Fatherland

A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets

Paperback

June 4, 2024 | ISBN 9780804173308

Hardcover

May 2, 2023 | ISBN 9780385353984

Ebook

May 2, 2023 | ISBN 9780385353991

Audiobook Download

May 2, 2023 | ISBN 9781101888902

About the Book

A New Yorker staff writer investigates his grandfather, a Nazi Party Chief, in “a finely etched memoir with the powerful sweep of history” (David Grann, #1 bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon)

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

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews

One spring day in northeastern France, Burkhard Bilger’s mother went to the town of Bartenheim, where her father was posted during the Second World War. As a historian, she had spent years studying the German occupation of France, yet she had never dared to investigate her own family’s role in it. She knew only that her father was a schoolteacher who was sent to Bartenheim in 1940 and ordered to reeducate its children—to turn them into proper Germans, as Hitler demanded. Two years later, he became the town’s Nazi Party chief.

There was little left from her father’s era by the time she visited. But on her way back to her car, she noticed an old man walking nearby. He looked about the same age her father would have been if he was still alive. She hurried over to introduce herself and told him her father’s name, Karl Gönner. “Do you happen to remember him?” she said. The man stared at her, dumbstruck. “Well, of course!” he said. “I saved his life, didn’t I?”

Fatherland is the story behind that story—the riveting account of Bilger’s nearly ten-year quest to uncover the truth about his grandfather. Was he guilty or innocent, a war criminal or a man who risked his life to shield the villagers? Long admired for his profiles in The New Yorker, Bilger brings the same open-hearted curiosity to his family history and the questions it raises: What do we owe the past? How can we make peace with it without perpetuating its wrongs?
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Praise for Fatherland

“Bilger sifts through his German grandfather’s confounding identities—teacher, soldier, party chief, traitor . . . Fatherland maintains the momentum of the best mysteries and a commendable balance, considering all the forms of intergenerational trauma present here . . . His subject matter is sensitive, but his sensuality remains intact; you can almost taste the schnitzel.”The New York Times
 
“Unflinching. 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

“An elegant and ambivalent book animated by an insoluble mystery.”The Washington Post

“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. 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. I could not put it down.”—Reza Aslan, author of Zealot and An American Martyr in Persia

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. 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)

Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation in his exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable Fatherland.BookPage, (starred review)

“A fascinating excavation of the twisted veins of good and evil in one man’s soul . . .”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Excerpt

Fatherland

1

Suspect


The man in the interrogation room had all the marks of a dangerous fanatic: stiff spine and bony shoulders, lips pinched into a pleat. He wore brass spectacles with round, tortoiseshell rims and his head was shaved along the back and sides, leaving a shock of brown hair to flop around on top, like a toupee. When he posed for his mug shot, his expression was strangely unbalanced. The left eye had a flat, unwavering focus, edged with fear or grief. The right eye was glazed and lifeless.

The French inspector, Otto Baumgartner, paced in front of him reading from a typewritten sheet. “In October of 1940, you moved to Alsace and set yourself the task of converting the inhabitants of Bartenheim to National Socialism,” he began. “You established yourself as Ortsgruppenleiter in order to become the town’s absolute master. . . . You brought to your duties a zeal and a tyrannical fervor without equal! In the entire district of Mulhouse, you were the most feared and infamous of leaders!”

Baumgartner paused after each charge to let the prisoner respond, while another inspector transcribed the exchange. It had been nearly a year since the German surrender, and these men had heard their share of pleas and denunciations. The countryside seethed with military courts and citizens’ militias, lynch mobs and makeshift tribunals. For four years, the Nazi occupation had divided France ever more bitterly against itself, turning neighbor against neighbor and Christian against Jew. Now the days of reckoning had come. More than nine thousand people would be executed as war criminals and collaborators over the next five years, in addition to those denounced and beaten; the women shorn and shaved and paraded through towns for sleeping with German soldiers. L’épuration sauvage, the French called it: the savage purification.

The facts in this case were not in question. They came from a seemingly unimpeachable source: Captain Louis Obrecht, an adjunct controller in the French military government and president of the local Purification Commission. Obrecht was a veteran of the French army and a former prisoner of war. When German forces invaded Alsace in 1940, Obrecht was the school principal in the village of Bartenheim, where the prisoner later became Ortsgruppenleiter, or the town’s Nazi Party chief. For four years, Obrecht insisted, the prisoner had been the terror of Bartenheim. “But it was above all in the last year of ‘his reign’ that he became menacing and dangerous.”

Obrecht went on to accuse the man of crimes ranging from sabotage to using French children as spies. But the investigators zeroed in on a single incident: the murder of a local farmer named Georges Baumann. On the morning of Wednesday, October 4, 1944, a German military police chief named Anton Acker ordered Baumann to report for a work detail, building wooden pallets for the German army. Baumann refused. The war had turned against Germany by then, and the Allies were on their way. He had no intention of working for “those German swine,” he said. When Acker tried to arrest him, a scuffle ensued, and Baumann and his family disarmed the officer.

Their victory was short-lived. Within the hour, Acker returned with five other policemen. Baumann was arrested, as were his wife and daughter later that day, while his son fled into the fields. The three prisoners were taken to a police station, where they were detained and beaten. By that evening, Baumann lay half dead. “I found him on the floor of the station, unconscious, his hair, cheeks, and forehead covered in blood,” a local doctor later told investigators. “His scalp was split open, without a doubt from blows of a rifle butt, and he also had a bullet wound in his pelvis, with tears in his intestines and probably an artery as well.” Baumann died in the hospital that night. By then, bruises from the bludgeoning had begun to appear all over his body.

The death of Georges Baumann could be traced back to one man, Obrecht believed. It was set in motion by a direct order from the prisoner in the interrogation room. “For four years, he made thousands of innocent people suffer,” Obrecht said, and the inspectors had no reason to doubt him. The war had been over for nearly a year and fresh horrors were still being unearthed in mass graves and killing fields and concentration camps across Europe. There was more than enough guilt to go around.

Yet the inspectors had also heard rumors of a different sort. There was talk that this gaunt, bespectacled bureaucrat—this “perfect Nazi,” as some people described him—was the opposite of what Obrecht claimed. That far from terrorizing two villages, he had shielded them from the worst Nazi excesses during the occupation. That without him many more might have died. It was an unlikely story. But in those days of furious judgment, justice could be hard to tell from self-justification, and purity was often code for revenge.

The inspectors would look into the matter. In the meantime, the case would be remanded to the military court in Mulhouse, and the prisoner—my grandfather, Karl Gönner, forty-seven years old and a father of four, one of them my mother—would be sent to solitary confinement in Strasbourg. To await judgment in the Citadel, the seventeenth-century fortress along the River Ill, where the worst German war criminals in Alsace were kept.

About the Author

Burkhard Bilger
Burkhard Bilger has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2001. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New 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. More by Burkhard Bilger
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