Metro

Stanley Hoffmann, 86; world politics professor at Harvard

Stanley Hoffmann’s interest in studying war came from growing up in “that long, long nightmare” that was WWII.
Kris Snibbe/Harvard University
Stanley Hoffmann’s interest in studying war came from growing up in “that long, long nightmare” that was WWII.

A teenager in France in the early 1940s, Stanley Hoffmann spent World War II with his mother “planning how to escape through the roof of our home, if an unwelcome knock came on the door,” he said in a 1967 interview with The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper.

The experience was formative for Mr. Hoffmann, who was part Jewish. His scholarly interest in studying war, he told The Crimson, was inspired by “that long, long nightmare from which one never knew if one was to emerge alive.”

He survived to produce 19 books and scores of articles and essays, principally for the New York Review of Books, and also for other publications including the Globe. Born in Vienna, he became a citizen first of France and then of the United States. While teaching at Harvard for nearly six decades, he wrote extensively about the two nations he had called home and expansively about international affairs.

Advertisement

“I’ve been a teacher first, and a writer second,” he told Harvard magazine for a 2007 profile. “I like writing, but it’s a lonely job and I am happier in front of a classroom than a blank page. I need the input and the stimulation that the students provide. They are fun. I am not ready to give up yet — or rather, I am ready, each time I am away from my students. But when I am with them, I want to go on forever.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Mr. Hoffmann, the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser university professor emeritus, was 86 when he died in Cambridge Sept. 13. Harvard announced his death and did not specify a cause.

Peter A. Hall, the Krupp Foundation professor of European studies at Harvard, formerly was a student of Mr. Hoffmann’s, and said that “as a scholar, he had deep insight into the dilemmas of domestic and international politics, and a remarkable capacity for conveying all of those insights with absolute clarity.”

Charles Maier, the Leverett Saltonstall professor of history at Harvard, had taken two courses from Mr. Hoffmann, who he said was “a brilliant lecturer. He didn’t seem to have notes, but everything was beautifully organized.”

He had “a type of intellectual grace that people recognized and it had a great impact,” Maier said, adding that Mr. Hoffmann “taught complexity. If you said to Stanley, ‘What’s the bottom line? What’s the takeaway?’ He would say, ‘You can’t think of the political world that way.’ He resisted that, and rightly so.”

Advertisement

Mr. Hoffmann also resisted becoming a politician’s go-to intellectual, telling Harvard magazine that “when I’m in Washington, I want to take the next plane out of there.”

“You’re a better foreign policy adviser if you’re an effective simplifier,” Hall said. “Stanley refused to see the world in simple terms.”

Instead, Mr. Hoffmann guided generations of Harvard students through the tumultuous rapids of world politics, down an intellectual river that seemed to have endless churning tributaries.

“His lectures took up grand issues of great importance to politics, which he then parsed, much as one might parse a French sentence into their component parts,” Hall said. “His emphasis was often on the paradoxes that one found in American foreign policy or French politics or European politics. His lectures were always intriguing because he could always see and explain both sides of an issue, in some sense leaving it to the students to decide where they would come down themselves on the big questions of the day.”

Though serious in teaching and scholarship, Hall added, “Stanley had a fine sense of the ironies of life and politics, and an impish good humor about them that he never could entirely repress.”

Advertisement

Born in 1928, Mr. Hoffmann moved to France with his Austrian mother after she and his American father separated. Seeking better schools when he was a boy, she relocated from Nice to Paris, which he told Harvard magazine “was like moving from paradise to purgatory: the sky was gray, there was no sea, and Hitler was beginning to spread his wings.” He had been baptized a Protestant, but the German Army classified his mother’s family as Jewish, and they returned south to escape the Nazis. Though they lacked French citizenship during the war, “I had one great advantage: I was a very good student,” he recalled. “The French were willing to forgive anybody anything if one was a good student and spoke good French.”

In 1948, he graduated at the top of his class at Institut d’Etudes Politiques. After starting a doctoral program in law, he left for Harvard in 1951 to study for a master’s in government. Mr. Hoffmann returned to France to complete his degree and to fulfill his military service out of “sheer boredom,” he told Harvard magazine, but returned to Harvard in 1955 as an instructor in the government department and received tenure just four years later.

Mr. Hoffmann was the C. Douglas Dillon professor of the civilization of France before he was named a university professor, and had been on the faculty 58 years when he retired in 2013. During that time he helped found the social studies concentration in 1960.

Beginning in 1969, he spent a quarter century as the founding chairman of what is now the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.

US foreign policy, Mr. Hoffman once argued, suffers from “the sin of excessive benevolence: We will make people happy whether they want it or not.”

In the Harvard magazine interview, he added: “The assumption that ‘people everywhere are all alike’ is something you have to get out of your system. In old age, I am more and more convinced that people are intensely different from country to country. Not everyone is motivated by the same things. Americans mean well, but they don’t understand that acting with all one’s might to do good can be seen as a form of imperialism.”

In March 2003, days before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Mr. Hoffmann wrote in an op-ed piece for the Globe: “The Bush administration believes that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow could bring democracy to Iraq and then spread it to the rest of the Arab world. This is a fantasy. It will be difficult to introduce democracy in a heterogeneous country that has never experienced it.”

Mr. Hoffmann leaves his wife, the former Inge Schneier, whom he married in 1963. They met when he was a teaching fellow for an American foreign policy taught by McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

No information about a memorial service for Mr. Hoffmann was available.

After returning to Harvard for good in 1955, he found Cambridge to be “a wonderful place. I felt I could live here and remain French. It was a cosmopolitan place in which one could function without anyone wondering where your passport was issued,” he told Harvard magazine, adding: “I am French, and a citizen of Harvard.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.