A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets
by Burkhard Bilger
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Pub Date 02 May 2023 | Archive Date 31 Aug 2023
Random House Publishing Group - Random House, Random House
“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?
★"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." —Publishers Weekly, *starred review
★ “[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, *starred review
"A profoundly haunting work of historical investigation, a reporter's dogged inquiry into the tangled history of his Nazi grandfather…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 that 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 fear-less search for the truth about his grandfather’s role in World War II—and his willing-ness 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 Azlan, author of Zealot
“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, author of Nazi Terror