Harvard's seal sits atop a gate to the athletic fields at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts September 21, 2009.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

Stanley Hoffmann, who died last week at the age of 86, was both a magisterial scholar of the century of total war and a fugitive from it. Born of partial Jewish heritage in Vienna in November 1928, with a haunted childhood in Vichy France, his first political memory was at age five: His beloved mother read in a newspaper about the Nazi assassination of Austria’s Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, turned to her son, and said this was the beginning of the end of Austria and her family. Hoffmann would go on to become a crucial member of an extraordinary generation of American scholars who escaped from Europe’s catastrophe. “It wasn’t I who chose to study world politics,” he wrote many decades later; “world politics forced themselves upon me.”

When France fell in June 1940, Hoffmann and his mother became “two small dots in that incredible and mindless mass of ten million people clogging the roads of France.” He remembered the crush of panicked people, the swirling rumors about German planes strafing the slow-moving refugees, and the maelstrom of cars, vans, trucks, and bicycles. The pair fled south from Paris, not far ahead of the Germans, and wound up in a tiny village in Languedoc. “I was part of a nation of pariahs driven out by a mechanized horde of invaders,” he recalled. As Jews under Nazi racial classifications (although his anticlerical mother had converted from Judaism and he was baptized as a Protestant), they did not dare to return to Paris, and instead wound up broke and alone in Nice, under Vichy rule.

The city was full of informants and goons; the Philippe Pétain regime’s propaganda ranted from the radios; some of his classmates, soaked in the bigotry and tyranny of the period, were terrifying young fanatics. He lived in constant fear. When the Germans occupied Nice in September 1942, his only close friend, the French-born son of Hungarian Jewish exiles, was almost immediately hauled away and never seen again. Hoffmann and his mother fled again, back to Languedoc. He was, he later wrote, permanently scarred by “the discovery of the way in which public affairs take over private lives, in which individual fates are blown around like leaves in a storm once History strikes.”

But all was not darkness. The young Hoffmann was also struck by the kindness of villagers and protective teachers, the proud anti-German spirit of many of the French, and by “the formidable voices of Hope”: the Free French broadcasting on the BBC, the brave souls of the Resistance, and above all his hero, Charles de Gaulle, whose words “always sounded, quite simply and magnificently, right.” After the war, he felt more French than ever, and was proudly naturalized as a French citizen in 1947. Returning to Paris, he launched himself on a dazzling academic career that began as a top student at Sciences Po and ended as a University Professor at Harvard. He would use the best of European education to comprehend the worst of European brutality. 

OLD WORLD TO NEW

Stanley Hoffmann
Stu Rosner
He came to the United States in 1951 as a graduate student in the government department at Harvard, joined the faculty in 1955, and swiftly won tenure in 1959—it was here that he met his future wife Inge Schneier Hoffmann, an accomplished psychologist, as a fellow graduate student. The new world proved a respite from the frustrating rigidities of the old one, and he became a dual citizen in 1960. In 58 years as a professor at Harvard, he helped to found its legendary Center for European Studies (whose phone system has fondly featured his distinctive voice for decades) and became a mainstay of a superb government department.

Hoffmann’s harrowing wartime experiences left him with a lifelong wariness of politics—a skepticism about its ability to deliver salvation or utopia combined with an understanding of the need to shelter individuals from its brutal excesses. He was a sworn enemy of totalitarianism, both on the communist Left and the fascist Right. His friend and mentor Raymond Aron, the great French sociologist and theorist of international relations, taught (as Hoffmann put it) “how to think if one refused all ‘secular religions,’ all philosophies of history that pretend to know the purpose and the march of mankind, that begin by rejecting the world as it is and aim at total revolution.” Embracing that tradition, Hoffmann blamed the Jacobins in revolutionary France for “the involuntary invention of modern totalitarianism.” Rather than dreaming of popular revolts that might bring about a perfect nation or world, Hoffmann instead preferred to think of practical betterment as a task for contemporary descendants of Sisyphus. The rock of political organization, whether national or international, had a stubborn way of tumbling down, but Hoffmann was dedicated to shoving it back upward. The metaphor suited his temperament: plenty of gloom, but never despair.

