LONDON — In 1992, 28-year-old Burkhard Bilger discovered that his grandfather had been tried for war crimes following the liberation of Nazi-occupied France.
Over a decade later, the arrival of a yellowing package of letters from Germany set the US-born journalist and author on a search for the truth about Karl Gönner’s wartime past.
“There were no little errors in wartime Germany,” Bilger writes in his new book “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience and Family Secrets.” And, as he freely admits, his grandfather made more than a few large ones.
A schoolteacher and fervent Nazi, Gönner was sent to Alsace in 1940 to participate in the Third Reich’s effort to Germanize the recently conquered French region. He led the Hitler Youth and later became party boss of Bartenheim. And, in 1946, he was accused of giving the orders that led to the death of a local French farmer.
But, as the package of letters sent to Bilger’s mother revealed, Bartenheim’s villagers had provided vital testimony on Gönner’s behalf at his trial — a perhaps unique occurrence in postwar Europe.
Bilger, who grew up in Oklahoma after his parents emigrated to the United States in 1962, says he was “more fascinated than disturbed” when his mother told him that Gönner had been imprisoned and tried for war crimes.
“I think when I heard this, I didn’t immediately connect it to some sense of ancestral guilt,” Bilger told The Times of Israel. The German culture he had grown up with was not the “dark historical part of it,” he recalls. “My parents shielded us from that to some degree.”
Bilger’s mother Edeltraut — a teacher and historian who undertook doctoral research into Vichy France — studiously avoided the topic of her father’s wartime record for most of her life. Nonetheless by the time Bilger moved to Germany in 2014 and began to excavate Gönner’s buried Nazi past, the 79-year-old “had made her peace in her own mind with her father, and I think trusted that the facts wouldn’t be too terrible.”
Those facts — the search for which took Bilger to sleepy French villages, dusty German archives and the sites of grim former concentration camps — proved to be complex, as does the question of Gönner’s complicity in the Nazis’ crimes.
The complex facts
Born in 1899 in Herzogenweiler in southern Germany, Gönner hailed from five generations of farmers and laborers. Living conditions in the Black Forest village at the turn of the century, Bilger writes, were “medieval, the people as impoverished as serfs.” Gönner’s father gambled and drank and was forever in debt, eventually killing himself by drinking a bottle of disinfectant. Young Karl shared the village’s deep Catholic religiosity and aspired to become a priest.
But in the summer of 1917, 18-year-old Gönner was drafted into the German army. Severely injured in the closing weeks of World War I, he eventually returned home, “hobbled and half blind,” no longer wanting to become a priest but imbued “with a sense that never left him that the world was a shattered thing, in need of radical repair.”
He turned to teaching but, as galloping inflation in Weimar Germany consumed his fixed salary, Gönner found himself impoverished and frustrated. Fancying himself as something of an intellectual, he cycled through eight positions in four years.
“He was moving around but getting nowhere,” writes Bilger of his grandfather, who he describes as “itchy with promise and thwarted ambition.”
By 1930, the year in which the Nazis’ made their big electoral breakthrough, Gönner was married and a headteacher in Aulfingen — a “bare-bones posting in a backward little town,” in Bilger’s words. But while his wife, Emma, who came from a comfortably middle-class home, had no time for the Nazis, her husband became an enthusiastic supporter. In Aulfingen’s archives, Bilger found a letter from his grandfather boasting of his “open commitment to National Socialism” in the autumn of 1932. Gönner joined the party in May 1933, attended two of the Nuremberg rallies, and led the local Hitler Youth.
A fervent Nazi party member
While joining the National Socialist Teachers League was a given for most teachers, Bilger says that his grandfather “wasn’t just a Nazi party member out of convenience or out of necessity because he could have lost his job.” Gönner was a “fervent Nazi party member. I don’t want to shield him from that judgment,” Bilger says.
Gönner, his grandson believes, shared the Nazis’ self-proclaimed hatred of Germany’s rigid class system and latched on to their economic program. He cannot have been unaware of their virulent antisemitism — no German was — but did he share it? Bilger found no antisemitic comments in Gönner’s letters and personal documents, although a local newspaper reported a speech he gave in Alsace in 1940 in which he blamed Germany’s economic ills after WWI on “Jewish-plutocratic high finance.” Bilger’s mother said her father rarely made antisemitic comments at home, but admitted that he sometimes did.
There are, however, traces of evidence that Gönner may have begun having doubts about the party soon after the Nazis came to power. In 1934, a friend and fellow headteacher, Hans Müller, was fired after falling foul of charges of disloyalty. In a letter of protest to the local leaders of the National Socialist Teachers League, Gönner termed the decision “an injustice” and a “monstrosity.” The letter, believes Bilger, was the work of “a former believer, an aggrieved follower, a man who couldn’t accept that the party in power — the one that he had joined — was full of madmen.”
