Stéphane Hessel

Time for Outrage!

Stephane Hessel, Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor, tells the young of today that their lives and liberties are worth fighting for. Remembering the ideals for which he risked his life, while never forgetting the evils against which he struggled, the now 94-year-old writer and diplomat calls on all of us to take back the rights that have slowly slipped away since the Second World War ended. As sales of this masterful polemic approach a million in France, it is published here for the first time in English.

Time for Outrage!

Ninety-three years. I’m nearing the last stage. The end cannot be far off. 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. It is thanks to Jean Moulin that all the elements of occupied France-all the movements, the parties, the unions-came together within the framework of the National Council to proclaim their allegiance to Fighting France and to the only leader it recognized, Gen. Charles de Gaulle. I was in London, where I had joined de Gaulle in March 1941, when I learned that the council had put the finishing touches on its program and adopted it on March 15, 1944: a collection of principles and values for Free France that still provides the foundation of our country’s modern democracy.

We need these principles and values more than ever today. It is up to us, to all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations, of being suspicious of immigrants; not this society where our retirement and the other gains of social security are being called into question; not this society where the media are in the hands of the rich. These are all things that we would refuse to countenance if we were the true heirs of the National Council of the Resistance.

After 1945, after that horrific tragedy, the forces in the National Council of the Resistance achieved an ambitious resurrection for France . Let us remember that this was when the social safety net that the Resistance called for was created: “A comprehensive social security plan, to guarantee all citizens a means of livelihood in every case where they are unable to get it by working”; and “retirement that allows older workers to end their lives with dignity.” Sources of energy-electricity, gas, coal-were nationalized, along with the large banks, in accordance again with what the program advocated: “returning to the nation the major means of production that have been monopolized, the fruits of common labor, the sources of energy, mineral riches, insurance companies, and big banks”; and “establishing a true economic and social democracy, which entails removing large-scale economic and financial feudalism from the management of the economy.” The general interest had to be given precedence over particular special interests, and a fair division of the wealth created by the world of labor over the power of money. The Resistance proposed “a rational organization of the economy to guarantee that individual interests be subordinated to the public interest, one free of a dictatorship of established professionals in the image of the fascist state.” The Provisional Government of the French Republic (1944-46) assumed the task of realizing this ideal.

Genuine democracy needs a free press. The Resistance knew this, and it demanded “the freedom and honor of the press and its independence from the state and the forces of money and foreign influence.” Again, these goals were carried forward, thanks to the press laws enacted after 1944. But they are at risk today.

The Resistance called for “the practical opportunity for every French child to have access to the most advanced education,” without discrimination-but the reforms proposed in 2008 run counter to this plan. Young teachers have refused to implement these reforms up to now, and I support their actions. They have seen their salaries reduced in retaliation. They got angry, they “disobeyed,” they decided that these reforms diverged too far from the ideal of education in a democratic republic, were too deeply beholden to a society of money and failed to develop the creative and critical spirit sufficiently.

All of these social rights at the core of the program of the Resistance are today under attack.

Outrage Inspires Resistance

They have the nerve to tell us that the state can no longer cover the costs of these social programs. Yet how can the money needed to continue and extend these achievements be lacking today, when the creation of wealth has grown so enormously since the Liberation, a time when Europe lay in ruins? It can only be because the power of money, which the Resistance fought against so hard, has never been as great and selfish and shameless as it is now, with its servants in the very highest circles of government. The banks, now privatized, seem to care primarily about their dividends, and about the enormous salaries of their executives, not about the general good. The gap between richest and poorest has never been so large, competition and the circulation of capital never so encouraged.

The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy.

I want you, each and every one of you, to have a reason to be outraged. This is precious. When something outrages you, as Nazism did me, that is when you become a militant, strong and engaged. You join the movement of history, and the great current of history continues to flow only thanks to each and every one of us. History’s direction is toward more justice and more freedom-though not the unbridled freedom of the fox in a henhouse. The rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 are indeed universal. When you encounter someone who lacks those rights, have sympathy and help him or her to achieve them.

Two Views of history

When I try to understand what caused fascism, the reasons we were overtaken by it and by Vichy , it seems to me that the rich, in their selfishness, feared a Bolshevik revolution. They let that fear control them. Yet all we need, now as then, is an active minority to stand up: that will be enough. We will be the yeast that makes the bread rise. Clearly, the experience of a very old man like me, born in 1917, differs from that of the young people of today. I often ask teachers to let me speak to their students. I say to the students: you don’t have the same obvious reasons to get involved as we did. For us, resistance meant not accepting the German occupation, not accepting defeat. It was relatively simple. So was what came next: decolonization and the Algerian War. Algeria had to gain its independence. That was obvious. As for Stalin, we all cheered the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis in 1943. Yet, when we learned about the Stalinist mass trials of 1936-38, it became necessary and obvious to oppose this unbearable totalitarianism as well. It was necessary, even if communism was a counterbalance to American capitalism. My long life has given me a steady succession of reasons for outrage.

These reasons came less from emotion than from a will to be engaged and get involved. As a young student in at the École Normale Supérieure, I was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre, an older schoolmate of mine. Nausea and The Wall, rather than Being and Nothingness, were important in the formation of my thought. Sartre taught us to tell ourselves, “You as an individual are responsible.” It was a kind of anarchist message. Mankind’s responsibility cannot be left to some outside power or to a god. On the contrary, people must commit themselves in terms of their personal, individual human responsibility. When I started at the École Normale Supérieure on rue d’Ulm in Paris , in 1939, it was as a devoted follower of the philosopher Hegel. I attended the seminars of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His class investigated concrete experience and the body’s relationships with sense, with sense as meaning rather than as the five senses. However, my natural optimism, which wanted everything desirable to be possible, led me back to Hegel. Hegelianism interprets the long history of humanity as having meaning: that of mankind’s liberty advancing step by step. History is made by successive shocks, of confronting and overcoming successive challenges. Societies progress, and in the end, having attained complete liberty, may achieve a democratic state in some ideal form.

There is, of course, a conception of history that sees the progress of liberty, competition and the race for “more and more” as a destructive whirlwind. That is how a friend of my father described history. This was the man who shared with my father the task of translating Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu into German. I am speaking of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He drew a pessimistic message from a painting by a Swiss painter, Paul Klee, called Angelus Novus, which shows an angel opening its arms as if to push back or ward off a storm that Benjamin equates with progress. For Benjamin, who committed suicide in September 1940 to escape the Nazis, history is an unstoppable progression from one catastrophe to the next.

Indifference: The Worst Attitude

It is true that the reasons for outrage today may seem less clear or the world more complicated. Who runs things? Who decides? It is not always easy to distinguish the answers from among all the forces that rule us. It is no longer a question of a small elite whose schemes we can clearly comprehend. This is a vast world, and we see its interdependence. We are interconnected in ways we never were before, but some things in this world are unacceptable. To see this, you have only to open your eyes. I tell the young: just look, and you’ll find something. The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it; I’ll just get by.” Behaving like that deprives you of one of the essentials of being human: the capacity and the freedom to feel outraged. That freedom is indispensable, as is the

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