‘I found out my grandfather was a Nazi party chief. I knew what I had to do next’

Journalist Burkhard Bilger - Sasha Arutyunova
Journalist Burkhard Bilger - Sasha Arutyunova

The man in the interrogation room had all the marks of a dangerous fanatic: stiff spine and bony shoulders, lips pinched into a pleat. He wore brass spectacles with tortoiseshell rims and his head was shaved along the back and sides, leaving a shock of brown hair to flop around on top, like a toupée.

The French inspector paced in front of him: ‘In October 1940, you moved to Alsace and set yourself the task of converting the inhabitants of Bartenheim to National Socialism,’ he began. ‘You established yourself as the Nazi Party chief to become the town’s absolute master… You were the most feared and infamous of leaders!’

It had been nearly a year since the German surrender and the French countryside seethed with military courts and makeshift tribunals. More than 9,000 people would be executed as war criminals and collaborators over the next five years. L’épuration sauvage, the French called it: the savage purification.

The facts in this case were not in question. They came from a seemingly unimpeachable source: Captain Louis Obrecht, a French army veteran and president of the local Purification Commission. Obrecht accused the prisoner of crimes ranging from sabotage to having a local farmer bludgeoned to death. Yet the inspectors had also heard rumours of a different sort. There was talk that this ‘perfect Nazi’, as some described the prisoner, was the opposite of what Obrecht claimed. That he had shielded locals from the worst Nazi excesses during the occupation. That without him many more might have died.

It was an unlikely story. But in those days of furious judgment, justice could be hard to tell from self-justification. The case was remanded to the military court and the prisoner – my grandfather, Karl Gönner, 47 years old and a father of four, one of them my mother – was sent to await trial in the Citadel in Strasbourg, where the worst German war criminals were kept.

Karl Gonner's prisoner mugshot - Courtesy of Dépôt Central d’Archives de la Justice Militaire
Karl Gonner's prisoner mugshot - Courtesy of Dépôt Central d’Archives de la Justice Militaire

I’m an American, born in Oklahoma, taught to be unafraid of history. But I also have German blood, so I know that forgiveness doesn’t always come easily. Every country has its dark past, my mother always told me, its historical rap sheet. Scratch today’s gentle Danes and you’ll find Viking longships still coursing through their veins, and the Swiss were Europe’s deadliest mercenaries long before they were counting deposit slips. Each of us carries the seeds of murder and mercy within us, my mother said. What takes root depends as much on circumstance as character.

There was more than a little defensiveness to all this. My mother was born in 1935, in the foothills of the Black Forest in south-western Germany. She was too young to serve in the Third Reich or even to join Hitler’s League of German Girls; too old not to witness the horrors of war. If she believed that any country could turn criminal under the wrong conditions, it was because she was a careful student of history. But it was also because she saw it happen all around her. If her own neighbours, her own father, could become Nazis, couldn’t anyone?

The question never came up when I was a boy. My mother rarely talked about the war. After she married my father and moved to the United States in 1962, she seemed to relegate those memories to a high shelf. In full view yet out of reach. We lived in the odd intersection between the America of their imagining and the Germany of their memories. Our house felt like a world unto itself: a prairie Liechtenstein. We spoke German at home, ate Bratkartoffeln and listened to German pop hits, while my father tuned in to German news on the Grundig shortwave. Something in them couldn’t leave the past behind.

I was 28 when my mother told me that her father had been imprisoned as a war criminal. But though his story only grew stranger and richer over the years, as I learnt more, I kept my distance. As a writer, I covered stories in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe, but I never wrote about Germany.

Some 40 million Americans claim German ancestry, nearly twice as many as have English roots, yet German Americans have long gone underground. More than once, I have had friends confess that it took them a while to completely trust me, given my background. To be German, it seems, is always to be one part Nazi. In my case, that part is my grandfather.

Had you asked me as a boy what I thought of him, I would have told you that he made me nervous. Tall and gaunt, with a shock of peppery blond hair, he had a glass eye that swivelled unnervingly out of line as he spoke. He asked me questions in a grave, deliberate voice, like an astronaut meeting a Martian, and sometimes gave me a piece of beeswax with honey to chew – strange, like him, with its chambered secrets, its amber depths, but also sweet.

