In 1995 Fritz Stern was asked to replace Richard Holbrooke as keynote speaker at the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, since the latter was leading the American team negotiating the Bosnian Peace Accords in Dayton, Ohio. Praising Holbrooke’s diplomatic abilities, Stern writes, he “indulged in a historical fantasy” that had Holbrooke been around in July 1914, he might have single-handedly prevented the outbreak of World War I. “In which case neither he nor his Hungarian-born wife nor I would be here in the United States.”

This, in a certain sense, is the gist of Stern’s hefty new book: part memoir, part extended rumination on German history, part coming to terms with German-Jewish relations and his own involvement in that saga. For Stern and his family were the very embodiment of German-Jewish integration before it ended in expulsion and mass murder–members of a once glorious community who avoided death only by fleeing the country that so cruelly betrayed them. Five Germanys I Have Known is also a tale of encounters with the men and women who shaped Germany’s destiny in the twentieth century or were doomed by the course it took. It tells the story of one man’s triumph and of one land’s resurrection. But it contains a melancholy strain, a memory of all that was lost and will never be given the second chance afforded Stern and his German homeland.

University Professor Emeritus and former provost at Columbia University, Stern has been a major figure among historians of modern Germany for many decades. His first monograph, The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961), was an influential study of the cultural roots of Nazism in imperial and Weimar Germany. While examining what he termed German illiberalism and the complex relationship between German and Jewish elites–analyzed in his book Gold and Iron, on Bismarck and his Jewish banker Bleichröder–Stern has also taken part in some major scholarly/political controversies in the Federal Republic in the role of an insider-outsider, starting with the debate in the 1960s and ’70s over Fritz Fischer’s controversial books on Germany’s role in the outbreak of World War I and the continuities between German imperial and Nazi policies.

This status of one who knows Germany inside out, because he was born and raised there, yet is also an outside observer, having spent most of his life studying it in the United States, is particularly complex in Stern’s case. For he is a Jew from a family of converts to Christianity, although he practices neither religion. In one sense, this would seem to make Stern, who is 80 years old, a member of the new globalized humanity–postreligious, cosmopolitan, free of tribal loyalties. In another, more accurate sense, Stern embodies the tragedy of his generation of assimilated Jews, who were forced back into the identity they imagined they had escaped or transcended, as they were expelled from the nation they had so fervently adopted. It was under duress that Stern became a patriotic American and a Jew (without ever reconverting). And he chose an extra-European identity, tinged with a strong but highly ambivalent connection to Germany.

Here is one irony: In his recent and contentious autobiography, Peeling the Onion, celebrated German author Günter Grass not only admitted that he had served in the Waffen SS but added, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that by the time he had joined Himmler’s Black Corps, it was so infused with volunteers from all lands of the Continent that it virtually had become a European army. Thus Grass became a European by joining the most notorious murder squad of the twentieth century. Conversely, Stern became a European with his last-minute escape from Germany, merely a few weeks before Kristallnacht finally shattered the illusions of even the most ardent German-Jewish patriots.

In Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the narrator famously fails to be born until the end of the novel. Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known contains a great deal about his life, much of it intriguing, especially for those interested in German-American relations and the vicissitudes of academic life. But the first 130 pages of the book are a real gem, even if many of the incidents recounted predate the author’s birth. While researching his book, Stern discovered a trove of letters and other documents belonging to family members. Although he devoted much of his scholarly career to writing about imperial Germany, Stern never used his family’s records for this purpose. As it turns out, the story of his ancestors is in many ways a microcosm of the universe he had always tried to reconstruct. And because it provides such an intimate, detailed and multifaceted portrait, it adds immeasurably to our understanding of those generations of rapidly assimilating Jews before and after the Great War.

Stern, who was born in 1926, came from a family of doctors and converts. But while he was baptized at birth and raised as a Christian, his account makes it clear that his family’s social circle consisted mainly of Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. The Sterns and their friends were ambitious professionally and deeply immersed in bourgeois German culture; their milieu stood outside both its Jewish origins and its Gentile environment, forming, at least temporarily, a group unto itself. This could have been only a moment of transition; things might have looked very different had the Nazis not arrived on the scene. But arrive they did, and as Stern demonstrates in minute and moving detail, they hardly landed from the moon. Rather, the Nazis were part and parcel of society, and certainly of his hometown Breslau (now Wroclaw), where they were more heavily represented than in the country at large.

Stern’s father fought as a young man in World War I. Passionately dedicated to the Kaiser’s cause at the beginning of the war, Rudolf Stern rose to the rank of officer, barred to Jews before the war. By the time he returned from the front, he was a decorated but disillusioned veteran, embittered by the useless sacrifice, the false hopes. As anti-Semitism spread in the Weimar Republic, Stern’s father prospered in medicine but could not avoid exposure to the malignant transformation of society. Stern recounts an especially telling episode in which his father “witnessed a bizarre prelude to what was to come: In the medical auditorium in Breslau, while the case of a psychotic patient was being demonstrated, the patient suddenly began a nationalistic harangue full of violent outbursts against Jews and other criminals–and the assembled students and some of the doctors began applauding.”

