Cover Image: Fatherland


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This book details the search by the author of his grandfather’s place as a well placed Nazi on the local level during World War II. It is well written helping to make it a fairly quick read. The subtitle of the book gives a clear description of what occurs in the book. Well worth the time to read.

I received a free Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon and my nonfiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook page
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Burkhard Bilger’s book, “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets,” (Publication Date 02 May 2023, Random House Publishing Group, EPUB ISBN 9780385353984), earns a strong three-star rating. 

This book is about a once unknown and now uncomfortable history in which the author Bilger examines his grandfather Karl Gönner’s life during WWII. The story begins with Bilger listening to his parents speak evocatively of growing up in Germany in the Black Forest, along the Rhine, but eventually realizing there were many missing pieces in those stories that seemed to surround his maternal grandfather Karl Gönner, who was an elementary school teacher. Then, a bundle of old letters arrived from Germany.

Bilger learned his grandfather was posted to the Alsace region where as a Nazi Party chief, he was responsible for reeducating the children there. During the war, Gönner was charged with giving an order that led to a farmer’s death. Decades later, Bilger faced the issue of whether his grandfather was a war criminal, or a normal person who was struggling to be righteous within a regime known for its inhumanity.

This is a richly researched, ten-year look into morality directly affecting his family, and thus, himself. At times, the pace moves with appropriate speed as Bilger pursues the truth not yet uncovered, but there are times when the narrative lags, causing this reader to want to pause from the book. Still, it’s a fascinating book, a terrific detective story, and a thoughtful piece of work…well worth the read. 

Thanks to the publisher, Random House Publishing Group, for granting this reviewer the opportunity to read this Advance Reader Copy (ARC), and thanks to NetGalley for helping to make that possible.
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Do you watch Finding Your Roots, with Dr. Henry Louis Gates?  As he explores guests’ ancestry with them, sometimes they find out about an ancestor who was a criminal or other sort of wrongdoer, like a slaveowner.  Watching the show, you just get the initial reaction of the guest.  I’ve often wondered what happened later.  Did the guest try to find out more?  This book is my ideal of what would happen afterward if a guest found out his grandfather had been a Nazi.  In this case, Bilger’s grandfather, Karl Gönner, a member of the Nazi party, was commissioned to go across the Rhine to a village in occupied Alsace and convert its education system to indoctrinate the children with the Nazi mentality.  Karl was later made to take responsibility for instilling National Socialism into the entire village.

Bilger, a successful journalist, realizes that there are many aspects to an individual, and that who he is—or appears to be—in one role may be very different from another role.  Bilger organizes his chapters to reflect these different aspects:

Party Chief

Bilger also paints a vivid portrait of his own parents, born in the Rhineland in 1935, and of the history, dialect and customs of the people living in the area of Alsace, long contested between France and Germany.  Though his parents moved to the US as young parents, they continued to speak German (their particular local dialect) in their home, so that their children all spoke the German dialect too. 

Not surprisingly, Karl never wanted to discuss the war or the immediate postwar years. But when she was in her 40s, Bilger’s mother went back to school and graduate degree in history. She began looking into Karl’s past, and Bilger kept the project going. Knowing the local dialect helped to gain the trust of the residents of the area where Karl had been stationed, many of whom knew Karl or whose parents had known and spoke of him. They led him to archival records not examined for decades, which added so much of the detail that the Bilgers never knew.

What Bilger discovers is that Karl’s history was far more complex than the easy characterizations most people wanted to apply in the aftermath of the war.  Bilger’s study is thoroughgoing and insightful.
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"Fatherland" paints a realistic picture of what it was like to be German during WWII. The author recounts the history that lead up to the second world war in order to show how history and circumstances affect decisions. The dates and events described may surprise you. For example, back in 1930, the Nazis were the second largest social party in Germany. I think many of us don't realize how far back this party goes. 

Overall, I think this book addresses some key questions each of us should ask ourselves: How can I recognize the past without justifying it? What has happened in my own family lineage/history that I need to come to terms with? How can I accept my genealogy and avoid repeating mistakes? Is there anything I've learned from the past that I can avoid or stop doing today? 

The recurring theme which comes up in "Fatherland" is the warring within one's self when it comes to learning about a connection/part of history you don't want to be part of. 

