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?
Charles Glass is the London publisher of Indignez-vous! Buy it online at Charles Glass Books.