Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience and Family Secrets

By Burkhard Bilger

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)

‘The book we need right now’ Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal

What do we owe the past? How to make peace with a dark family history? Burkhard Bilger hardly knew his grandfather growing up. His parents immigrated to Oklahoma from Germany after World War II, and though his mother was an historian, she rarely talked about her father or what he did during the war. Then one day a packet of letters arrived from Germany, yellowing with age, and a secret history began to unfold.

Karl Gönner was a schoolteacher and Nazi party member from the Black Forest. In 1940, he was sent to a village in occupied France and tasked with turning its children into proper Germans. A fervent Nazi when the war began, he grew close to the villagers over the next four years, till he came to think of himself as their protector, shielding them from his own party’s brutality. Yet he was arrested in 1946 and accused of war crimes. Was he guilty or innocent? A vicious collaborator or just an ordinary man, struggling to atone for his country’s crimes? Bilger goes to Germany to find out.

What follows is a literary suspense story: a tale of chance encounters and serendipitous discoveries in villages and dusty archives across Germany and France. Intimate and far-reaching, Fatherland is an extraordinary odyssey through the great upheavals of the past century, tracing one family’s path through history’s wreckage.

For readers of Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl or Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes, this is a story of middle lands, torn allegiances and loaded family inheritance.

Format: ebook
Release Date: 02 May 2023
Pages: None
ISBN: 978-0-00-810076-6
Burkhard Bilger has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2001 His work has been anthologized ten times in the Best American series. Bilger was a senior editor at Discover from 1999 to 2005. Before that, he worked as a writer and a deputy editor for The Sciences, where his work helped earn two National Magazine Awards and six nominations.He is the recipient of fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, Yale University, and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center. His first book, Noodling for Flatheads, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the singer Jennifer Nelson.


‘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 -

”’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

”'An important and compelling investigation into one family’s dark and troubling history, grippingly told” - Thomas Harding, author of Hanns and Rudolf

”'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*