Remembering Peter Hoffmann

Former students pay tribute to the renowned historian
Peter Hoffmann was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a recipient of the Officers’ Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany

On January 6, the McGill community was saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Peter Hoffmann. Hoffmann, the Emeritus William Kingsford Professor of History in the Department of History and Classical Studies, was 92.

Paying tribute to Hoffmann, the Department praised his academic leadership and his scholarship. “Professor Hoffmann has been called ‘the Dean’ of resistance studies for his monumental and seminal research and publications on the German resistance to Hitler.”

The remembrance also spoke of Hoffmann’s dedication to, and popularity with, students. “A dedicated, rigorous and popular undergraduate teacher, he received the Faculty’s undergraduate teaching award, and was sought after just as much as graduate teacher, supervisor and advocate,” it says.

Below are tributes to Hoffmann by three of his former students. They speak of man whose intellect and curiosity were matched only by his caring and compassion.

Remembering “a giant”

Hearing the news that Peter Hoffmann had passed away came as a shock, despite his 92 years. Such a sentiment is almost cliché nowadays, but for all who had the privilege of studying under him as I did, Dr. Hoffmann truly was a giant, not only as a member of the McGill History Department but as a scholar whose lifetime of study shaped the way we look at German history.

To say Professor Hoffmann’s impact upon his field was significant would be an understatement. His works on the German resistance to Hitler remain seminal, fuelled by his unending devotion to making known not only the facts of but especially the motivations behind this movement. So unshakeable was this devotion that he withstood controversy and criticism in his homeland, which has long struggled with the memory and legacy of that terrible time. There are few historians to have achieved the heights of impact and respect that he did in his long career; he was one of the greats.

As one of the fortunate young graduate students, indeed the last, to have worked closely with him in that career, though, my memories naturally focus most strongly on what he meant to me. I approached Dr. Hoffmann to be my doctoral supervisor in 2011 because, in reading his work, I saw the kind of historian that I wanted to emulate: one whose research was meticulous, writing clear and one who remained faithful above all to the evidence, wherever it led.

Over the following years, he patiently mentored me, spending hour after hour helping me to understand, to challenge and to be confident in my own research. I can almost see the familiar, elegant blue handwriting in the margins of this page right now admonishing me gently (as he often had to) to be more concise! Sorry Professor, not this time.

Aside from my own research, I also learned about teaching from Peter Hoffmann while serving for years as his teaching assistant. His classes always filled quickly, and were among the most popular in the department. By all undergraduate logic, though, this shouldn’t have been the case. His classes were not easy, he brooked no nonsense for ‘dog-ate-my-homework’ excuses, and, most important of all, they were always first thing in the morning. Yet full they were, and it soon became clear why: he was firm but always fair, treating his students as mature scholars and expecting corresponding commitment in return. On many occasions I saw firsthand how many students identified with and appreciated being challenged like this and left his classes as more capable and confident thinkers.

One memorable example sticks in my mind: After some less-than-stellar midterm results one day, Dr. Hoffmann announced to one of his classes that as part of their final exam he expected them to draw a map of Europe freehand from memory, including political borders, major cities and rivers. Sitting in the front row, I can still remember the audible gasp and angst-filled silence that followed as students saw their GPAs slipping away.

Week-after-week, though, Dr. Hoffmann would encourage them that with practice they could do it, and, sure enough, I saw many hunched over pad-and-paper in the coffee-shops surrounding McGill doing just that over the following weeks. When the final exam came, the other T.A.’s and I were surprised at some of the atlas-quality results. Dr. Hoffmann, however, was not; he knew what his students could do.

In later years some of these students would recall their “Hoffmann test” to me with fondness, noting with feeling how much they appreciated being pushed and how well the skill had served them since. It was such things, seemingly so small, that made him such a beloved instructor.

Yet, the snapshot-memories I shall cherish with the greatest fondness are of course of Peter Hoffmann the man. Closing my eyes I see him, as always, with his trademark bowtie, sitting amidst the columns of books that went from floor to ceiling in his small office gathering his hand-written notes and green, blue and red overhead transparencies (!) for a lecture.