Final Thoughts: 
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in WWII themes. This book provides insight from a perspective we don't often see (i.e. being German during the war). Beyond this direct connection to the war, I agree with the author that these prejudices and divisions are still occurring in today's society. We have to ask ourselves: Have we changed or are we repeating the past? As this book shows, problems with race and prejudice can start in small, subtle ways that are often overlooked, but the fire is building. Thanks to Net Galley for an advanced copy of this book!
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Many, many thanks to NetGalley for their ARC of this new work. The author was new to me so I jumped at the chance to read this. Wow. This is brilliant. Absolutely stunning. Haunting. I will never forget this one. The tale of Nazi Germany and the many secrets of a family. This was nearly impossible to put down (but I had to... to work on my day job!). Highly recommended. Fans of history will relish this.
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This was a wonderful book written by skilled author who was driven to find out the truth about his grandfather and his role in the Second World War.

Burkhard Bilger's grandfather had been a Nazi. He knew him as a stiff, strange, mysterious sort of man with one eye. What kind of man could have willingly chained himself to the obscenity that was Nazism? Who was this man, really, and what had he done? Bilger tells the story of his unblinkered search for the truth, a search that led him to the basements of old town halls, through the bureaucracy of a modern German state and to the Alsace homes of his grandfather's former pupils. Its telling is filled with coincidences that build to the feeling that Bilger's journey was meant to be.

Many are driven to delve into our family backgrounds and history. Bitten by the genealogy bug we hope to find  that we are descendant of the likes of Thomas Jefferson only to have it dawn on us that if we are, we are also descendants of a slave owner.  Bilger's story or his grandfather takes place in Alsace a region that has at various times been German and at others French. Its residents know themselves to be simply Alsatian. It is an apt setting for one man's struggle to be simply human.

My sincere thanks to Random House and Netgalley for this ARC.
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Fatherland by Burkhard Bilger is a great memoir with a focus of finding out and bringing clarity to a murky past of his grandfather in Germany. What set this memoir apart for me what the attention to detail in the writings of everyday life. There were many ‘I never thought of that’ moments throughout- detailing different angles of the war and what it meant to be a German citizen at the time.
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Beautifully written and thought-provoking book. It is not only an insightful family memoir but also a fascinating history lesson, which brings the facts that are rarely mentioned in the official accounts of the wars. Even among the Nazis there were decent people, and even the glorified victors could be cruel and vengeful. 

It reminded me of Wade Davis’ brilliant ‘Into the Silence’, which made me understand how the Great War scarred the whole generation of English young men, Mallory among them. ‘Fatherland’ shows the other side of the coin, describing how the same war devastated the lives of millions of young Germans and prepared ground for the Nazis.

Thanks to the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.
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"What did you do in  the war ? " Not everyone wants to answer that question.  A Nazi party official during WWII may be a hero or a villian depending upon your point of view.  A voyage of discovery takes place as someone tries to unearth information about their father's past.
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As I thought about reviewing this book, the word that came to mind over and over was "honest."

In response to the deeply unsettling knowledge that one's maternal grandfather was not only a member of the Nazi Party, but also party chief of the town of Bartenheim in occupied Alsace, most of us might look away. Bilger instead embarked on a years-long project of interviewing seemingly every Bartenheim resident still alive from that time and combing through every conceivable archival source to reconstruct his grandfather's life and actions, and to arrive at an assessment of his culpability.

Karl Gonner was, eventually, cleared of all charges related to his actions as party chief. Was that just? Did it comport with the truth? Bilger seems to think so, and I'm inclined -- somewhat to my surprise -- to agree. But the question of Gonner's culpability opens out into the larger question of how we judge people in extreme circumstances, and the uses some people make of catastrophe in aid of their own petty revenge.

Fascinating, scrupulous, brilliant work. Essential, I think, for anyone interested in the history of Nazism, and especially for anyone whose family history includes such moral complications. Which, as Bilger points out, means all of us.
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I really enjoyed this book, it's such a different look into the Holocaust and Nazism. 
It is a beautiful look into a perspective of the Germans during World War II that isn't viewed in schools. Bilger has such depth with his research. We get an incredible look into the feeling of intensity that his grandfather went through in his life.  There is so much to think about and so much that can be good discussion from this book.  

Thank you NetGalley for this ARC!
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This book is an invitation to consider a perspective of the Germans during World War II we aren’t invited to view in schools. Bilger does an incredible job making the reader feel the intensity of his grandfathers life  through his presentation of his research findings. I felt this book was highly thought provoking and felt myself also going through changes in my understanding of those who were forced to engage in nazism. I learned much more about Germany through Bilgers family story than I ever was aware there was to know. This story is accessible to history buffs and historical hobby readers. I will highly recommend this book once published!
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Fatherland is an excellent memoir but also a great study of family and history and how family does not always have to define you. 

