Stanley Hoffmann - courtesy Harvard University's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies
Stanley Hoffmann (Photo courtesy of Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies)

Stanley Hoffmann, who died on Sept. 13 2015, at age 86, after a long illness, possessed a smile of great warmth, strength and charm. It evoked the Continental European he was: French in culture, middle European in background, with a mixture of American thrown in. He was greatly admired for his erudition, intellect, breadth, generosity of spirit, and he supported generations of students. He was a brilliant lecturer, prolific writer, wide ranging public intellectual and influential academic in the field of international and comparative politics, He rose to the very top of the Harvard system as University Professor having been for many years C. Douglas Dillon Professor of French Civilization, a title he acquired not long after I met him as a new graduate student in 1963.

At Harvard, where he taught from the 1950s on, Hoffmann brought into being the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES), the most important American institution of its kind. The money came from the inspired efforts of Guido Goldman. The intellectual stature came from the breadth of the Harvard faculty, but notably Hoffmann, Henry Kissinger and Lawrence Wylie, who had co-taught a seminar on Europe in the 1960s which led to the creation of CES. The actual institutionalization of the center came from Hoffmann, who made a vital decision from the first days in 1969: The money would go to support the young — the assistant professors, the graduate students, and undergraduates — and not as usually happened at Harvard and elsewhere, to the senior faculty. This novel innovation structured the atmosphere of the CES – bottom up effervescence. CES was permeated by study groups of all kinds reflecting the intellectual agenda of the late ’60s and the ’70s : state and capitalism, labor history, comparative capitalism, political economy in international and domestic politics. These study groups and seminars were mostly run by the young, with modest budgets. By no means did all of their activities reflect Hoffmann’s intellectual priorities, and in some dimensions they actually challenged him. But Hoffmann encouraged it hugely. He enjoyed the energy, the debates, the activity, the bustle, as people came from all of the many colleges around Boston and greater New England, and from Europe and beyond. The small building at Bryant Street burst at the seams. Hoffmann wanted intellectual pluralism and discussion, and he presided over all this with his so middle-European warmth and smile.

A brilliant lecturer, more comfortable perhaps before an auditorium of 1,000 people than in a seminar of 10, as he was in some ways a shy and private person, Hoffmann was famous for two courses: “French Politics and Society” and “On War.” Thus he straddled the nominal divide in political science between comparative and international politics. On France, Hoffmann taught an account shaped by history and ideas which structured the lines of the quarrel spanning two centuries over how the revolution would shape France’s strategy of modernization and insertion into the world of interstate rivalries. Linking society and the state were “transmission belts.” The state, by which he meant largely an autonomous civil service, played a big role in Hoffmann’s account. Hoffmann taught during a period of vigorous argumentation in the social sciences about “the state;” his view focused on bureaucrats and political leaders, such as de Gaulle. Contrary to many in those days, he did not like much the efforts to locate state autonomy in considerations of political sociology or political economy.

Understanding France, for Hoffmann, meant knowing French culture: Hoffmann encouraged students to watch the French films shown in Wylie’s class, and his political science class assigned novels. It was a stimulating time for Americans seeking exposure to the world outside. Julia Child could be seen from our offices as she walked from her home on Irving Street, past the center on Bryant Street to the Savenor butcher store on Kirkland Avenue, at the time when her book and soon her PBS films were making her famous, and CES had its Friday lunches whose recipes became Corky White’s “Cooking for Crowds.”

Hoffmann’s “War” course stressed “historical sociology”: the comparative understanding of different historical episodes in the interaction of states. Here Hoffmann drew on the work of his French mentor Raymond Aron. Hoffmann’s essays on theories of international relations were read by everyone because they so crisply and clearly laid out the analytic issues being argued. It was how you prepared for the exams and located what you wanted to say in your dissertation. Hoffmann engaged in debates on theories of international politics but as a critic. He did not like the rise of the scientific side of political science. He was brilliant at dissecting the flaws of the theories, but did not construct his own in a self conscious way. There was little grand theory, or Rube Goldberg machine to organize and to understand the world. There is no Hoffmann Theory or Hoffmann École. The comparative historical treatment he preferred was being pushed aside by more deductive ways of thinking and by quantitative tests. The self conscious formalism of hypothesis testing were not appealing to him. On any given topic he wrote trenchant analysis, but on “ theory building” or concept building, he had few “tag lines” associated with his name. What you did learn from Hoffmann was how to connect complex constructions of variables: with Aron, he saw interactions, of ideas, interests, institutions and leadership. You had to learn how these worked in specific situations and that could not be formulaic. Teaching Hoffmann resembles teaching de Tocqueville: deep structure of relationships, but not simple formulas.

As I was a course assistant in both of Hoffmann’s courses, as well as Kissinger’s course on international relations, thinking about a historical France in an international context surely led me down the path toward what became the “2nd Image Reversed,” my essay on the inextricable interaction of domestic and international politics, the influence of each on the other. Watching the Communist Party in France, for example, seemed to involve both an internal quarrel over the essential nature of France and an external quarrel about the essential nature of threats to French security from the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The two domains interacted and intersected completely. It’s not that I discussed these interactions with Hoffmann in a theoretical way, but listening to him talk and lecture about the world influenced me and everyone else.

Hoffmann’s influence on students came in large part from the vibrancy of his intellect mixed with encouragement. He talked, he wrote, he commented, he listened. He gave his students freedom to explore. Too much guidance made no sense to him; how could you learn to think for yourself? Perhaps this was not good for all students, as some drifted without a firmer hand on the tiller, and wrote dense descriptions without Hoffmann’s analytic grip. Huge cohorts of undergraduates admired his lectures, graduate students his encouraging light supervision, junior faculty his friendly words, senior faculty — well, he had mixed relations with them as he often did not restrain his sharp barbs toward them in the way he did with the young.

As a public intellectual, Hoffmann’s reknown came from prolific writing in the intelligentsia’s journals: the New York Review of Books, Daedalus, the New Republic. He wrote trenchant critiques of U.S. foreign policy. The war in Vietnam seemed a mis-application of U.S. power, and he broke with an old fellow European immigrant scholar, Kissinger, over that war. He found himself explaining the United States to France and Europe and France to Americans. For a long time, he found himself stimulated by his role as the “go-between,” but it wore thin eventually. In the Bush II years, he became despondent: the “unnecessary” intervention in Iraq, the overuse of U.S. power, the lack of caution and care, the lack of statesmanship, showed poor leadership, poor use of the great resources available to the United States.

Politics, for Hoffmann, was about leadership navigating through a myriad of variables. Having barely escaped the Holocaust, and lost friends to it in France, Hoffmann experienced the chaos of mid-century Europe personally. He disliked fascism and communism both. Hearing strident Marxism in post-war France left him deeply averse to explanations based on economic interests, which he saw as a kind of mechanical determinism (“I see no ‘one to one’ correspondence of policy with economic interests,” he said often), especially when they sought to explain the behavior of autonomous state bureaucrats.

If today you call the Center for European Studies, Hoffmann’s very distinctive European voice tells you how to find your party. The voice evocatively and amazingly reminds one of a remarkable person, and a towering intellect, a man who influenced so many people, who left so many positive memories. Many of us hope they keep that recording forever. It marks so well the institution he built and the generations of people he influenced.