Likewise, I recall the amused look in his eyes whenever I, the young grad student, would angle towards the elevator when leaving his office. Peter Hoffmann, the then 85-year-old professor, always took the stairs (Indeed, he often walked several kilometres to McGill from home, and sometimes back for lunch!).

Most of all, I can hear the low, chuckling laugh that often followed one of his many stories about the farm where he spent much of his free time, as well as the genuine interest on his face as I told him of my own passions, hopes and goals.

For all of these memories, and the deep and lasting presence which shall be sorely missed around the world amongst his students and admirers, I am grateful to have known him.

– Colin Gilmour, earned a PhD in Modern German History at McGill in 2019.

Pushing students to set higher standards for themselves

At the start of my third year at McGill, I registered for a seminar on Interwar German history taught by Professor Peter Hoffmann. I chose this course just because it fit my schedule, and I certainly did not expect Professor Hoffmann to completely change both my approach to learning and my planned career path.

Professor Hoffmann began the first class by asking our group of around 15 students a series of questions about the First World War. When I raised my hand to confidently answer a question, Professor Hoffmann informed me that my answer was surface-level and mostly incorrect. I was stunned and stayed silent for the rest of the three hours, just listening and trying to repair my wounded confidence. Looking back, that moment was a breakthrough for me – I needed to have my complacency challenged.

Because of Professor Hoffmann, for the first time in my academic career I began to slow down and appreciate the mental struggle that precedes real learning. I found fulfillment in spending hours on the sixth floor of McLennan, finding obscure sources on German history and revising my papers to meet his expectations. Professor Hoffmann expected us to push ourselves as we attempted to comprehensively understand every facet of a historical event and he taught us the importance of humility in the face of difficult history.

He challenged us and we pushed ourselves, but Professor Hoffmann also expected us to work as a community and lean on one another. He frequently implored us to meet after class to study and share notes. Any inclinations toward academic selfishness were squashed quickly in Professor Hoffmann’s seminars, because in order to succeed, we had to work together.

After that first semester, I (as well as several other members of the Fall seminar) eagerly signed up for Professor Hoffmann’s Winter seminar on the German Resistance. Professor Hoffmann jokingly referred to the returning students as the necessary “old dough” mixed in with the fresh ingredients used to make bread. In this course, we continued to practice the rigor and collective spirit that he had drilled into us in the first seminar, bringing the “new dough” into the fold. Together we spent hours trying to understand the actions of resistors in one of the darkest moments of history. We all pushed ourselves to exceed our own expectations and meet his.

Like many of Professor Hoffmann’s students, I found that the standards he had set in his class became the new baseline for my efforts in all my classes. As I studied, I could practically hear his voice in the back of my head if I was considering cutting corners or leaving out important information. To this day if I begin to type the word “importantly,” I laugh to myself and revise.

Professor Hoffmann’s seminars caused me to abandon my half-hearted plans to work in politics and instead pursue a master’s degree in history at McGill, where I was Professor Hoffmann’s graduate student and his teaching assistant.

Professor Hoffmann was not just an uncompromising historian and teacher, he was also a kind and helpful man who spent hours with his students in his office hours to help them better understand the material – or just to visit with them. He clearly enjoyed our company – inviting his seminar students to his home for tea and taking his teaching assistants on a shockingly fast walk for lunch at Schwartz’s. I feel privileged, ten years since I was last in his classroom, to have visited with him before his passing. It will surprise none of his former students to learn that despite his illness, in our last conversation, he was still teaching.

Professor Hoffmann has made an indelible mark on me. He set me on my course to graduate school and ultimately to teaching. He inspired me to expect more of myself and look beyond the grades on my transcript and inwardly question whether there is more I could do to better understand the past. In my classroom today, I try to push my students beyond the simple solutions and help them strive for deeper understanding. Professor Hoffmann’s passing is a great loss. The hundreds of students he impacted will miss him and we are grateful for all he taught us.

