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France finds a hero in former Nazi prisoner turned bestselling author

Former Nazi prisoner Stéphane Hessel argues that figures like Martin Luther King Jr. prove that hope mixed with an 'unwillingness to compromise on human rights' can defeat oppression.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2011

Stephane Hessel, a former French Resistance spy, Nazi concentration camp survivor, and postwar diplomat is making a splash with a bestselling 30-page book “indignez-vous!” (“Get indignant”) that urges readers to fight the world’s big problems.

Francois Mori/AP

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Paris

Like a minor prophet coming out of the hills, a French elder statesmen and former Nazi resister has suddenly reemerged to incite his fellow citizens to return to the high ideals France has stood for.

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Ninty-three year old Stéphane Hessel, the last surviving author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who escaped Nazi prisons three times, has had enough.

In a 30-page manifesto, called "Indignez-vous," or "Get Indignant," Mr. Hessel blasts a climate of antipathy, bias, and greed that he says is sapping France's spirit. It's a national pep talk by a French hero and moral authority. He wants people to resist a drift toward indifference or discouragement. He's telling a worried and skeptical French nation that something better is possible. And, what's more, many here are listening, and agreeing.

"Get Indignant" is a sudden phenomenon. While it has had only word-of-mouth advertising and was initially published in an attic in the south of France (with a first run of 6,000), it sold 500,000 copies in December even before the media paid note. It quickly caught fire and by Jan. 12, it had sold 950,000 copies, the No. 1 bestseller in a nation that buys a lot of books.

On idealism, a message

Hessel argues that idealism is not dead, but crowded out, forgotten, ignored, and trivialized. In what he calls his "final phase" of earthly days, he has a forceful message for new generations: Don't accept it.

"I would like people to be conscious of the fact that things in this society and this age are not going the right way," he recently told the Associated Press. The French should summon the spirit of the Conseil National de la Résistance, or the French Resistance. That alliance of Gaul-lists and leftists built contemporary France as a place of dignity, respect for the weak, equality, and civil society.

Hessel is also looking beyond France. He argues that the post-9/11 era has been problematic for the human spirit, in contrast with the previous decade. "We had great conferences: Rio on environment, Beijing on women, Vienna on human rights and the right to development, Copenhagen on social integration.... These conferences implicitly said: There are things to be done! And then in 2001, after the fall of the towers, we have seen the rejection of these initiatives," he told French media.

"He is the last of a dying breed, an enormously charismatic freedom fighter who survived the worst tragedy of the 20th century and did not lose his fighting spirit," says Karim Emile Bitar, an associate fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris.

"Ernest Hemingway once said, 'As you get older, it's harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.' Well, Hessel is now a hero to hundreds of thousands of French men and women of all ages and social stripes," says Mr. Bitar.

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