Campus & Community

Celebrating the life and career of Stanley Hoffmann

5 min read

One could measure Stanley Hoffmann’s achievements in book publications (more than 18), academic titles (University Professor, chair, co-founder of the Center for European Studies) or honors (Commandeur in the French Legion of Honor, to name one). But the broad smiles and teary eyes at the Center for European Studies last Friday (Dec. 5) indicated the true caliber of this man, a profound influence on five generations of students, colleagues, and friends.

Hoffmann, Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor, has been teaching at Harvard since 1955. The eminent professor turned 80 on Nov. 27, and to honor him the Center for European Studies (CES) hosted a conference sponsored by the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, the Department of Government, and the Office of the Provost, and titled “Celebrating Stanley Hoffmann: American Foreign Policy, French Politics and the Dilemmas of International Relations.” The afternoon event drew a large, international crowd that included many of Hoffmann’s former students and numerous Harvard faculty members.

“We’re here because of Stanley, this remarkable man — scholar, professor, public intellectual — but more than that, he has been a teacher, a friend, and a colleague,” said David Blackbourn, Coolidge Professor of History and director of CES, as he opened the conference.

The celebration included two discussion panels inspired by Hoffmann’s writings, as well as a third panel dedicated to Hoffmann himself and his role as a scholar, teacher, and friend.

During the first panel, titled “Issues in International Relations,” speakers discussed the idea of justice in war, the style of U.S. foreign policy, and the political and strategic dimensions of war. All of the topics were presented within the framework of Hoffmann’s scholarship.

The second panel, “Dilemmas of Politics in France and Europe,” focused on the political and social challenges that France has faced in the modern era, again through the lens of Hoffmann’s writings. The panelists addressed the fragmented party system, the political style of current president Nicolas Sarkozy, and politics during the Vichy era of World War II.

Though the first two panels focused on challenging political questions, they were peppered with affectionate and lighthearted anecdotes about Hoffmann. Speakers teased Hoffmann about his penchant for tripartite arguments, praised him for his commitment to morality, and admired the way he successfully wove personal experience into his political analyses.

In the third panel, titled “Stanley Hoffmann: Scholar, Teacher, Friend,” four of Hoffmann’s former students and colleagues had the opportunity to further expound on his remarkable career and broad influence. Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute, spoke about Hoffmann’s unique relationship with her teenaged children, who have gotten to know him over dinners at the Richardson home. Though teenagers can be devastating in their critique of adults, she said, her children admire Hoffmann for his “sense of empathy, irreverence, sense of fun, and complete lack of regard for the rules.”

“Like them,” she said, “he is happy to start with dessert.”

Several of the speakers had, in their undergraduate years, enrolled in Hoffmann’s famed yearlong course Social Sciences 112. Known simply as “War,” the course had a remarkable impact, which many speakers still felt decades later.

Michael Smith, Thomas C. Sorenson Professor of Political and Social Thought and associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, recalled how Hoffmann’s course encouraged students to “imagine an intellectual world where critique is tempered by understanding.” He also poked fun at Hoffmann’s tendency to create lengthy syllabi.

“Prodigious reading assignments were a trademark of Stanley’s courses,” Smith said. “There was always reading to do — a lot of reading to do — and by a quirk of the schedule that year, we had apparently two days to read ‘War and Peace.’”

Gary Bass, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, praised Hoffmann for his kindness and commitment to undergraduate education, which he joked was rewarded by “occasional gifts of cashmere socks … and several hundred requests for letters of recommendation.” On a more serious note, Bass lauded Hoffmann’s efforts to develop socially conscious students.

“Stanley demanded that we think of ourselves as being part of a wider society … that as idyllic and privileged as Harvard was, and as lucky and privileged as we were to be there … it was incumbent upon us to do something to help out,” he said.

At the end of the conference, Hoffmann was given the opportunity to say a few words. With characteristic modesty, he started talking about other people — a student sitting in the audience, whose manuscript Hoffmann had recently read, the teachers and historians who had inspired him as a young scholar.

Finally, though, Hoffmann addressed his own career.

“I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing,” he said simply. “One of the nice things about Harvard is you can literally do what you like.”

His words were met with a standing ovation — indicating that Harvard has enjoyed what Hoffmann’s been doing, too.