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Questions Without Answers at the Library

by Bill Peak

In the summer of 1968, when I was sixteen, I got to go on a bicycling tour of Europe with six other boys and our high school Latin teacher. We visited most of Western Europe that year, with side trips by boat to Morocco and Greece, but we based our travels out of the ancient Bavarian city of Augsburg. Our teacher had relatives there, and friends, who put us up whenever we visited.

I had worked hard the previous summer to earn enough money to help pay for the trip, and I couldn't have been more excited about getting to go. Up to that point, mine had been a fairly parochial childhood—all my friends were white, we all spoke with a slight Southern accent, our parents were all preparing to vote for Richard Nixon in the next election, and we all supported our country's war in Vietnam (this was the year of the Tet offensive).

Looking forward to the trip, I was fascinated by the idea of “foreignness,” that the countries I would visit would—each in its own way—be different from anything I had ever encountered before. In this, I was not disappointed.

The first time we bicycled into Augsburg, at the end of a long hot ride, our Latin teacher's aunt met us at her door with ice-cold pitchers of a pink liquid that I assumed was lemonade. But I was wrong—she had, she told us, prepared the drink fresh for us from rhubarb she'd harvested that morning from her garden. I will never forget how refreshing and exotic that “rhubarbade” tasted on my tongue.

One of the other families we visited in Augsburg had a son our age and a daughter a year or two younger. Our teacher had told us beforehand that the father had served as a waist gunner in the Luftwaffe during World War II. Needless to say, this made us all curious about him. We were of the generation whose fathers, almost without exception, had also fought in that war, against the Axis.

If I was expecting jackboots and a house run with ironclad National Socialist discipline, I was in for a surprise. The house was like many middle-class residences I knew back home in Kentucky, and the family that lived there couldn't have been more relaxed and welcoming. Indeed, the daughter turned out to be a stunning blonde whom, over the course of that summer, I courted as best I could.

We had a number of interesting experiences on that trip. 1968 was Europe's summer of rebellion. We were in Paris when the Bastille Eve riots broke out and Charles de Gaulle's gendarmerie attacked anything on the Left Bank that looked like a student. A member of our group ended up in a French emergency room. In Franco's Spain and the Junta's Greece we saw what life was like under a repressive military dictatorship. And in Morocco we were approached by little boys trying to sell us “some really good stuff.”

But most unsettling for a kid who'd grown up in a family that flew the American flag every 4th of July was the young Europeans I met that summer on trains and in youth hostels who questioned me about America's involvement in Vietnam.

Up until that point in my life it had always been my country right or wrong (though the idea that America could ever actually be wrong would never have crossed my mind). But now, suddenly, I was meeting a new class of peers who not only didn't think America incapable of error, they believed she was in fact currently embarked upon one of the gravest mistakes any country could ever make.

The night before we returned home, I can remember lying in my bunk in a youth hostel worrying over what I had experienced that summer. I thought I was in love with a girl whose father—a nice man I knew and liked—had fought for Adolf Hitler. For the first time in my life I had personally experienced the fact that good nations, full of good people, could not only get it wrong, they could get it disastrously wrong. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was no longer so certain my own country couldn't screw up too.

That night of doubt took place over half a century ago and, in a sense, it is with me still. I was outraged by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but I am still haunted by a photograph taken on one of the battle's first days of a dead Russian soldier lying face-up in the street, his body covered with a light blanket of snow. That young man had no idea what he was getting into when his commander ordered him to march south, and now his life was over before it had truly begun. How do you reconcile the sympathy you feel for such an innocent with the horror of what he had been sent to Ukraine to do?

All of which is my long way of explaining why I checked out Burkhard Bilger's new book, Fatherland, and lost myself in all that its author encountered as he researched the life of his grandfather—his mother's sweet and loving “Papa”—the elementary school teacher adored by his students, the district administrator sent by the Third Reich to oversee the occupied Alsatian town of Bartenheim, the man who did everything in his power to save the people under his jurisdiction from labor camps and worse, the man who was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party, the man suspected of murder, the man who, after the German surrender, was tried for war crimes and escaped the gallows by a hair's breadth.

If you too sometimes find yourself occupying neither the right nor the left but an uneasy middle ground, if the answers to life's questions appear neither black nor white but gray, if you wonder if there is any way to resolve such quandaries, to reconcile the irreconcilable, then I heartily recommend Bilger's book. It won't answer all your questions, but it may give you cause to hold fast to them as the world swirls around you with belligerent assurances that this way of thinking, or that way of thinking, is right, and anyone who thinks otherwise is irredeemably wicked. You can find Fatherland in the Talbot County Free Library's biography section under BIO GÖNNER.

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