Burkhard Bilger delivers a story that is thought provoking and eye opening when taking a look on the family history of his grandparents and how he has come to terms with it. This book is written with expert care and it should be because not only is Bilger dealing with topics such as war and antisemitism but also his own family and the way it has affected him. 

Overall, Fatherhood is a great story of grappling with not only world history but also family history and how you deal with it.
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I really enjoyed this book.  It had a little bit of everything.  History, psychology, sociology……I would highly recommend this book that is so much more than a biography.  Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the early read.
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How would you react to the knowledge that your father was a Nazi party chief?

Reactions to such a revelation have varied wildly, from people like Gudrun Himmler and Edda Göring staying loyal to their fathers to their last day to people like Niklas Frank and Monika Hertwig that have practically disowned their fathers. And the grandchildren? It's less divided. Whilst you can find children of Nazis that still defend their forebears, you couldn't find grandchildren of Nazis that act like that. Maybe it's the passage of time, the less close bonds, and education in history, but the grandchildren tend to be like Rainer Höss, Katrin Himmler, and Bettina Göring: conscious of the dark legacy of their families and unwilling to excuse it.

Dealing with an ancestor's actions during WWII is familiar territory for Germans. At this point in time, the perpetrators are essentially all gone. The WWII generation that is still alive are the Kriegskinder (children of war), those who were young children or minor teenagers and therefore victims of the adults' decisions. They were the children who were born when Adolf Hitler was already around and never knew anything but him and his ideology growing up, into which they were indoctrinated. They are the children that grew up loving parents that might've done horrible things outside the home. They are the children that were used as cannon fodder in the last years of the war. And they are the generation that was left to pay for and deal with the destruction the adults had brought down on Germany. There are plenty of them around still, if you know a German around or past 80 years of age, then you can be sure they're a Kriegskind. There's even some of them here on Goodreads.

They have, until recently, been considered the unacknowledged victims of Nazism, until books about them and by them began to be published, books like Alfons Heck's memoir or Helene Munson and Sonya Winterberg's non-fiction books on boy soldiers and war orphans as well as many interviews and testimonies by the youth that were pressed into the Hitlerjugend, the BDM, etc. It's the kind of inter-generational trauma that the families of camp survivors endure but that isn't talked about so much because, frankly, these are the children of the perpetrators and for better or for worse, sympathies go to the victims first and foremost. The children of the perpetrators and accomplices have thus been the last to be acknowledged.

But there's another category that's even less known: the Kriegsenkel, the grandchildren of war. You could argue that everyone in Germany whose family was there during the war is one by default, so they don't stand out, and you could argue that most don't have anything to do with the WWII generation anymore. But there's a type of grandchild of war that stands out: the grandchildren of notorious Nazis, the grandchildren of Nazis that occupied a position of power somewhere in the Reich, the grandchildren of the "more guilty."

Burkhard Bilger is a grandchild of war, but he's a rarity amongst the Kriegsenkel. He is American.

An American Kriegsenkel? He reminds me so much of my father-in-law that you'd not suspect anything outside the ordinary in his family history. What could a sturdy boy from Oklahoma who is a walking advertisement of American cultural traits have to do with old rotten Nazi Germany? Well, for a start, his Opa was a Nazi party chief, that's what.

Bilger's maternal grandfather, Karl Gönner, was the Orstgruppenleiter (local group leader) of the town of Bartenheim. But before you can begin with the casting of aspersions, you learn where Bartenheim is: in Alsace. Yes, that Alsace that's been ping-ponged between France and Germany so many times throughout the centuries they don't know what they are anymore. That little detail explains all the geopolitical complications for a man in Gönner's position, who has to operate in that tangle of loyalties as both the local chief of the NSDAP and the town's schoolmaster.

This double job as local Nazi chief and schoolmaster sounds like a childhood nightmare, you can easily envision a petty tyrant in his own little kingdom, far away from the big cities and the big NSDAP bosses. His was a perfect position to abuse, and who was going to rein him in and punish him if he did? The NSDAP weren't exactly known for discouraging abusive chiefs, after all, there was another local Nazi chief not far away that was a petty tyrant and the Gauleiter in charge of the whole of Alsace was a right bastard, too. Karl Gönner was a member of the ruling NSDAP, an invader, an occupier, and was ultimately arrested after the war, staying two years in an Allied prison.

And yet, it was the Bartenheim residents, specifically a member of the Résistance, who saved his life. The people he lorded over in Bartenheim were, in the end, the reason he wasn't shot or left in prison to rot. How?

