About Stephane Hessel’s “Time for Outrage!”

Stephane Hessel will be in Cape Town from 4 – 6 November to be part of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

From www.thenation.com

Time for Outrage!

Charles Glass

February 16, 2011 |
This article appeared in the March
7-14, 2011 edition of The Nation.

Charles Glass is the London publisher of this book. © Charles Glass 2011.

Toward the end of 2010, a small book by a 93-year-old man unexpectedly reached
the summit of the bestseller list in France. Indignez-vous! by
Stéphane Hessel sold more than 600,000 copies between October and the end of
December, propelling it above Prix Goncourt–winner Michel Houellebecq’s novel La carte et le territoire
by several hundred thousand copies. Hessel had written other books. His publishers,
the independent Indigène Editions in Montpellier, far from Paris, had produced
other volumes. But none had reached the public in such numbers. The book both
reflected and anticipated the spirit of student demonstrations in France and
Britain, as it did the wave of revolt now challenging dictatorships in the
Middle East.

Hessel’s life would make a novel, although his
story is too hopeful to be told by nihilist Houellebecq. His father, Franz
Hessel, was a German Jewish writer who emigrated to France with his family in
1924, when Stéphane was 7. Franz’s friend Henri-Pierre Roché used him and his
wife, Prussian beauty Helen Grund, as models for Jules and Kate in his 1953
novel Jules et Jim.
This was the enchanting tale of a woman who loved and was loved by two men that
was translated to the screen in 1962 by François Truffaut. Franz Hessel wrote
novels in German and French. His admiration for France and French literature
led him to produce, with the great German Jewish literary critic Walter
Benjamin, the first German translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.
Stéphane grew up in a literary milieu that the German invasion of France
shattered in 1940. After studying at the University of Paris’s prestigious
École Normale Supérieure, he served in the French Army during the Battle of
France and, like more than a million other French soldiers, became a prisoner
of war. Following his escape from a POW camp, he joined Gen. Charles de Gaulle
and his small band of Free French résistants.
Hessel’s was a rare act of patriotism when most of the French professed loyalty
to Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain and his policy of collaboration with
Germany. The attitude of the majority of Hessel’s military colleagues found
expression in the decision of a French court-martial that sentenced de Gaulle
in absentia to death for treason. Hessel belonged to a tiny minority that was
outraged enough to oppose Pétain’s New Order, which replaced “liberty, equality
and fraternity” with “work, family and nation.”

While Stéphane was working with de Gaulle in
London, Franz Hessel died in France. Stéphane parachuted into occupied France
in advance of the Allied invasion of 1944 to organize Resistance networks. The
Gestapo captured him and subjected him to the baignoire, a form of
torture that would later be called waterboarding. He was transported to
Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, avoiding the gallows only by switching
identities with an inmate who had died. While being transferred to
Bergen-Belsen, he escaped.

Hessel became a diplomat after the war and was
involved, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, in drafting the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Awards and honors followed, the most
recent of which are the Council of Europe’s North-South Prize in 2004, the rank
of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 2006 and the 2008 UNESCO/Bilbao
Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights. Throughout his postwar
life as a diplomat and writer, Hessel has retained the sense of indignation
that drove him during the war. This book is a testament to his belief in the
universality of rights, as his defense of Palestinians under Israeli occupation
and of illegal immigrants in France attests. The popularity of this slim but
powerful volume answered the public’s need for a voice to articulate popular
resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income
disparities, banking and political corruption, and victimization of the poor
and immigrants. Hessel had arrived in France when many of the French were decrying
Jewish immigration as the “threat from the East” (about which Joseph Roth wrote
movingly at the time in essays later collected and published in the book The Wandering Jews).
Of course, the real threat from the East was the Nazism that many on the French
right admired as an antidote to what they perceived as the indiscipline of
French society. Their intellectual heirs—echoing the earlier distaste for
foreigners and for the ostensible fecklessness of the working class—hold
positions of power in France today.

Hessel writes in this book, “How lucky I am to be
able to draw on the foundation of my political life: the Resistance and the
National Council of the Resistance’s program from sixty-six years ago.” That
program, declared on March 15, 1944, set out the wartime and, significantly,
postwar goals of the Resistance. Defeating the Nazis and their French
collaborators was only a stage, the combined Resistance declared, on the way to
“a true economic and social democracy.” Hessel rejects the claims that the state
can no longer cover the costs of such a program. It managed to provide that
support immediately after the Liberation, “when Europe lay in ruins.” How could
it not afford to do the same after it became rich? Similarly, in Britain the
state paid for free universal education, including higher education, free
universal medical care and other benefits that improved the health and
well-being of the country’s children immeasurably after a war that left the
nation bankrupt. Now, after half a century of prosperity and the accumulation
of fabulous fortunes, the government says it can no longer pay for the social
rights for which an earlier generation fought and for which it voted
overwhelmingly in 1945. The British coalition government’s cuts in social
benefits, its dramatic increase in the cost of university education and its
transformation of the National Health Service into blocks of private trusts
come in tandem with its absolution of the tax obligations of major corporations
like Vodafone and its public subsidies to private banks. Outrage and
indignation are not inappropriate responses.

