In Memoriam: Stanley Hoffmann, 1928–2015

September 15, 2015

Stanley Hoffmann, WCFIA Faculty Associate and Harvard scholar of international relations and French politics, dies at 86.

Photo of Stanley Hoffmann

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs mourns the loss of Stanley Hoffmann, a Faculty Associate, who died in his sleep at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 13, 2015. He was eighty-six and is survived by his wife, Inge Schneier Hoffmann.

Hoffmann, the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor emeritus at Harvard, inspired student learning in French and European politics and international relations for more than half a century.

He was chairman of Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) from its creation in 1969 until 1995 and it remains one of his enduring legacies.

Within hours of his passing, colleagues began offering tributes.

“Stanley was a towering intellectual figure,” said Joseph S. Nye, Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor, and former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School.

He said Hoffmann was a major presence at the Weatherhead Center, where he offered a strong European perspective. “He certainly had a strong effect on people at the Center and his graduate students,” said Nye, who met Hoffmann in 1960.

Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard, called Hoffmann “one of the great professors of the second half of the twentieth century.” He met him for the first time forty years ago at a summer program in Avignon, France. Sandel had just graduated from college, and Hoffmann was teaching a course on French civilization.

“Renowned scholar of international affairs, Stanley was above all, in his heart and soul, a teacher—one of the most devoted and influential teachers in Harvard's modern history. Having fled the Nazis as a child, Stanley challenged generations of Harvard students to lift their gaze to grasp the wider world, and to make it a more just, more generous place,” said Sandel. 

Hoffmann was born on November 27, 1928, in Vienna. His mother took him to Nice a year later after she had separated from his father, an American who returned to the United States. In 1936, after they had moved back to a suburb of Vienna, Hoffmann, who was Austrian by birth and partly Jewish by heritage, was forced back to France by the German invasion.

The war deeply influenced his scholarly pursuits. He taught at the Institut d’Études Politiques (Sciences Po) from which he graduated in 1948, and at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. 

In 1955 he became an instructor in the Department of Government at Harvard. He received tenure in 1959 and taught French intellectual and political history, American foreign policy, post-World War II European history, the sociology of war, international politics, ethics and world affairs, modern political ideologies, and the development of the modern state.

In several publications, including The New York Times, Hoffmann was noted for his passionate engagement with questions that grew out of his early experiences in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. 

“It wasn’t I who chose to study world politics,” Hoffmann wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1993. “World politics forced themselves on me at a very early age.”

In The New Republic, Art Goldhammer, a faculty associate at CES, wrote that, at the Center, Hoffmann created 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.”

During his tenure as director of CES, Hoffmann created a thriving intellectual atmosphere, said Charles S. Maier, the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard. From 1994–2001, following Hoffmann, Maier served as director of CES.

“Stanley let people bring ideas to the table. He was not at all hierarchal. He didn’t care what rank you were. He liked intelligence,” said Maier. “He encouraged everyone’s intellectual efforts as a cooperative exercise.”

What’s more, said Maier, Hoffmann insisted on depth of thought. “He hated the term ‘take away.’ He always said policy requires complex choices. He taught complexity. He took you seriously as a student.”

His skills as a teacher and critic were exemplary, said Peter Hall, the Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies, a faculty associate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and co-director of the Program on Successful Societies for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Hall met Hoffmann in 1977, and he co-taught with him at Harvard for the better part of a decade.

“In some ways, Stanley was intensely politically engaged, that is to say, he cared about political outcomes,” said Hall.

“As a critic, however, he always had an ironic distance from politics, which made him a highly perceptive critic of American foreign policy and French politics. And he had mischievous good humor that came through in his lectures.”

Anne Sa’adah, professor of government and the Joel Parker Professor of Law and Political Science at Dartmouth College, said she walked into Hoffmann’s course on French politics as a first-year student at Harvard, and it was intellectually transformative.

“I was a freshman. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to bother full professors,” she said with a laugh. “He was extraordinarily supportive. I experienced Harvard not as an impersonal place but as accessible. His teaching defined my undergraduate experience.”

She said that his teaching has changed innumerable students for the better, yes, but also society as a whole.

“Friends and colleagues often contrasted Stanley's preference for distancing himself from power to Henry Kissinger's embrace of power. But Stanley saw his teaching and scholarship as civic acts,” she said.

“A long time ago, at a moment when I expressed misgivings about pursuing an academic career, he said simply, ‘You can’t change the world unless you first understand it.’”

“He knew the difference between a simple argument and a clear one. In his lectures, in his writing, and in conversation, he always raised the level of debate, using his gift for clarity to insist that others take account of complexity,” said Sa’adah.

Harvard is an ideal place to explore global issues, Hoffmann told The Harvard Crimson in 1967. “The University is truly a community here,” he said. “Faculty, students and administrators are continually interacting, and this makes Harvard a fascinating place….”

Many colleagues in the Harvard community knew Hoffmann as more than a brilliant thinker. He was also described as just plain fun.

“He’s always portrayed as very serious but Stanley loved to laugh. He had a wonderful sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye. That’s a dimension that people don’t always capture,” said Nye.

Hoffmann was a frequent contributor to journals like Foreign Policy, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, in whose pages he articulated his concerns about American foreign policy.

A list of his publications includes: Decline or Renewal? France Since the 30's (1974); Primacy or World Order: American Foreign Policy since the Cold War (1978); Duties Beyond Borders (1981); Janus and Minerva (1986); The European Sisyphus (1995); The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention (1997); World Disorders (1998); and Gulliver Unbound (2004). He is co-author of The Mitterrand Experiment (1987); The New European Community (1991); and After the Cold War (1993). His Tanner Lectures on Human Values of 1993, on the French nation and nationalism, were published in 1994. He was working on a book on ethics and international affairs.

“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,” wrote Goldhammer in The New Republic. “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.”

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Photo Caption

Stanley Hoffmann, 1928–2015. Photo credit: Kriss Snibbe/Harvard News Office