From The Wall Street Journal:

When he was 28, Burkhard Bilger learned a jarring family secret: Shortly after World War II, his grandfather spent two years in jail while on trial as an accused Nazi war criminal.

The revelation shocked Mr. Bilger. His parents, who moved to the U.S. from Germany in 1962, seldom spoke about their Nazi-era upbringing. Mr. Bilger, who was born in Oklahoma a year and half after his parents’ emigration, similarly avoided calling attention to a heritage that could give pause to new acquaintances. “To be German, it seemed, was always to be one part Nazi,” he writes. “In my case, that part was my grandfather.” Rather than dwell on the past, for the most part he avoided it. Then the past found him.

In 2005, a package arrived from one of Mr. Bilger’s aunts in Germany containing a shoebox filled with letters dating from around World War II. Mostly handwritten, some in an old-fashioned German script difficult for contemporary readers to decipher, the documents propelled Mr. Bilger into a yearslong journey to make sense of how his grandfather, a reserved and seemingly upstanding schoolteacher, had entangled himself and his family in the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.

The result is Mr. Bilger’s resolutely unflinching and ultimately illuminating book “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets.” In the course of his quest, Mr. Bilger, a staff writer at the New Yorker, interviewed far-flung family members as well as his grandfather’s long-lost neighbors, and scoured government archives in both Germany and France. As he pieces together the memories and documentary evidence, Mr. Bilger makes palpable the tension he feels between the wish to forget the past, in all its discomforting details, and the desire to understand behavior that might be easier to erase from memory than to confront and try to take in, much less forgive.

He begins by wondering how his grandfather Karl Gönner could have been both the father his mother loved and “the monster history suggested.” She was still a schoolgirl when her father finally returned from the war, and she remained too fearful to ever ask him if he was guilty of the crimes for which he was accused. What if Mr. Bilger discovered, now, that the answer was yes?

An authentic reckoning with his grandfather’s past demanded that he find out. Mr. Bilger charts his family’s history, generation by generation, back to the 18th century. Gönner himself had provided the roadmap in his personal “ancestry passport”—the official document laying out his “pure” Aryan genealogy over the centuries, as required for his membership in the Nazi Party as well as for his government-regulated teaching job.

Like his ancestors before him, Gönner was born in the Black Forest village of Herzogenweiler, founded in 1721 by a successful consortium of glassblowers. By the time of Gönner’s birth in 1899, though, the glass business had collapsed and the once-flourishing village had become derelict.

Religious and bookish by nature, Gönner set his sights on the priesthood as his best route to an education and a career away from poverty. Then came World War I. Drafted in 1917, Gönner arrived at the Western Front in time to join the German army’s battered retreat. In late September 1918, beaten down by hunger and the muck of the trenches, his troop arrived at Meuse-Argonne, the site of one of the war’s final and most brutal battles. A land mine blasted Gönner unconscious, its shards piercing his right eye, arm and thigh. Upon his release from the hospital several months later, Mr. Bilger writes, Gönner “came home hobbled and half blind, with a sense that never left him that the world was a shattered thing, in need of radical repair.”

Yet he was told he was lucky. After all, his brother Josef, who had been killed in Flanders, never returned from the war at all. But what kind of a life could Gönner have back in the impoverished villages of the Black Forest? The war cost him his religious faith and replaced his right eye with a sightless glass prosthetic. Eventually he married and started a family, became a teacher and, in 1933, joined the Nazi Party.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


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