The older I grew, the more my mother’s stories about him changed. At first, she described him through her eyes as a child – as a good man caught in barbarous times. Then, when I was a teenager, my mother went back to school to earn her doctorate in history, and I began to see him through her scholar’s eyes.

Gönner with one of his sons, Gernot, the author's uncle - Courtesy of the author
Gönner with one of his sons, Gernot, the author's uncle - Courtesy of the author

Why did he join the Nazi Party? Why was he imprisoned in France after the war? My mother never said, though she wrote her dissertation on the German occupation of France, and the omission seemed telling. She was his favourite child, my German relatives said. There was an intensity to their relationship – a cautious tenderness, as if they knew each other’s weaknesses too well – that he didn’t have with anyone else. It must have been a torment to my mother, trying to square what she learned about the war with her memories of her father. How could he have been both the man she loved and the monster history suggested?

I found myself thinking about him more as I got older. At first, this was just idle speculation: he was a story to tell, a riddle to solve, a piece of dark family gossip. Then I began to feel myself bound up in the twists and turns of his life. I got married, had three children, and began to get a visceral sense of how the past lives on inside us. How some of my own character had taken root in my kids, and how much of my parents was lodged in me.

Did my grandfather’s past still have a claim on us? I hoped not. At best, I thought, he was a passive accomplice to one of history’s most criminal regimes; at worst an eager participant. But no one seemed to know for certain. My mother and her brothers were getting older, their recollections weakening. I wanted nothing more than to sit in a room with Karl to ask him all the questions I was too young to ask as a boy. Yet he was impossible to reach.

Germany is full of such spectral figures. Hardly a family I know isn’t haunted by them. There is no lack of information about Karl’s generation, but it’s spread across the continent like so much shrapnel.

When I first went to Germany in 2014 to try and uncover Karl’s past, the quantity of research material seemed overwhelming: 70 miles of files and microfiche in Berlin’s Bundesarchiv; 30 million documents in the Holocaust archives. There were letters, diaries, and reams of statistics, maps, blueprints, and bills of lading.

Karl’s early years were easy enough to piece together. Born in 1899, he grew up with his mother, stepfather, and three siblings in the village of Herzogenweiler, in the heart of the Black Forest. His father took his own life when Karl was one. He had lost his house in a card game the night before and drunk a bottle of disinfectant when he came home. The men he’d played with were confounded when they heard the news. That bet was just a joke, they said.

Karl was a pious child, preoccupied by sin and the devil’s snares. The priesthood was one of the few paths to an education for a boy of his means and he came to it naturally. Even as an old man, long since strayed from his faith, he had an ecclesiastical air about him, with his probing eye and measured speech, his way of framing the world in parables and maxims. By age 10, he was studying with the village priest; at 15 he was at a boarding school for future seminarians.

Then the war intervened. In the summer of 1917, Karl was ordered to report for duty at a local army base – part of a last great surge of forces on the Western Front. To Karl, this was a disaster of both mind and spirit: he lost his best friend and his right eye to the war. Without even a victory to redeem it, the fighting revealed its true senselessness – and the emptiness of the soldiers’ prayers. Before he became a soldier, Karl wanted to be a priest; afterwards, a schoolteacher.

Nazi Teacher’s League identification card - Courtesy of Landesarchiv Baden- Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Freiburg
Nazi Teacher’s League identification card - Courtesy of Landesarchiv Baden- Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Freiburg

He went on to marry my grandmother, Emma, a fellow teacher, and they had four children. By 1940, they were living in Weil am Rhein, a German town near the French and Swiss borders. That June, German forces bombarded the French bunkers on the opposite shore of the Rhine. Within a week, they were marching through Alsace unopposed.

Karl, at 41, was too old to be on the front lines but not to serve the Reich. Alsace was now part of Germany again, after two decades as part of France. That autumn, Karl joined more than 1,700 German teachers who were sent to Alsace in a massive re-education campaign. As the school principal in Bartenheim, it was his job to turn the village’s beret-wearing French children into sturdy, hardworking Germans – to convince them that the catastrophe of war was a kind of salvation.

The question was whether he believed so himself.