But, says Bilger, it was not until much later, after he had arrived in Alsace, that a “gradual process” of disillusion with National Socialism really set in. The Nazis’ effort to “Germanize” Alsace — a region that has changed hands between France and Germany four times over the past 70 years — was unsparing. The French language was banned, books burned and berets declared illegal. And, of course, those Jews who had not already fled were swiftly driven out.
Gönner was one of hundreds of German teachers sent across the Rhine to turn his pupils into loyal subjects of the Reich. He later told French interrogators that he had been posted to Bartenheim against his will, but, as Bilger writes, his grandfather “must have known that it was more than just a teaching role” given the centrality of schools to the Nazis’ effort to indoctrinate the young. Two months after his arrival, Gönner gave a lecture praising the “wonderful organism” of the Nazi party.
Eighteen months later in March 1942, Gönner was appointed as Bartenheim’s local party boss. Once again, Gönner later claimed, the Nazis had given him no choice. But, as Bilger begins to discover, his grandfather’s record differed sharply from that of other Nazis. The author met with Gönner’s former French pupils who recall him as strict but respected. “He kept order, but he wasn’t mean,” one remembered. While his two teaching colleagues stuck rigidly to the Nazi curriculum — sports, calisthenics and collecting rags and scrap metal for the war effort — Gönner actually attempted to teach his pupils reading, writing, science and math, history and languages. “One learned with him,” a former pupil told Bilger. He was, another said in a seemingly oxymoronic formulation, “a Nazi, but a reasonable one.”
As party boss, Gönner repeatedly turned a blind eye to the kind of infractions — a drunk villager singing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” livestock being illegally slaughtered and shortwave radios listened to — that frequently met with harsh punishment elsewhere. And, as the war dragged on and Nazi rule became ever more brutal, Gönner began to protect the villagers.
A local resistance chief, Georges Tschill, for instance, raised with him the case of a carpenter who had been “mouthing off” and had been shipped to an internment camp. Three days later, after Gönner had contacted the camp commandant, the man was released. Henceforth, Tschill and the local Nazi party chief formed a “tacit alliance.” Gönner wrote letters interceding with his superiors on behalf of those arrested for anti-German sentiment, draft evaders, people whose businesses or homes had been sealed for political reasons, and a couple who had been caught fleeing to France.
By the time of the liberation, nobody from Bartenheim had been sent to a death camp, no families deported and no political prisoners executed. Neighboring towns and villages escaped far less lightly. “In a region crosshatched by cruelty,” Bilger says, “Bartenheim was a blank spot. A hole in the fabric.”
Legacy of questions
His grandfather’s actions, says Bilger, “showed enormous courage.” But did he, as his daughter argues, ultimately resist the Nazis?
“He did undermine the Nazi war effort,” Bilger responds, noting the way he ignored evidence of young draft evaders being sheltered in the village. “He allowed what the Nazis would have considered capital offenses to happen. That’s a form of resistance,” he says.
Gönner’s peculiar mixture of “conscience and misguided duty” led him to leave his family and return to Bartenheim even as news reached him that the liberating Allied forces were in Alsace. “I can’t leave those people in the lurch,” he told Emma. Soon after crossing the Rhine, he was arrested. Only Tschill’s intervention saved Gönner from a swiftly assembled French firing squad.
But, his grandson argues, Gönner paid a price for his part in the Nazis’ crimes: after a year in a prisoner of war camp, he returned to his family malnourished, broken and looking like “a living ghost.” Three months later, he was arrested, detained in a prison with notorious war criminals, and charged with giving the orders that led to the death of French farmer Georges Baumann. Baumann, who had resisted joining a German work detail in October 1944, had died after being savagely beaten by the police.
The case was largely driven by Louis Obrecht, the school principal who Gönner had replaced in 1940. But it was not the nature of the score-settling in which Obrecht was engaged that led to the German’s acquittal in July 1947, but the evidence of local villagers who — overcoming their fears at seeming to side with a Nazi — wrote letters in his defense. Crucially, the local priest testified that, while no doubt a dutiful Nazi party member, Gönner had “a good heart and was always ready to do good for the population.”
The German denazification process later exonerated Gönner, although this was overruled by the French military government which deemed him a “fellow traveler.”
Bilger believes the verdict was a fair, but incomplete, judgment on his grandfather. “As much as I think he was a fellow traveler, he did atone for that,” he says.
Gönner, who later returned to teaching and became a supporter of the left-of-center social democrats, never really disowned his wartime past.
“I think he was proud of what he did in that village during the war. He felt like he managed to fulfill his functions as an administrator and also protect people,” says Bilger. “He was not a radical or revolutionary who openly fought the Nazi regime. He did it all through his bureaucratic methods.”
Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets by Burkhard Bilger
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