Our politicians, guided by corporations and banks
that rob the taxpayer when their business models fail, have revoked rights for
which the anti-Fascists struggled. To erode these gains in France, Britain and
the other countries that fought against the Nazis and Imperial Japan is to
reject the gift of the wartime generation’s legacy. The countries that opposed
the Germany-Italy-Japan Axis called themselves “the united nations” before they
established the organization of that name. Franklin Roosevelt enunciated the
Four Freedoms for which the American people were struggling: freedom of
expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Roosevelt’s ideals found their way into the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights:

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights
have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,
and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech
and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest
aspiration of the common people….

The conscience of Stéphane Hessel was outraged, as
it had been during the war, whenever the postwar world betrayed the Resistance
program and the Universal Declaration. In France he found himself in the
minority, as he had when he joined de Gaulle, who demanded the right of
Algerians to govern themselves. More recently, he has called on Israel to grant
Palestinians the right for which French men and women fought in 1944, for which
Algerians struggled in the 1950s and ’60s and which Israelis claim for
themselves: the right to self-determination and, thus, self-government and
independence. To support those who seek this end, he has endorsed the Boycott,
Divestment and Sanctions movement to sever economic collaboration with Israeli
settlements in the occupied territories, all of which depend on the removal of
indigenous inhabitants and are illegal under international law.

In France today, Hessel calls on the young, many of
whom have already marched through the streets with their inchoate fury at
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “reforms.” They resent the balance Sarkozy is
achieving between benefiting the banks while depriving the unemployed, the old,
students, immigrants and the poor. Hessel’s call for a renewal of the spirit of
the Resistance, albeit a pacific one, resonates in French traditions that
immigrants embrace. It will do the same for youth in Britain and the United
States, whom Hessel calls upon to remember their history and to defend its
highest achievements.

Students at the École Normale invited Hessel to
address them in Paris in January. Popular with young people throughout France,
Hessel was likely to attract a full house. Then the authorities stepped in.
Monique Canto-Sperber, the school’s director, withdrew the invitation and
refused to allow Hessel to give an address. She objected to his insistence that
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applied as much to Palestinians as to
the French. An ultra-Zionist French website, Des Infos, praised Canto-Sperber’s
decision: “There are men and women in this country of intellectual courage.
Mme. Monique Canto-Sperber, director of the École Normale Supérieure, is an
example. She has on the afternoon of 12 January 2011 canceled a scandalous
conference-debate.”

This may be the first time, in an ostensibly free
country, that praise has been applied to the “courage” of canceling a debate.
Such courage was not confined to the censorious director of the school. The
Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France lauded those who
favored suppressing Hessel’s right to speak. They included Minister of Higher
Education Valérie Pécresse, self-styled philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain
Finkielkraut, Claude Cohen-Tanoudji and Arielle Schwab. The administrations at other
colleges succumbed to the pressure and refused to allow Hessel to speak on
their campuses.

Victory for free speech? In the bizarre world of
what passes for philosophical discussion in modern France, to prevent someone
from speaking could be nothing else. Canto-Sperber wrote in her book Moral Disquiet and Human Life,
“Freedom of thought is the first precondition of any thought process.” Her
students are free to think any thought presented to them by the lecturers she
approves. What more freedom does their thought require? The reaction has been
swift. Thousands of people have signed petitions demanding that Hessel be
permitted to speak, and thousands more are reading this book.

In London, on the seventieth anniversary of de
Gaulle’s “Appeal of 18 June” urging the French people to resist, Hessel said,
“I was 23 in 1940, so needless to say that those five years really had a huge
impact on me. This is a war that I experienced in many ways: as a simple
soldier in 1939 and 1940 before the French Army’s defeat, as a trainee in the
Royal Air Force, as a Free French fighter working in the secret services in
London, as a Resistance fighter in France, as a prisoner at the hands of the
Gestapo and then as an inmate in two concentration camps…. Of this long and
arduous adventure, something clearly emerged: the need to give a sense to my
life by defending the values that the Nazis had scorned—which led me to become
a diplomat immediately after the war and to join the United Nations, where I
contributed to writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Hessel’s
polemic echoes de Gaulle’s words of June 1940: “Must hope disappear? Is defeat
final? No!”

The old Resistance fighter is battling those who
would deny him his well-earned platform. Having taken on the Nazis, survived
two concentration camps and kept his mind and spirit intact for ninety-three
years, he should easily defeat Sarkozy’s fonctionnaires
and their apologists. The question before us is, Will we stand up to demand our
own right to be heard?

Editors’ Note:
Stéphane Hessel’s
Indignez-vous! was a publishing sensation on its first
appearance, and since then has provoked a heated debate about social justice,
the power of protest and how to harness our common indignation. Below we have
compiled a selection of links from Europe and elsewhere reacting to the
pamphlet and its reception.

The Guardian,
Political essay by 93-year-old tops Christmas bestseller
list in France
” by Angelique Chrisafis

Other News,
A Call to Outrage” by Ignacio Ramonet

The Independent,
Are we looking for a new message—or a new Messiah?
by John Lichfield

The Independent,
The little red book that swept France” by
John Lichfield

Financial Times,
Indignant? We should be” by Simon Kuper

Gulf News,
Worthy persons of the year” by Joseph A.
Kechichian

Sud-Ouest,
Un magma d’indignation ?” by Jean-Claude Guillebaud

Le Monde,
L’économie financiarisée est le principal ennemi,”
an interview with Hessel

Le Monde,
Pour une non-violence militante” by Indignez-vous!
publishers Jean-Pierre Barou and Sylvie Crossman

The Nation,
Israel’s Choice” by Stéphane Hessel

 

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