Surrounded by ambitious colleagues drawn toward Washington—he was recruited to Harvard by McGeorge Bundy and arrived there around the same time as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski—Hoffmann was more repelled than beguiled by power. In 1982, he tartly suggested that Kissinger, now done with office, might turn his talents to writing biographies, which would both “indulge his taste for great men” and be “a service to posterity—one that would not have to be paid by anyone’s blood or tears, as the services of statesmen, however eminent, usually are.” He enjoyed meeting King Hussein of Jordan not because he was a king, but because he turned out to be clever. And while he adored close Harvard friends such as Joseph Nye, Samantha Power, and Anne-Marie Slaughter who went on to serve in government, the friendships were made in Cambridge, before their subsequent career turns.

Instead of making policy, Hoffmann felt a duty to criticize it, speaking not just to fellow scholars and his fortunate students, but also to a wider public. The task of an intellectual, he wrote in 1981, was “to dismantle prejudice, national self-righteousness, and parochial views, patiently and painstakingly, to protest constantly against inequity and violence, which is not very easy; … to be the conscience of national society.” Drawing expansively from political science, history, political theory, international law, sociology, and literature, his own scholarly goal was to bring a minimal morality into the least promising of arenas, the bloody brawl of international relations, which he still saw as defined by the pessimism of Thucydides and the cynicism of Machiavelli.

TWO COUNTRIES, ONE MORALITY 

He advanced this liberal project on three fronts. (Everything, for him, was organized in threes.) First, there was the fate of the French Republic, covered in books such as Le mouvement Poujade (1956) and Decline or Renewal? (1974). While Hoffmann esteemed what de Gaulle called a “certain idea of France,” he was an unsparing observer of the fractious country as it actually was. For him, French liberalism was always threatened by the anti-individualist far Right and the Jacobin far Left. 

Some of his earliest writing was an attempt to understand how a regime as horrific as Vichy France had been possible in such an advanced country. At a time when many French scholars were dodging the dark Vichy past, Hoffmann unflinchingly wrote a 1956 article, “Aspects du régime du Vichy” in the Revue française de science politique, arguing that a “pluralist dictatorship” had emerged in 1940-43 from the ruin of the parliamentary Third Republic, and noting that the evolution of present-day conservative forces in France could not be understood if one ignored Vichy. In the turmoil of 1968, he published a blunt account of French collaborationists, highlighting France’s homegrown fascists and corrupt journalists, all those who felt that Nazi Germany “was the wave of the future and that one’s own political designs could only be carried out by clinging to the policies and by aping the institutions of Hitler’s state.” 

More happily, he also chronicled the labored progress of France’s postwar democracy and relished the writings of Albert Camus, another of his intellectual heroes. Hoffmann’s friend and former student Suzanne Berger, now a professor at MIT, has perceptively argued that the overarching theme of his complex writings on French politics was “the indeterminacy of outcomes in political communities under the strain of external shocks and tremendous internal tensions; the potential for leaders in such situations to create openings through which new transformative solutions emerge.” No leader loomed larger than de Gaulle, for whom Hoffmann retained a lifelong admiration—although not without anxiety about “a man who acts like a whole political class,” as he put it not long after the general became France’s president in 1958. A decade later, he and Inge Hoffmann coauthored a psychological profile of de Gaulle, pronouncing him “a political artist” and “a great politico-religious leader.” Through his work, Hoffmann became a one-man bridge of understanding between France and the United States.

