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.
Charles Glass in "The Nation" (Abridged)