Remembering Stanley

I always pictured him, strangely enough, as a frog. Not a silly frog in any way, or a pre-prince-like frog, but the kind of wise frog who would populate the best kind of fairy tales if fairy tales ever involved professors who strove to explain the world.

For Stanley, that world had begun in chaos. Like many of the best minds of his generation, he was a child of the Holocaust and World War II, born in 1928 to a quickly-single mother who moved with him from Vienna to France in the early 1930s. He spent the war in the relative quiet of Languedoc, and then in a village outside of Nice. When I saw him last, about a year before his death, he told me, over and over, about Paul, another Jewish boy in his village, who had become his best friend. Every day they would trudge up the hill to a school that had welcomed them, a school run by a hard-nosed teacher who would be executed after the war for his German sympathies. "We had been there before the war," he remembered. "Such a beautiful village." Stanley lived with his mother on the third floor of a modest dwelling. Paul lived on the sixth floor of a bigger house, with his father, brother, and crippled mother. One day, as they were coming home, the Gestapo grabbed Paul from the street because "he looked too Jewish." His mother, watching his arrival from six stories up, ran down to the street to be with him. "Because she didn't want him to be taken alone." They killed her, Stanley recalled bluntly, the next day. "She was a cripple, remember. And the Nazis didn't like cripples." They killed Paul shortly thereafter. Stanley tells me that he has been back to the village three times since the war; seen his former neighbors and Paul's father. "Such beautiful people," he sighs. "Such a beautiful village."

When Stanley told me that story, over late-afternoon cassoulet and kirs, he was already mired in the dementia that would sadly claim his life in November of 2015. But before then, between his years of horror as a child and his painful, eventual decline, Stanley Hoffmann was one of the pre-eminent political scientists in the world, esteemed not only for the brilliance of his insights, but for the heart and humanity behind them as well. Unlike his close colleagues in Harvard University's Government Department, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Stanley scorned the notion of politics as an intellectual game, a cold-hearted balancing of power defined by might and interest. Politics to him, instead, was a field of human struggle, an eternal tug-of-war between humanity's kinder and baser instincts; between the will to power and the desire to heal. "There are two main ideas I take from Camus," he stated in an interview. "One, that there is no such thing as linear progress: the rock has a tendency to roll back down the hill again, and nothing is ever finally accomplished. Second, one has to keep trying anyhow; that the rock will roll down again shouldn't prevent you from trying to push it back up." Legend has it that when several students complained that he had assigned all of Tolstoy's War and Peace as part of the week's assigned reading for his famous course on War, Stanley parried back, "and which part of War and Peace summarizes its themes?" There were no further complaints.

In 1969, Harvard, like many American campuses, was roiling in the early waves of campus activism and unrest, and Stanley was an early and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Yet, when the protests became heated, his instinct lay, not in retreating into theory or ideology, but in protecting what he actually could -- the books, the students, and the institution itself. During a particularly tense confrontation between students and administrators, Stanley was one of the speakers who fought for compromise. "This is the only university we've got," he reminded the crowd. "It can be improved, it should be improved, but it should not be destroyed." There's still a photo of him from those days, wading into the crowd of students -- not to deliver buzzwords of support, or to urge good behavior -- but to hear them, and talk to them, and learn. Stanley adored his students -- as witnessed by the legions of us who trooped to Cambridge for his memorial in December -- and he made friends with countless numbers of them over his nearly six decades of teaching. But he never lost sight of his primary relationship -- to help these students parse through a world marked equally by inexplicable evil and unpredictable hope, and to push that pendulum in the right direction, however and whenever they could.