Stanley Hoffmann, R.I.P.
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.”