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).
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.
About the Author
Burkhard Bilger has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2001. His work has appeared in TheAtlantic,Harper’s, and TheNew York Times, among other publications, and has been anthologized ten times in the Best American series. Bilger has received fellowships from Yale University, MacDowell, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. His first book, Noodling for Flatheads, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jennifer Nelson.
“A profoundly haunting work of historical investigation, a reporter’s dogged inquiry into the tangled history of his Nazi grandfather . . . Fatherland is an unflinching, gorgeously written, and deeply moving exploration of morality, family, and war.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain
“Burkhard Bilger has long been one of our great storytellers: an acute observer, an intrepid reporter, and a writer of unmatched grace. Now he has brought these gifts to his own family story, rummaging through the past to unearth long-kept secrets and to shed light on the nature of war and complicity. Fatherland is that rare book—a finely etched memoir with the powerful sweep of history.”—David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
“Fatherland is the book we need right now. Gripping, gorgeously written, and deeply humane, it’s both a moving personal history and a formidable piece of detective work. Bilger wrestles with one of the essential questions of our time: How can we make peace with our ancestors’ past?”—Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal
“Fatherland is an unforgettable book: a family saga set on a global stage. Bilger’s fearless search for the truth about his grandfather’s role in World War II—and his willingness to take the reader on the journey, regardless of what he may find—is a testament to his skill as both journalist and storyteller. I could not put it down.”—Reza Aslan, author of Zealot and An American Martyr in Persia
“Forget the Third Reich of the movies, Bilger’s unblinking yet tender exploration of his own family’s experiences and memories brilliantly captures the bewildering reality of a time and place we think we already know. Fatherland is a masterful and riveting weave of the personal and the monumental, of ordinary Germans’ struggles with questions of identity, responsibility, and sheer survival in a world gone mad.”—Joel F. Harrington, Centennial Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and author of The Faithful Executioner
“Fatherland reads like a novel even as it provides important contributions to the history of the Second World War. Bilger weaves together oral history, family memories, and archival documents, bringing to life both the Nazi administration and the real lives of French and German people. His book is both a plausible and well-supported argument about the guilt and innocence of his grandfather, and a model for others trying to resolve their own painful family histories.”—Eric A. Johnson, Professor of History at Central Michigan University and author of Nazi Terror
“[A] powerful investigation of morality . . . a vivid portrait of [Bilger’s] grandfather and his times [and] a fascinating, deeply researched work of Holocaust-era history . . . a moving, humane biography.”—Kirkus Review (starred review)
“A fascinating excavation of the twisted veins of good and evil in one man’s soul . . . Bilger’s atmospheric account probes the complex ethical ambiguities of wartime Alsace and his mother’s harrowing childhood experience . . . in prose that’s both psychologically shrewd and matter-of-fact.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)