed with age, and a secret history began to unfold.
Karl Gönner was an elementary school teacher and father of four when the war began. In 1940, he was posted to a village in Alsace, in occupied France, and ordered to reeducate its children—to turn them into proper Germans. He was a loyal Nazi when he arrived, but as the war went on his allegiance wavered. According to some villagers, he risked his life shielding them from his own party’s brutalities. According to others, he ruled the village with an iron fist. After the war, Gönner was charged with giving an order that led police to beat a local farmer to death. Was he guilty or innocent? A war criminal or just an ordinary man, struggling to do right from within a monstrous regime?
Fatherland is the story of Bilger’s nearly ten-year quest to uncover the truth. It is a book of gripping suspense and moral inquiry—a tale of chance encounters and serendipitous discoveries in archives and villages across Germany and France. Long admired for his profiles in The New Yorker, Bilger brings the same open-hearted curiosity to his grandfather’s story and the questions it raises. What do we owe the past? How can we make peace with it without perpetuating its wrongs? Intimate and far-reaching, Fatherland is an extraordinary odyssey through the great upheavals of the past century.