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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?
About the Author
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.
“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)