Well, because Gönner was a complex man. Bilger at one point says "good Nazi" sounds like an oxymoron, and I agree. And yet, you have people like that, who were Nazi Party members for one reason or another yet escape neat category boxes and defy our preconceptions about what Nazis were like. There's Oskar Schindler, who was a Nazi Party member, and yet saved Jews. There's men like Karl Gönner, who was the chief of an occupied town, and yet protected that town's people from worse and from a nearby camp. What do we do with those? Bilger asks the difficult questions and goes on a quest to find an answer after having lived decades with the guilt-ridden memories of his mother, Edeltraut, a Kriegskind that only knew Gönner as a loving father and struggled for the rest of her life, rather quietly, with the knowledge that her father was a Nazi.

Her son wrote this book as a means to put those memories to rest. In eighteen chapters with titles that allude to a facet of his grandfather's life, Bilger opens with his grandfather as a prisoner of the Allies being interrogated on suspicion of being a war criminal, and works backwards from there to tell his grandfather's life story chronologically from youth to old age. He shows his grandfather as a child, as a son, as a soldier in WWI, as a wounded veteran, as a teacher, as a Nazi party member, as town NSDAP boss, as traitor to his country, as Opa... it's a large and complete picture of Karl Gönner, as complete as there can be without interviewing the man himself, with documents and accounts from family and Bartenheim eyewitnesses. All well peppered with the history of Alsace and the Low Rhine, because you simply can't understand the man without the place. Man makes the place and place makes the man here.

As the subheader says, it's indeed about "war, conscience, and family secrets." But it's also about making peace with your family history. And that's what I liked best in this book, besides Bilger's writing style and self-reflective nature. I am fortunate that I can look at the WWII era and not be ashamed of any family member, but this book shows you how even if that's the case, there's always circumstances we can't help being born into and have to deal with. One of the scenes Bilger tells in this book that touched a chord was that anecdote where he says he was looked at with wariness for being "a German" when he was younger and one day a Jewish girl approached him to tell him with candour that she'd decided he was fine even if he was German. I remember thinking it must've been off-putting, it's racism after all, and that also reminded me of the anecdote Rainer Höss, the grandson of the Commandant of Auschwitz, told about how a Jewish woman whose grandmother is a survivor didn't want to be present at a conference where he'd be speaking until her grandmother chided her that Rainer hadn't been born yet and didn't have to be judged for who his grandfather was. The grandchildren can be more judgmental and intolerant sometimes, we don't always want to see the nuances. Nothing but headlong confrontation seems to be acceptable, as Bilger muses at one point, and quiet opposition, non-violent resistance, ways of undermining the regime, quietly protecting the weak seems so little. His own grandfather was both a willing participant and a traitor to the cause for helping those he was sent to oppress.

That's the kind of nuance that boggles the mind. The monsters are easy to identify, paint all black, and hate, but they were only the top scum of the Nazi broth; the ordinary men were the broth. I particularly loved that passage where Bilger compares the reactions to him being an ethnic German decades ago to how people nowadays take the news of him having a Nazi party chief grandparent: they just nod and tell him about that slave-owning ancestor, that great-great-great-grandpa that was a Confederate, that QAnon conspiracist uncle, that cousin that spews hate at Muslim refugees... We don't all have a Nazi in our family tree, but we all do have an embarrassing relative with problematic politics; and that should remind us just how easy is it to become the embarrassing Opa or Oma to our grandchildren years down the road.

I liked this sincerity and openness to discuss a thorny past, and I liked the book's closing paragraphs that make a connection between that more and more distant past and our present without the usual hamfisted and often facile similarities drawn between WWII and current events. Bilger muses on how he's made his peace and how he now relates to the "fatherland" he's lived in at different points in his life and whose language he speaks. It's been one of the best memoirs I've read in recent times, and would recommend it warmly to history buffs in special but also lovers of family memoirs.
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This is such an amazing tale of family secrets, Nazi Germany, propaganda, and how the choices we make, the death and destruction it can cause, haunts not only the chooser, but subsequent generations. Told in such a sweeping manner, you’ll feel like you’re watching a movie, watching the events play out live, and will be swept away with the story. 

Burkhard Bilger knew there was something hidden in his grandfathers past, but never was able to ask the questions while he was alive. Grown now, Bilger sets out to find and retrace his grandfathers plight living in Nazi Germany after fighting in WW1. The choices he made to survive are amazing and heart breaking. The choices he makes to resist while being a Nazi leader for a small town will have you captivated, saddened, emboldened, and seeing things from a whole different perspective. 

This is historical fiction at its best. A true must read for any history lover, WW2 enthusiast, and anyone wanting to take another dive into life in and around Germany under Nazi rule. 

