You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Stanley Hoffmann Was One of the Great Professors of Our Time

Harvard University

Stanley Hoffmann, the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor emeritus at Harvard, died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this weekend after a long illness. In his 58 years on the Harvard faculty, he introduced hundreds of students to the study of French and European politics and international relations. The historian François Furet called him “one of the great professors of the twentieth century.” Although I was never formally his student, I was proud to call him my mentor and friend.

Born in Vienna to an American father and Austrian mother, he moved with his mother to France in the 1930s. Mother and son joined the mass exodus from Paris in the days preceding the arrival of German troops in June 1940. Though classified a Jew by the Nazis (despite his nonreligious upbringing), he attended school in Nice throughout the war, where his brilliance dazzled his teachers. He then attended the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (SciencesPo) in Paris, where he eventually took his doctorate, but not before a first sojourn at Harvard in 1951, where he joined a group of students of international relations who would leave their mark on the field: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington. There Stanley also met the woman who would become his wife, Inge [Schneier] Hoffmann, a psychologist, with whom he would later interview the statesman he admired above all others, Charles de Gaulle. Their joint portrait of de Gaulle as an “artist of politics” appears in Decline and Renewal, one of his 19 published books.

Stanley returned to Harvard in 1955. In addition to introducing several generations of students to European thought and culture, which he epitomized in his person, he founded what is now the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and was one of the creators of the social studies concentration. In both ventures his goal was to overcome what he saw as the tendency of American higher education to confine students within the straitjackets of the academic disciplines. Stanley was un intellectuel in the authentic French meaning of the term. For him, culture was essential to the understanding of man, and the idea that there could be a science of society or politics held little appeal for him. He placed more faith in literature than in economics or statistics, and therefore, in his legendary course on “War,” he assigned his students Tolstoy’s War and Peace—all of it, not just a single chapter or excerpt—among dozens of other readings. He loved Camus and Rousseau and in his later years, as a university professor free to teach in whatever department he liked, he co-taught courses on both writers.

Another of his favorite writers was Charles de Gaulle, but of course de Gaulle was far more than a writer for Stanley. He was not only an “artist of politics” but a kind of tutelary deity, a symbol of the eternal France that continued to inspire and protect the frightened adolescent in wartime France. Stanley had the greatest of admiration for those French men and women who protected the vulnerable in their midst during the war. Once, when the famous résistante Lucie Aubrac came to Harvard, Stanley embraced her at the end of her talk and thanked her for being one of those teachers who defended as well as taught their wartime pupils. Although he was not an emotionally demonstrative man, there were tears in his eyes on that occasion. And for him de Gaulle was not only “the greatest statesman” of his lifetime but, in a sense, the ultimate protector of France’s schoolchildren, le professeur-en-chef.

This was a romantic view, to be sure, and it was a view of de Gaulle about which he and I differed. But one of the wonderful things about Stanley was how easy he made it to differ with him. In fact, he encouraged it. He even encouraged it in people like me, who knew far less about the subject under discussion than he did. He pretended to learn from debate even as he was teaching. This was one of his secrets as a teacher: He knew that the best way to bring a student to recognize the inadequacy of her thinking was to encourage its full expression. His remarkably gentle corrections then taught you to enlarge your own thought, and even if you continued to disagree with him, he was lavish with his praise of your progress toward greater depth, nuance, and complexity—for him, the touchstones of true understanding. Although English was not his native language, he spoke it impeccably, albeit with an accent that added a certain je ne sais quoi of profundity to even his most superficial remarks.

He was also generous with laughter, another great quality in a teacher. His humor could be wicked. I recall his saying about one very distinguished colleague that “he is almost as brilliant as he thinks he is.” He liked to point out that when a heckler shouted “Death to imbeciles!” to de Gaulle, the general had responded by saying, “Vast program!” And Stanley did indeed often perceive a vast imbecility in the policies of the two countries he loved best and studied most deeply, France and the United States. A firm, unwavering, and courageous opponent of the Vietnam War, he tried to warn his erstwhile mentor McGeorge Bundy (whom he served as a teaching assistant in 1951) and former colleague Henry Kissinger that they were on the path to perdition, while at the same time he tried to prevent student protesters from blundering in their opposition. When rumors circulated around Harvard that protesters were planning to enter Widener Library, he and a small group of other professors stationed themselves inside the building to protect the books. Like de Gaulle, he always looked beyond the combat of the moment when charting the course of his resistance.

The Center for European Studies at Harvard (of which I am an affiliate) remains as one of Stanley’s enduring legacies. It is like an outpost of Europe on the Harvard campus, and each year dozens of visiting scholars from across the Old Continent gather there to imbibe Stanley’s spirit and to perpetuate his belief that the study of politics is not merely an academic pursuit but an existential exercise. “It wasn’t I who chose to study world politics. World politics forced themselves on me at a very early age,” he once wrote. All of Stanley’s work was shaped by his childhood memories of the havoc that the perversion of politics wreaked on the place of his birth. He did his best to prepare his students and readers to recognize and avoid such perversions, while knowing full well, and feeling in the depths of his soul, that even with the best of intentions we humans will all too often find ways to achieve the least desirable of outcomes. The world today could use his counsel, and those of us who had the privilege to know him will miss him dearly.