Reviews of Fatherland by Burkhard Bilger


A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets

by Burkhard Bilger

Fatherland by Burkhard Bilger X
Fatherland by Burkhard Bilger
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  • Published:
    May 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Herschbach
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Book Summary

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.



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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. When you started this book, what did you think of the idea of Burkard Bilger researching his Nazi grandfather, Karl Gönner? What did you imagine he might find? How did the reality conform to or oppose your expectations?
  2. The author's mother tells him, "Each of us carries the seeds of murder and mercy within us. What takes root depends as much on circumstance as character." Explain what she means by this. How have you seen both of these seeds grow in your own family members—or even yourself?
  3. "When I think back on the Oklahoma of my childhood, my memories are full of blind spots," Bilger writes. What blind spots can you see now in memories of your own childhood?
  4. One way Bilger starts to dig into his family's history is simply by ...
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BookBrowse Review


Embedding Gönner's story into the larger context of the era, Fatherland traces his life from the rural village in the Black Forest where he grew up to the battlefields of northern France where he lost an eye in the First World War, and from Bartenheim in German-occupied Alsace to the hilltop fortress where he was imprisoned after the war. The result is both a deeply personal family portrait and an insightful and fascinating wartime history. But while Fatherland is a work of history, it is also a book about the present, about history's effect on us today. What do we owe the past? How do we come to terms with our fraught family legacies? While Bilger wrestles with these questions in the context of his German ancestry, their relevance is far broader...continued

Full Review Members Only (867 words)

(Reviewed by Elisabeth Herschbach).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A fluid writer, Bilger crafts a fascinating, deeply researched work of Holocaust-era history.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Bilger's atmospheric account probes the complex ethical ambiguities of wartime Alsace and his mother's harrowing childhood experience of the defeat and devastation of Germany, conveying both narrative strands with a fine moral irony couched in prose that's both psychologically shrewd and matter-of-fact. The result is a fascinating excavation of the twisted veins of good and evil in one man's soul.

Author Blurb Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal
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?

Author Blurb David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
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.

Author Blurb Eric A. Johnson, Professor of History at Central Michigan University and author of Nazi Terror
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.

Author Blurb Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain
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.

Reader Reviews

Abdullah Shaikh

Fatherland review
Fatherland is a historical fiction novel written by Robert Harris and published in 1992. The book is set in an alternate history where Nazi Germany won World War II and portrays the aftermath of the war in 1964. The story is centered on a Berlin ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Germany's War Children

Black and white photo of children playing in rubble in Berlin in 1948In Fatherland, New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger chronicles his quest to understand his maternal grandfather's Nazi past—a past shrouded in mystery despite the fact that Bilger's mother, born in 1935, was old enough at the time to have memories of World War II and her father's role in it.

She remembered her father wearing his brown uniform with a Nazi eagle on the cap and black swastika on the sleeve. She knew he had been tried and imprisoned for war crimes. Yet she had never asked him what he did during the war. Even when she went on to study the history of the era as an adult, writing her doctoral dissertation on the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime, Bilger's mother couldn't bring herself to investigate her...

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