“I was twenty-eight years old when my mother first told me that her father had been imprisoned as a war criminal,” writes longtime New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger. His mother was born in 1935 and grew up in Germany during World War II. She immigrated to the United States, along with Bilger’s father, in 1962, and Bilger heard little talk about his mother’s father while growing up in Oklahoma. But after his mother received a collection of letters from an aunt in Germany in 2005, Bilger decided to find out as much of the truth as he could about his grandfather, Karl Gönner.
Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation in his exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets. Official documents, letters, diaries and personal interviews with those who knew Gönner helped Bilger piece together this puzzle.
In 1940, Gönner became a school principal in the village of Bartenheim in occupied Alsace, “the land of three borders: France, Germany, and Switzerland all within a ten-mile radius.” In 1942, he also became the village’s Nazi Party chief, though Gönner would later claim that he refused the position at first. At the heart of Bilger’s book is the question of whether Gönner was a basically good person doing what he had to do to get by during wartime or if he was a committed Nazi monster. Former students and other villagers spoke well of how he had helped them during the war. At the same time, Gönner had been a member of the Nazi Party since 1933 and never seriously challenged the Party’s reign. Bilger did not find any antisemitic remarks in Gönner’s personal writings, but Bilger’s mother said Gönner made such comments at home. As Bilger writes, “There were no little errors in wartime Germany. The choices you made put you on one side of history or the other. Yet the more I learned about my grandfather, the harder he was to categorize.”
After the Germans were defeated, “more than three hundred thousand people [were] charged as war criminals and collaborators in France,” Bilger writes, including Gönner. It took a lot of hard work to convince the court that Gönner was not guilty of certain crimes, including murder. But what of Bilger’s ultimate judgment of Gönner? All of us would like to believe that we would have been strong enough to stand up against barbaric behavior and evil regimes. But as Bilger reflects, life is usually more complicated than we want it to be. Gönner’s life and times, as revealed through Bilger’s elegant and discerningly observed memoir, will challenge and enlighten many thoughtful readers.