– Eliza Wood graduated from McGill with a BA in History and Political Science in 2011 and an MA in History in 2012. She currently teaches at Dawson College in the Humanities Department.

Impactful life lessons

What international treaties were signed between 1871 and 1914? What were all the land battles fought on the Western Front during World War I (in chronological order) and what were their outcomes? What five minutes changed the outcome of the War in the Pacific? Any student of Professor Peter Hoffmann’s World War I and World War II history classes will remember the fact-based questions of his exams and his commitment to rooting his research and teaching in primary source documents. The fact that I can recall some of these exam questions over 15 years later is a testament to the force of his presence and thoroughness of his teaching.

I belong to the band of McGill History students who painstakingly selected their courses around Professor Hoffmann’s teaching schedule. Through good timing, I was able to take his classes on the history of World War I and World War II, his year-long seminar on the German Resistance to National Socialism, and his two individual seminars on German History from 1918-1933 and from 1933-1945: altogether, 18 credits of Hoffmann (the equivalent of a minor at the time).

Initially, I saw his fact-intensive approach to history as a challenge. I liked reciting timelines with precision and viewing history in these concrete terms. What became apparent in our smaller seminars, however, was that these facts simply provided an infrastructure for analysis. The goal was never to stop at a two-dimensional view of history as a timeline or the people as good or bad actors. Rather it was to carefully evaluate each piece of research to gain insight into the complexities of the time – including the personalities, political climate, society, and conflict. He taught us to evaluate all evidence, question our perceptions, and acknowledge – not obscure – the inconsistencies, limitations, and disagreements across sources. By doing so, we could first understand what happened and then, to the extent possible, why.

Beyond the academic rigour he demanded, what made Professor Hoffmann such an impactful teacher was his dedication to his students. Admittedly, it surprised me. In front of a 200+ person classroom at 8 a.m. on a cold, dark morning, Professor Hoffmann is intimidating – he is formally dressed, appears stoic, and delivers an 80-minute lecture of pure content. I have no memory of him ever pausing for a drink or using notes.

But approach him outside of these lectures, and his warmth and genuine interest in his students’ success were at the forefront. During one of our meetings, I was frustrated with the progress of a paper, and he could tell. Without my prompting, he suggested I have a week extension, take a few days off, and return to the sources without driving an agenda. During our small group seminars, he rewarded us with a beaming smile during productive conversations, challenged us with pointed questions and new research, and every so often, added levity with a joke – of course, delivered so dryly that he had to clarify. He invited us into his home, spoke of his family history, introduced us to his wife, Helga, and continued to answer questions long after graduation.

It would be hard to overstate the impact Professor Hoffmann has had on me. Professionally and academically, I continued to study regime changes and the impact on international relations, culminating with a clerkship on an international tribunal. Analytically, he taught me to be exacting and rigorous and not distracted by initial theories. Most of all, through his group seminars, he showed me the value of sharing knowledge and seeing others as teammates and colleagues, not competitors.

To his family, please accept my gratitude and appreciation for everything he did to prepare for classes and support his students; I can only imagine this took many hours during nights and weekends.  I am a better student, lawyer, and teammate because of him.

– Ellen Gilley graduated from McGill in 2010 with a joint Honours in History and Political Science. Today, she is an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts.


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1 year ago

Such beautiful and heartfelt tributes to a beloved teacher, mentor and friend.

Elizabeth Hirst
1 year ago

I had the pleasure of interviewing Prof. Hoffmann many years ago, when I was starting out in my public relations career, for a publication called Research McGill. He revealed that his father had been active in plots by senior military officers to assassinate Hitler – one of the reasons for his deep understanding of and passion for the true history of the Resistance. He was generous with his time explaining his research, and I found myself wishing I were one of his students. I’m sad to hear that we have lost someone like him, but glad he had a long… Read more »