For four years, Karl Gönner ruled over French civilians as a Nazi party chief, guiding local children through German “re-education” programs. Allied authorities finally called him to account for his wartime deeds in 1946. “You established yourself as Ortsgruppenleiter in order to become the town’s absolute master,” the French official Otto Baumgartner accused Gönner in interrogations. “You brought to your duties a zeal and a tyrannical fervor without equal!”
More than a half-century later, Gönner’s grandson, the New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger, began a years-long quest to come to terms with what his grandfather had done. That reckoning — which included meeting surviving townspeople, jogging relatives’ memories, and excavating hidden archives — evolved into his newest book, “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets.”
While rich in historical material, “Fatherland” isn’t really about archival detective work or wartime testimonies. It’s about how to respond when someone close to you does the unspeakable.
Though not everyone has a Nazi leader grandfather, most people know the vertigo that follows a certain kind of grim reveal: Your father was indicted for grand theft. Your favorite teacher abused students. Your cousin invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Not only is “Fatherland” a road map for confronting such truths head-on, it makes a vivid narrative case for the merits of doing so. Reckoning with what a loved one did isn’t just a matter of conscience, as stories like Bilger’s show. It can also be a way to initiate far-reaching change, whether personal, familial, or social. In this sense, coming to terms with the truth “doesn’t have to be a burden,” as Bilger told the Forward’s Laurie Gwen Shapiro. “It can be a gift.”
The loved one with a horrendous moral flaw is one of the oldest story tropes there is. Besides Zeus’s immortal father Cronus, who ate his children so they wouldn’t usurp his power, there’s Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, who plotted with Hamlet’s uncle to murder his father.
In real life, people in Hamlet’s position plunge into cognitive dissonance as they confront the Mr. Hyde version of the Dr. Jekyll they thought they knew. When you learn about terrible things a loved one did, says the Washington-based therapist Breyan Haizlip, you suffer a kind of vicarious trauma, just as you might if that person developed a terminal illness. “There is a grief that happens, because the relationship that you had to this person — or to this history — it does die.”
It’s only natural, on some level, to want to evade this kind of death, which is why so many people retreat into denial. Take John Demjanjuk Jr., the son of death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk, who saw his father’s conviction as a miscarriage of justice, or Camille Cosby, who repeatedly claimed her husband Bill was framed for sex crimes. “They’re going to investigate this, and they’re going to find out that Ted is completely innocent,” Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s mother Wanda told his brother David after the bombings, according to NPR. “This is all going to go away like a bad dream.”
But even when you reject hard-boiled denial, it’s disorienting to square someone’s thoughtful human qualities with the very real harm they caused. The better you know the person, the more intense this confusion can grow, as Bilger found when he sifted through his grandfather’s archives and letters to family and colleagues. He learned that while Gönner was involved in coercive efforts to indoctrinate French children, he’d also intervened to save some townspeople from punishment by Nazi authorities. “The more I learned about my grandfather,” Bilger writes, “the harder he was to categorize.”
That categorizing, streamlining impulse dies hard. When one of my high school English teacher’s former students came forward to report he’d sexually abused her, I found myself trying to separate the “good” version of my teacher — the one who mentored me and encouraged me to write — from the one named in court documents. Consciously, I’d processed what had happened, but my mind kept reeling back, wanting to preserve some semblance of the old story.
Engaging with the truth of a loved one’s actions is inevitably a fraught process. What’s valuable about books like “Fatherland” is that they show the rewards of this reckoning no matter what conclusions it reaches. There’s a kind of alchemy that happens when you see someone’s tender, funny, fallible side up close and fully accept its coexistence with the monstrous one. You stretch and transform your ideas about what humans are capable of — even the ones you know well, or whose blood you share.
That kind of acceptance can spur decisions about what to do next, as it did for Jennifer Teege, the granddaughter of infamous Nazi camp commandant Amon Goeth. Teege, who is part Nigerian and grew up in an adoptive family, only learned her murderous grandfather’s identity in her late 30s. It happened by chance, when she grabbed a library book off the shelf and it named her biological mother, Monika Hertwig, as Goeth’s daughter. Discovering who her grandfather was, Teege says, felt like a direct threat to her own identity, sending her into a deep depression. “You start questioning yourself: Is this part of me? Do I resemble him?”
What restored Teege’s equilibrium was standing for the kind of inclusion and justice Goeth had worked to destroy. Because of who her grandfather was, she says, she feels a keen responsibility to cultivate empathy and reflect it outward — through a memoir called “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me,” as well as through speaking engagements about the dangers of hatred. “I try to live a life that is different,” she says. “I try to connect to people.” Katrin Himmler, the great-niece of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, has followed a similar path, warning young people about fascism’s seductions.
Decisions like these show how personal reckonings are bound up with broader social ones. Digesting the news about my English teacher, his dual identity as predator and nurturing mentor, heightened my sense of how vulnerable so many students still were. Along with other alumni, I started pressing my old district to investigate past abuse incidents in the name of preventing future ones. The complicated truth, however hard to swallow, motivated us all to act. Likewise, in studies of 35 social activists, psychologist Pilar Hernandez-Wolfe found that close encounters with real-world atrocities had moved many to work for justice and human rights.
Reckoning also lets people drop the mental weight of concealment, a decision that can have generational impact. “It was really important for me to have transparency,” Teege says. “Also for my kids — that they don’t have to hide, that it’s not the toxic family secret.”
Burkhard Bilger’s search for the truth about his grandfather helped him renounce old ideas about guilt by proxy and tainted blood passed through family lines. “I see how deeply personal his choices were — how bound up in the events of his life and peculiarities of his mind,” Bilger writes of Karl Gönner. “I have his hollow cheeks and downturned eyes, his stiff shoulders and earnest stare. But his conscience was his own.”
Elizabeth Svoboda, a writer in San Jose, Calif., is the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.”