Thank you so much to #NetGalley, the publisher #RandomHousePublishing, and the amazing author #BurkhardBilger for extending an ARC in exchange for my honest opinions. This is one that everyone should read. 

My full review will be published on all my social media sites, blogs and retail upon release day.
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Seventy-seven years have passed since World War II ended and the world learned of the mass murder of millions of European Jews by the Nazis. At first, there was largely silence from those who experienced those years firsthand. Then a sprinkling of memoirs from survivors, from bystanders, from resistors, and from perpetrators began to appear in print. Now, there are over 20,000 books addressing what has come to be known as the Holocaust: histories, document collections, books aimed at children, and memoirs by not only individuals who experienced these events firsthand, but also by their children and their grandchildren. Yet, despite this massive literature to which authors such as Burkhard Bilger continue to add, Holocaust denial, antisemitism, and hate crimes persist and at least in the United States, many Americans lack basic knowledge about the Holocaust. A 2021 survey done by the Claims Conference found that roughly one-third of all US citizens believe that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was substantially less than six million. That number rises to 41 percent for millennials. Moreover, forty-five percent of US citizens cannot even name one concentration camp and certainly do not realize that there were roughly 40,000 such camps and ghettos scattered across Europe. Equally disturbing, eighty percent of Americans have never visited a museum dedicated to the history of the Holocaust. As the number of living witnesses to the Holocaust dwindle, this lack of knowledge is likely to grow, as Hollywood movies become the primary way in which many young Americans are introduced to the Holocaust. While such movies can be powerful, they also tend to simplify complex events, giving, for example, the naïve impression that more individuals resisted the Nazi regime than supported it and that more survived the camps than died within them. Thus, while from a historical standpoint Burkhard Bilger’s book about his grandfather’s wartime experiences in Alsace-Lorraine as a Nazi Party official adds nothing new to our knowledge of the era, it does provide a nuanced narrative that counters the simplified narratives of pop culture representations and as such is valuable.

Fatherland reminds us that those who were attracted to the Nazi party were not monsters, but rather ordinary people wanting the best for their families. Most converted to Nazism because of the promise of jobs, of job security, and of a better future free from the hunger and shame of the post-WWI years. They focused on the Nazi economic programs and dismissed the party’s antisemitic rhetoric as bombast. Today, we think how they could have been so blind. However, as the author notes here and there in the narrative: How much really has changed since the Holocaust? How cyclical is history and man’s inhumanity to man? What, if anything, did we learn from the mistakes of our parents? Our grandparents? Our ancestors? Even as the author researched and wrote about his grandfather’s initial attraction to the party and his subsequent disillusionment with it, Americans elected Donald Trump as president. Trump promised “America first,” a restoration of national pride, and unprecedented economic success, and like a past generation, many dismissed Trump’s hate-mongering comments as bombast. They ignored or denied Trump’s hateful comments about immigrants, his mocking of disabled persons, his ugly remarks about women, and his vilification of anyone who thought differently. This drift to the far right and nativism was not isolated to the United States. In Germany, as the author notes, the anti-immigrant party claimed thirteen percent of the national vote in 2017. Some politicians spoke of the “Islamization” of Germany, called for the banning of mosques, and even tried to rehabilitee the word völkisch which the Nazis had used to glorify the German race and dehumanize other groups. Yet, these recent turns to xenophobia and hate are often ignored or downplayed. We prefer to blame lone gunman for mass killings, rather than examine the culture of hate that makes such murderous rampages possible and how this culture of hate can infect ordinary people. The author hints at the dangers of this cycle, but never confronts it directly. In fact, he writes in the “Acknowledgments”: 

Again and again, while writing this book, the events I was describing were reenacted by the day’s news, whether in racist attacks and the rise of the far right, or the war of aggression in Ukraine. In the darkest moments when the world seemed doomed to endlessly repeat its mistakes, it was always a comfort to return to Alsace. The villagers in Bartenheim have lived through the worse of history’s cycles and somehow emerged with their wisdom and sharp wit intact. 

For the author, the past seemingly becomes a refuge from the present. Perhaps, the author intended these lines as a message of hope; that like then, we too shall emerge on the other side. However, given that conquering hate requires active resistance, taking solace in the past does not seem the right note on which to end this narrative about the Nazi past, as it communicates a certain fatalism and passive acceptance of the cycle of hate that continues to leave in its wake a trail of suffering and death.
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a very enlightening book about a grandson's truth about his nazi grandfather.  like many truths, there were many sides to it.  really makes you think what you woud do as a german living during wwii.  a very good book, i would highly recommend to all
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