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.
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Capturing France's imagination
Hessel's biography, more than anything, has captured the French imagination. He was born in Berlin to a Protestant family with Polish-Jewish roots, grew up in France, and during World War II he escaped to London to join Charles de Gaulle's resistance. He parachuted into occupied France and was tortured by Nazi forces, and narrowly escaped being hanged. He worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on human rights after the war, helping to pen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.Skip to next paragraph
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But his read on the current state of affairs brought him out of silence. He's bothered by growing inequities; the lack of independent media; an ugly turn against immigrants and minorities; treatment of Palestinians (Hessel visited Gaza after the 2009 war); and a way of life controlled by financial dictates, unchecked competition, and abuse of power.
While solidly on the French left in his call for a revival of the French spirit of resistance, he wants reform not revolution. "Dignity, more than revolt, is something that marks the human individual," he notes. "The citizen is proud of his dignity and when it seems to be attacked, it is normal that he gets indignant.
"I tell youngsters: search…. The worst of attitudes is indifference or to think, 'I can do nothing about it, I manage.' By behaving in this way, you lose one of the essential components that makes you human," he writes.
In recent days, Hessel's message has been picked apart by literary and political critics. Some say indignation has its limits; reasoning is better than indignation; the ideas are too simple and sentimental.
His defenders say he did not ask to be put in the spotlight and isn't receiving royalties. He's now appearing, healthy as a horse, on popular late-night Paris talk shows like "Tonight or Never."
'Terrorism is inefficient'
At the end of "Get Indignant," Hessel argues the main global dispute that needs fixing is the Israel-Palestinian one, and he urges the need for nonviolence and to more clearly understand that "terrorism is inefficient."
"I am convinced that the future belongs to nonviolence," he writes. "It is through this path that humanity will be able to cross its next stage."
He quotes the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire as signifying the only acceptable violence: “How violent hope is!”
Hessel argues the examples of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela exist within present day memory, showing that hope mixed with an "unwillingness to compromise on human rights" can defeat oppression.