Home > Uncategorized > Stephane Hessel 3/12/11

Stephane Hessel 3/12/11

In its March 7/14 issue, the Nation Magazine featured a piece by Stephane Hessel, a former French Resistance fighter against the Nazis. Hessel, who is 93, is a publishing sensation in France. His book, Indignez-vous!, has topped bestseller lists in France. When initially published in France in October 2010, it had a first run of 6000 copies. By the end of 2010, 600.000 copies had been sold.

During World War II, Hessel, who had been living in London, parachuted into occupied France in advance of the Allied invasion in 1944 to organize Resistance networks. He was captured by the Nazis, tortured and sent to Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. He narrowly escaped death by switching identities with another prisoner who was dying of typhus. After a failed escape attempt at Dora and barely escaping hanging, he did escape the Nazis when he was being transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war, Hessel became a diplomat. He played an important role, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2004, he won the Council of Europe’s North-South Prize. More recently, in 2006, he achieved the rank of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor and in 2008 he won the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights. On February 21,2008, Hessel publicly denounced the French government for failure to comply with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and called on the government of the French Republic to make funds available to provide housing for the homeless. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

I also wanted to mention Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which appears to be a favorite of Hessel’s:

“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Hessel’s book is now available in the United States and I highly recommend it. The book is a call to action both to protect human rights and to address the widening gap between rich and poor. In this blog entry, I will quote generously from it. I would note that Indignez-vous! is particularly addressed to young people.

Hessel believes that the values and principles which animated the French Resistance over 60 years ago are needed more than ever now. I must admit I did not appreciate the values of that movement. I mostly assumed it was a military effort. Hessel makes clear that the program and values of the French Resistance were the basis for Free France after the war.

Among other things, 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 French Resistance supported a strong social safety net. They favored “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”.

The Resistance favored “establishing a true economic and social democracy, which entails removing large scale economic and financial feudalism from the management of the economy”. It also favored a fair division of wealth created by the world of labor over the power of money. The Resistance strongly advocated a free press.

Hessel is quite upset with current deficit-cutting efforts and I suspect he would be equally critical of these efforts in France and the United States. He points out that at the time of Liberation at the end of World War II, Europe lay in ruins. How, he asks, can the money needed to continue and extend social programs be lacking now, when wealth has grown so enormously? As he says,

“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.”

Hessel says that the motivation which underlay the French Resistance was outrage at fascism and the Nazis. He speaks up for intelligent outrage.

“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 political involvement which goes with it.”

In the book, Hessel says that his life has provided a steady succession of reasons for outrage. He criticizes the European treatment of immigrants and illegal aliens. He particularly criticizes Israel’s actions in Gaza. He says it is imperative to read Justice Richard Goldstone’s report of September 2009 on Gaza. Justice Goldstone, a Jewish South African judge, led a fact-finding mission for the United Nations.

Hessel argues that the future belongs to non-violence. “The message of a Nelson Mandela, a Martin Luther King Jr. is just as relevant in a world that has moved beyond victorious totalitarianism and the cold war confrontation of ideologies.”

As we seek honorable traditions to emulate, what more noble tradition than the example of the French Resistance. On March 8, 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Program of the National Council of the Resistance, a number of veterans of the French Resistance from 1940 to 1945 addressed an Appeal to the young generation.

“Nazism was defeated, thanks to the sacrifices of our brothers and sisters of the Resistance and of the United Nations against fascist barbarity. But the menace has not completely disappeared, and our outrage at injustice remains intact to this day.”

I will give the last words to Hessel:

“…we continue to call for a true peaceful uprising  against the means of mass communication that offers nothing but mass consumption as a prospect for our youth, contempt for the least powerful in society and for culture, general amnesia and the outrageous competition of all against all.
       To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say from the bottom of our hearts,

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