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.

Francois Mori/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

His parents are the main characters in François Truffaut's famous New Wave film, "Jules and Jim." For years, he's lived quietly in Paris, memorizing the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

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.

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