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Burkhard Bilger's book 'Fatherland' explores his family's Nazi past in Germany


Burkhard Bilger grew up in a family of German immigrants in Oklahoma in the 1960s and says his mother spoke of Nazism and World War II. And she might tell a sinister fairy tale in rough, woodcut images, black-and-white gouged with red. The admired New Yorker writer has turned his reportorial skills on his own family and the role of his grandfather Karl Gonner, who was sent from Germany to oversee a school in a village in Alsace in Nazi-occupied France in 1940. He risked his own life to save lives or gave orders that cost lives, depending on who you ask. Or was it both? Burkhard Bilger's powerful new memoir is "Fatherland," and he joins us from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.

BURKHARD BILGER: Oh, it's great to be here.

SIMON: I have to begin by asking, why not just let your family history rest, whatever it is?

BILGER: You know, I think it's just a story that itched at me. It'd been so hidden for so long in my family's life. My mother had written her Ph.D. on Vichy France and done her research, but had never really looked into her father's own story. And then, there was this moment in 1983 when she had actually gone back to the village where he had been the principal of the school as well as the Nazi party chief and was about to leave when she saw an old man walking by. So she ran over to him and kind of blurted out, excuse me, you know, my father was stationed here during the war. His name was Karl Gonner. Would you happen to have known him? And this old man was dumbstruck and looked at her and said, oh, of course, I knew him; I saved his life.

And it turned out that he had been the head of the resistance in that village. And when the French liberated the village in 1944, they were about to shoot my grandfather, and he had interceded and said, no, that - not this man. He had actually done - he's done some things with me to help the village. So suddenly, this story that we had kind of kept hidden in the family for decades was much more complicated. Like, who was this man? Was he a Nazi? Was he not a Nazi? Did he do good? Did he do bad? And as a grandson as well as a journalist, I just couldn't leave that story alone.

SIMON: Yeah. Tell us about the packet of letters your mother received a few years ago.

BILGER: My aunt had been cleaning out my grandfather's old belongings in the attic of their house in Germany and had found in his desk a series of old letters, you know, written - handwritten, kind of in this very kind of country scrawl. And she sent it to my mom 'cause she knew my mom had done this historical research. And it turned out they were all testimonials written by the villagers in France where he had been the Nazi party chief. And they were done at great risk 'cause they were written in 1946, 1947, when France was going through the - you know, the purification phase, where 300,000 French people were tried for collaboration, and a lot of people were summarily executed. It was an extremely dangerous place in France and time in France to have any kind of hint of Nazi sympathies.

SIMON: I mean, about 9,000 people were just hung or executed, shot, yeah.

BILGER: A very scary and, you know, horrible time. And in the midst of that period, these 17 villagers had written testimonials to the French military government saying, this former Nazi that you have under arrest actually did good things for us in the village during the war. You know, he kept our sons hidden when they were trying to draft them to send - to be sent to Russia. He got us out of the camps when we got sent there for saying something anti-German when we were drunk at night. You know, these are all these very, to me, poignant stories from the war that he told.

SIMON: And yet at the same time, he was officially held responsible for somebody's death, wasn't he?

BILGER: That's the thing with him, is that - you know, it's such a double-sided story for me. I mean, he did join the Nazi party in 1933. He went to the rallies in Nuremberg. He heard exactly how deadly serious and prejudiced Hitler was. And he continued to be a loyal party member up until 1944. I mean, he led the Hitler Youth and was somebody who was very intent on, as he said, you know, forwarding the principles of national socialism. There was a lot about him that was kind of rigidly adhered to the party line. And yet when push came to shove and people's lives were at stake, that's when he kind of showed a certain kind of courage.

SIMON: Yeah. My wife is French. My late mother-in-law spent the first five years of her life living in a cellar because Nazi staff officers occupied their home in Normandy. And when I was just getting to know her, I asked her what that was like. And she said, no, the officers were so nice. They played with us. They snuck us little treats, we kids.

BILGER: Right. Right.

SIMON: Oh. You know, and we're just not used to hearing that.

BILGER: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: And yet it was a tough time, and they were very glad when the Canadians came in.

BILGER: Yeah, that was - you know, for me, that was one of the impulses for writing this book, was this - I feel like, you know, we have such a black-and-white view of that history and those people. And in some ways, I feel like it makes us not confront the same issues in ourselves. If we think, oh, those Germans did a bad thing, World War II and Nazism is all about something terrible that the Germans did, and we forget that, of course, we all have that capacity, that after Nazism, we had mass murders in China and Russia and Cambodia and Rwanda and Bosnia and Turkey - and, you know, we've just had a drumbeat of these kind of horrific behaviors. And it just becomes clear...

SIMON: And our own racial history in this country.

BILGER: And we have our own racial history. I mean, one of the things I do in the book is kind of show how there were parallel things happening in the United States - of course, not at the same degree at all, not to make an equivalency. But, you know, we had our own racial history going on, and eugenics originated in the United States, and sterilization campaigns happened in the United States. So I think if we don't kind of look at that history and then think, wow, humans have this capacity, we have this capacity, how are we, in some ways, similar to what this history shows us, then we miss the lessons of it.

SIMON: Yeah. Burkhard Bilger's memoir, "Fatherland." Thank you so much for being with us.

BILGER: Oh, it's been great to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.