Following the Nazi seizure of state power in 1933, Stern’s parents immediately began seeking options for emigration. And yet, despite many trips outside Germany and several offers, they remained in the country and city they loved almost until the last possible moment. In this too they resembled many of their generation. As Stern writes,

I have often wondered why my parents reached their decision so dangerously late. They had been among the first to recognize the need to emigrate, in the spring of 1933…. Inwardly my parents may have been torn, and the disappointments [with failed attempts to find positions elsewhere] may have had their depressing effect. It is desperately hard to leave all that is familiar to you for something so uncertain as to start a new life, penniless, in an utterly foreign country and language.

This is an important insight. When we blame those who did not leave despite “the writing on the wall,” we refuse to consider how difficult it was to uproot oneself, and how unknown the future was, both in Germany and in other lands. For children like Stern, this was another matter. He was increasingly eager to leave behind all the hatred and prejudice and humiliation. In class, his math teacher, Herr Müth, presented the students with the following problem: “If three Jews robbed a bank, and each got a part of the loot proportionate to their ages…how much would each get?” To Stern, it was clear that he had no place in Germany and that his prospects lay elsewhere.

Yet Stern never entirely left Germany, which he continued to revisit in his writing and in his professional life. Indeed, he drew increasingly on those early years in the land he had left with much anger and bitterness. As he explains, his family’s “narrow escape” made it possible for him to preserve a space for other, less hostile feelings: “A mere six weeks more in Germany,” he writes, “and this [the November 1938 pogrom] could, this would, have happened to us. And if I had seen my father mistreated and then carried off, if I had lived through weeks or months of uncertainty and of my mother’s desperate efforts to obtain his release, if I had found him a changed person, physically abused and psychically humiliated–had I lived through that experience, it would have poisoned me forever against all things German, inured me against contacts with any subsequent Germany.”

This thought seems to have remained with Stern throughout the intervening years. In 1991, when he visited the Buchenwald concentration camp, to which his father would have been taken had they still been in Germany during Kristallnacht, he conceded that if his father “had had to endure this horror, my own life vis-à-vis the German past would have been unalterably different.” From this perspective, Stern seems to have contained within himself two options, two attitudes: one that he chose and one that he might have chosen. Yet the attitude he chose, that of opening up to Germany after the war–indeed, of being the scholarly representative of the United States in Germany and the scholarly representative of Germany in the United States par excellence–was, as he repeatedly admits, a mere coincidence, the product of circumstances that whisked him away from the horror moments before it struck.

Stern’s luck engendered ambivalence, one that is multiplied by the ambivalence of his identity. For here too, what he is and how he sees himself are both a product of choice and of circumstances entirely out of his control. In a moment of introspection he writes: “The thought that Hitler had made me a Jew, annulling the commitments my grandparents had made to Christianity, seemed intolerable, even as I realized that it had been National Socialism that had made me feel my Jewish kinship…. As I write this…I have not a scintilla of doubt that I am an American and a Jew.” But in December 1939, when his grandmother, who had remained Jewish but whom he calls “the most genuinely ‘Christian’ of my forbears,” died, he writes that he sat with his father for a Jewish funeral service at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. Then he adds: “Christmas was sad and subdued.”

This ambivalence is, of course, not only Stern’s but that of his environment. Upon meeting Pope John Paul II in 1987, Stern remarks on the growing presence of bright Asian students at American universities, adding that “they have taken the place of the Jews.” The Pope, possibly unaware of Stern’s heritage, replies, “Yes, but they [Jews] still control the media and finance.” Mostly, however, it is the other way around. For Stern says that while he sometimes felt “embarrassed, even uncomfortable, about belonging to the minority of Jews whose families had converted,” he “was not attuned to organized religion of any kind, so I never thought of ‘unconverting.'” He concludes, “In any case, most people assumed I was Jewish: why else would my family have fled Germany? Oddly, in both postwar Germany and the United States, people didn’t realize there was a category of ‘Jewish’ Christians.” And while he writes that he “encountered subterranean anti-Semitism in America,” Stern insists that “the occasional taunt made by American Jews about my having been born into a converted family hurt more.”

Possibly, however, what hurt Stern most were the responses in some of the German media to his speech at the German Bundestag in 1987, a mere two years before the fall of the Berlin wall. Stern had suggested that the workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1953 was not in support of reunification but in demand for a better life within the existing Socialist state; he also noted that an undivided (in other words, united) Germany had brought immense suffering to Germans and to the rest of the world. What appalled Stern was that both supporters and detractors of his speech referred to him repeatedly as an American historian, a refugee from Germany and a Jew, suggesting perhaps “how unassimilable the question of Jewishness remained.”

Stern ends his book on an optimistic note. Despite all the pains of German reunification, he believes that his first homeland has been given a second chance, and he clearly hopes that it will make the most of this opportunity. He has also found his own second chance in a second and very happy marriage. But one must wonder whether this impressively sunny view of the future from a man whose life spans much of a century of war and destruction conceals a darker, more pessimistic, melancholy streak. For the milieu from which Stern came, that generation full of hope and promise of Jews both baptized and not, was totally eradicated. Many were killed by the Nazis. Of those who escaped, many of the older ones lived half-lives, having left all that they loved behind and been compelled to rebuild from scratch, always missing the world that spat them out and never entirely recovering from the betrayal. Among the younger generation that includes Stern, this ambivalence seems only to have grown over the years. One could say, as he proposes, that it made for a more European or cosmopolitan outlook, and it surely did. But it also left a festering if not always acknowledged wound, a desire to be accepted by those who will never see you as their own, and a certain alienation from those who had taken you in. And this sounds remarkably like the Jews of Germany at the turn of the previous century.