Harvard University's Busch Courtyard in Autumn, 2013.
Rose Lincoln / Harvard Staff Photographer
His second front was the United States, the other great democracy close to his heart and the subject of books such as Gulliver’s Troubles (1968) and Primacy or World Order (1978). He admired the brainpower of diplomats such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan, and praised George H. W. Bush for successfully managing the reunification of Germany, while deploring American passivity in the face of Serb nationalist atrocities in Bosnia. More often, he highlighted the limits on action that even a superpower had to accept. He was an early and passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, trying to awaken Bundy to the calamity in progress. In 1971, he wrote a powerful essay comparing France’s morass in Algeria with the United States’ quagmire in Vietnam, painfully admitting that a Vietnamese communist triumph was the most realistic outcome: “In both cases, a Western state tried to crush a rebellion primarily by military means; but the stake of the struggle was the political control of the native population, and the key weakness of the ‘outside’ power was the absence of any effective and authentic native political force capable of rallying the population against the rebels.” He was horrified by George W. Bush’s self-righteous unilateralism and despondent over the Iraq war, which he lamented in various writings.

And finally, he was perennially seized with the possibility of morality in international relations, which he explored in books such as Duties Beyond Borders (1981) and The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention (1996). He wrote that “the separation of ethics and politics is artificial and nefarious.” As his friend and colleague Robert Keohane insightfully noted, Hoffmann was both a fox on the turbulent empirical realities of international relations and a hedgehog on the need to protect the human rights of the vulnerable.

Hoffmann understood that turning principle into policy was no small task; he often quoted Aron on how states were “cold-blooded monsters.” Worse, in the nuclear age, it was impossible to ask leaders to adhere to the Kantian ideal of doing justice even if the heavens fell, for that had become a realistic possibility. Moreover, as he wrote, “international statecraft is statecraft in the dark. It is often blind statecraft. The statesman’s ethics cannot be a perfect ethics of responsibility, because he does not control what goes on outside, and because he normally does not even understand clearly what goes on outside.” Even so, Hoffmann argued that leaders still had agency and choices, which meant that they had an obligation to consider ethics in making those choices, and he urged states to balance their obligations to their national community and to foreigners and the world at large.

And throughout his long career, he amplified his scholarship with trenchant essays on contemporary global affairs and policy in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, and other outlets, together with countless shorter contributions as Foreign Affairs’ longtime reviewer of books on Europe.

IMP IN A BLACK TURTLENECK

All this might make him sound awfully serious and severe, but in fact he was the opposite. In person, he was warm and wryly funny, exasperated by politicians but devoted to his friends, with a weakness for gossip, movies, Édith Piaf, and crème brûlée. His most characteristic gesture was a bemused shrug. In a lecture once, he mentioned “the liberal vision of international politics as harmonious,” then stopped himself, and said, “Ha!” He zinged Kissinger’s dense early prose as bringing “to mind the heavy, purposeful march of Roman legions.” In an otherwise extravagantly learned classroom disquisition on the origins of World War I, he explained Kaiser Wilhelm II: “He was a jerk.”

Hoffmann loved teaching, which he saw as a mission. Writing was lonely work and he was a sociable guy. Unlike some famous professors disdainful of or impatient with undergraduates, he would happily instruct his pupils for as long as it took; the lines for his office hours were colossal. Although his hefty reading lists were the stuff of Harvard College legend (his “War” syllabus didn’t look so bad until you noticed it included Tolstoy’s War and Peace), he was kindly to the juveniles staggering under the burden. And nobody was expected to toe the party line; a realist among liberals and a liberal among realists, he was too nuanced and aware of life’s complexities to have a school, and would have been horrified at anybody trimming an intellectual sail for him.

The brilliant political theorist Judith Shklar, probably Hoffmann’s closest friend at Harvard until her untimely death in 1992, once wrote that his mentor Aron “was everything an intellectual should be, in Stanley’s view. He was not only a master of political science, but also a very decent man, never petty, always honest, learned, generous to the young, without pretense and with a passion for clear thinking.” She was, of course, describing Hoffmann himself as well. To his many students, whether up close or at a distance, he left behind this wisdom: “As scholars and as citizens working in a field in which violence, deceit, injustice, and oppression are on full display, beware of illusions, but never give up hope—by which I do not mean a faith in progress, only the modest belief that it is not impossible.” 

  • GARY J. BASS is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.
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