...an elegant and ambivalent book animated by an insoluble mystery ... Complex questions of culpability aside, it is difficult enough to establish the basic facts of the case. Gönner is an ordinary person, not a major historical figure, and much of his life went undocumented. Still, Bilger manages to piece together an outline, albeit one riddled with gaps and doubts ... Fatherland is billed as a memoir, but it contains little in the way of self-indulgent soul-searching. Instead of brooding on memory and morality, Bilger reports on Gönner’s contradictions as impassively, methodically and evocatively as he does on high-altitude skydivers and mushroom hunters in the New Yorker. The results are reconstructions of scenes from Gönner’s life that read as fluidly as passages in a novel ... wears its meticulous research lightly. Its prose is not academic but brimming with vivid images.
Resolutely unflinching and ultimately illuminating ... 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.
Its 18 chapters are organized well, into the different roles Gönner played throughout his life, a table of contents that reads like a John le Carré collage ... His subject matter is sensitive, but his sensuality remains intact ... The author conveys an Indiana Jones-ish thrill ... Bilger is understandably preoccupied with titrating Gönner’s cloudy complicity in a regime of pure evil, a task that — to someone outside the family circle — may not seem particularly urgent or even possible to finish. But with all its diligence, Fatherland maintains the momentum of the best mysteries and a commendable balance.
[Bilger] builds a narrative that admits to its holes, that doesn’t shy away from its incompleteness while it still makes an effort, with the materials at hand, to understand life in wartime and the kind of people whose actions occupy that gray zone of morality ... Bilger’s approach is satisfyingly holistic. Complicating the plot is part of his intent ... The categorical imperative at work in Holocaust literature, the need to define good actors versus bad actors, is understandable ... But what Bilger shows is how the forces moving against ordinary citizens—the threat of their own deportation, torture, or murder—could turn them into the most unimaginable of all war-battered Europeans, meek preservationists fighting individual wars for their own lives.
Engrossing ... Makes for uncomfortable but fascinating reading as Bilger forces his readers to see his grandfather through his eyes ... The fascinating journey Bilger takes his readers on is part family story, part detective mystery, part insight into Germany’s painful process of coming to terms with its history ... Tells us more about Bilger’s personal quest for identity than it does about Gönner. But this emotionally candid book, expressed with reflective clarity, reveals a great deal about Germany’s process of coming to terms with itself.
Exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable ... Gönner’s life and times, as revealed through Bilger’s elegant and discerningly observed memoir, will challenge and enlighten many thoughtful readers.
The author traveled to Europe repeatedly, researching archives and interviewing villagers, and the result is a vivid portrait of his grandfather and his times ... A fluid writer, Bilger crafts a fascinating, deeply researched work of Holocaust-era history.
Bilger’s atmospheric account probes the complex ethical ambiguities of wartime Alsace and his mother’s harrowing childhood experience of the defeat and devastation of Germany, conveying both narrative strands with a fine moral irony couched in prose that’s both psychologically shrewd and matter-of-fact ... The result is a fascinating excavation of the twisted veins of good and evil in one man’s soul.