I put this to Karl’s nephew Gerhard Blessing when I visited him in the Black Forest one day. Gerhard belonged to the generation of Germans who came of age amid the political bonfires of 1968. He could remember tense meals in his parents’ kitchen in those years, grilling his father and Karl about the war. ‘My generation was extremely critical,’ he told me. ‘I completely understood why. But I always had the feeling that my experience didn’t really match what people were saying. That there were more truths than just the one.’

Gerhard and Karl often had long talks as they walked in the forest. ‘He was an idealist,’ Gerhard said. ‘And to be an idealist is to believe in something so strongly that you want it to be perfect. If you go far enough, it becomes totalitarianism.’

Karl’s Party membership card is dated May 1933. He began by working with the National Socialist People’s Welfare programme, handing out food and clothing to the needy. But soon he was attending Nazi rallies and leading the local chapter of the Hitler Youth. He was always a political animal, my uncle Winfried told me. It was a natural extension of his teaching. His letters to his children were full of tips for self-improvement (‘Get to work and your unnecessary fat will melt away!’), and that prescriptive urge carried over into his public life.

And yet, Karl knew that Hitler’s nationalism was roiled by savage prejudices. I never found any anti-Semitic comments in Karl’s letters or personal documents, but I did find a description of a speech he gave in 1940 in Alsace. According to a local newspaper, Karl offered a short history of National Socialism at a Nazi Party meeting in Bartenheim. He blamed Germany’s economic collapse after the First World War on ‘Jewish-plutocratic high finance’.

How deep did his prejudice go? Perhaps he convinced himself that the Nazis might still build ‘a tolerable relation between the German people and the Jews’, as Hitler declared in Nuremberg in 1935. If so, he should have paid more attention to the Führer’s next words. ‘If it fails [the Jewish problem] must be handed over by law to the Nazi Party for a final solution.’

As the years passed, Karl’s principles were increasingly untethered from Nazi policies. Charities like the National Socialist People’s Welfare programme were giving way to race ordinances and munitions factories.

In 1934, when a fellow teacher was banished to another school for disloyalty to the Party, Karl wrote a letter of protest to the National Socialist Teachers League: ‘This sudden transfer, for no apparent reason… banishes all belief in justice and reason. If teachers are to be fair game, if they are to be made the playthings of megalomaniac colleagues and incompetent Party members, better for the Ministry to throw open the doors of the insane asylums and have their patients teach the people.’

For a teacher to speak out against the Nazis in those years was career suicide or worse. Yet for all his protests, Karl never left the Party nor truly risked his life to fight it. When the war came and he was posted to occupied France, he tried to convince himself that he was just another school administrator. But he knew that there was more to it. Schools were crucial to the Nazi propaganda effort. ‘The purpose of education is to create a political soldier,’ as Hitler put it.

Karl’s classes began like most others. His students stood to say ‘Heil Hitler!’ as he walked into the room. He led them through some German songs – many of them patriotic anthems – and gave the news from the front. But then the real work began, his former students told me. As a Party member, Karl could pass beneath the Gestapo’s radar in a small town like Bartenheim, and he used that tenuous freedom to teach as he always had: reading, writing, science, maths, history and languages.

‘The name Gönner I will never forget!’ one of his students, Alphonse Huttenschmitt, told me. ‘He kept order in the school, but you learned something from him. And he knew that we were French at heart. We weren’t for the Germans, even if we had to play along with them. He understood that. He was a Nazi, but a reasonable one.’

A reasonable Nazi. I must have heard that phrase a dozen times when I interviewed the villagers in Bartenheim. What seemed an oxymoron to me was self-evident to the villagers. Raised in a divided culture, they knew how to keep two contradictory ideas in their heads at once.

Sasha Arutyunova - Sasha Arutyunova
Sasha Arutyunova - Sasha Arutyunova

Alsace was meant to be a gleaming model of National Socialism, its Volk marching in lockstep with their Führer. But beneath its empty pomp and relentless propaganda was a place at war with itself. To survive, people had to play multiple parts: the good Nazi and the closet French patriot, the Resistant and the collaborator. They said ‘Heil Hitler!’ on the street, then hurried home to listen to Charles de Gaulle on the shortwave. They flew the swastika from the front porch and hung the Tricolore in the basement.

