Raised in Oklahoma to German-immigrant parents, Burkhard Bilger learned at the age of twenty-eight that his grandfather, Karl Gönner, worked for the Nazi occupation authorities in eastern France. Years later Bilger wrote a book about Gönner, who was expressing his enthusiasm for Nazism by 1932, and joined the party in May of the following year. Robert Philpot writes in his review:
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 was sent to Alsace, [a French territory with historical connections to Germany], 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.
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 . . . 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.
Gönner’s story reveals something important: party members didn’t risk their careers by offering limited objections to Nazi policies, and could on occasion save lives. Of course, many fewer exceptions were allowed for Jews, and Hitler’s regime chose its most loyal and fanatical members for the task of carrying out their extermination. But those who worked toward this goal were something other than helpless cogs in a vast machine.