Karl knew what they were up to, the villagers told me. In March of 1942, he was named Ortsgruppenleiter of Bartenheim – its Nazi Party chief. He was now the de facto leader of the village. Yet rather than enforce the Party’s rules, he often feigned ignorance. ‘He used to say, “If I reported all the people who broke rules in Bartenheim, half the village would be deported,”’ a priest named François Grienenberger told me.

With time, Karl came to think of himself as the village intercessor, interpreting the commandments from Nazi authorities and trying to deflect their harsher judgments. ‘For two and a half years, I was responsible for 2,000 people,’ he later recalled. ‘That was my happiest, if also most difficult time. Like a sleepwalker, I followed the hard path of duty but never forgot what was human or carried out an order when my conscience forbade it. Those people over there, lost between fronts so to speak, needed support… I stayed true to them.’

Most of what he could offer were small mercies: fines avoided, loose talk ignored. Bartenheim was just a small village, far from the war’s great calamities. Yet lives were at stake even here. The postwar reports from some nearby towns are filled with grim accounting: numbers exiled, imprisoned, gassed, or shot by a firing squad. But in four years of German occupation, no one from Bartenheim was sent to a death camp. No families were deported, no political prisoners executed.

‘That’s where my father was,’ my mother told me, the first time we visited Bartenheim together. We were sitting in a brasserie on the village square, across the street from the schoolhouse where her father once taught. It was the grandest building in Bartenheim, its Gothic windows trimmed in pink sandstone.

My mother’s eyes welled up at the memory of her last visit to Bartenheim. In the spring of 1983, she said, she and my father had stopped here on their way to see relatives in Germany. She was standing on the back steps of the schoolhouse, she recalled, when she saw an old man pass by. He looked about as old as her father would have been if he were still alive.

My mother stood for a moment, hesitating, then hurried across the yard. ‘It was as if my father had given me a shove,’ she told me. By the time she reached the old man, she was too flustered to introduce herself. Her father, Karl Gönner, had lived here during the war, she blurted out. He was principal of this school during the German occupation. Did he happen to remember him? The old man, whose name was Georges Tschill, just stared at her. ‘Well, of course!’ he said. ‘I saved his life, didn’t I?’

When French troops liberated Bartenheim in November 1944, Tschill explained, her father was among the leaders who were rounded up and tied to a tree to await execution. Tschill was the leader of the local Resistance. When he saw that Karl was among those about to be shot, he accosted the squadron leader. ‘I said, wait a minute, this isn’t right,’ he told my mother. He knew this man, Gönner. It was because of him that no family from Bartenheim had been deported or died in a camp. The soldiers glanced around at the other villagers, nodding or looking away, and slowly lowered their guns.

It would be another two years before Karl came home for good. He would nearly die of starvation and disease in a prison camp, and be accused and acquitted of war crimes. My mother would come to think of him as a soul undone by history and then spared by it – a man whose reckless, blinkered idealism led him to the Nazis, then gave him the nerve to resist them. ‘Angst het er nit gha,’ she told me. Fear wasn’t in him. But she could never truly forgive him.

Uncovering the rest of his story has taken me nearly a decade and raised questions that echo far beyond my own family history. What once seemed like a German problem has come to seem universal. Friends who used to nod with carefully blanked expressions when I talked about my grandfather now tell me about their own ancestors who owned slaves or were Klan members. They feel both betrayed by their history and implicated in it.

What to do with our poisoned heritage? How to make peace with it without perpetuating its wrongs? We live in an unforgiving time, impatient to pass judgment and rectify the past. But the guilt that drives us can reach beyond penance to a conviction that something in us, or in our culture, is broken beyond repair. That our history is irredeemable.

I have never believed that. Not when I first went searching for my grandfather’s past and even less so now. It’s not just that his story belies the idea of irredeemable sin, or that Germany has been so utterly transformed since the war. It’s that I see how deeply personal his choices were – how bound up in the events of his life and peculiarities of his mind. Like millions of Germans, Karl came to the Nazis in his own way, through his own weaknesses. Only he could bear the weight of that decision, and only he, and other Germans like him, could summon the strength to change.

He was my mother’s father. I have his hollow cheeks and downturned eyes, his stiff shoulders and earnest stare. But his conscience was his own.

Abridged extract from Fatherland, by Burkhard Bilger, out on 11 May (Harper Collins, £25); pre-order at books.telegraph.co.uk