Stephane Hessel


Stephane Hessel died early this week. He was 95. I admired him greatly. Yet it was only two years ago that I first heard of him. This was true for most of the readers of his 2010 impassioned pamphlet Indignez Vous, later published in English as Time for Outrage. I wrote about Hessel soon after I read the book.

In an instant he captured a feeling, a belief that I had been harboring for years: Beliefs are not enough unless they are translated into action. Hessel wrote:

“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.”

Hessel clearly believed that historical progress is made by successive challenges to injustices and that each individual is responsible for contributing to this task. The great challenges he feels most outraged against are the immense gap between the very poor and the very rich, “which never ceases to expand,” the gradual eroding of human rights and “the state of the planet.”

He felt passionately that “The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll jut get by.” And throughout it seems that he is primarily addressing the young. “To the young, I say: look around you, you will find things that make you justifiably angry—the treatment of immigrants, illegal aliens and Roma. You will see concrete situations that provoke you to act as a real citizen. Seek and you shall find!”

In a talk to students at Columbia Hessel urged them to find their own personal outrage and then do something about it. “You will find something, and when you find it you must commit.” It is entirely too easy to do nothing. Hessel argues this is not a time for apathy, rather this is a time for outrage. “Never give up, never be indifferent.”

I write again about Hessel because of my own failures to act at various times in my life. It isn’t that I’ve been indifferent. Rather it’s that my beliefs, my convictions even when they were strong, were never followed by actions.

Hessel was of German Jewish ancestry and with his family moved to France in 1924. While serving in the French army in 1940, he was captured, sent to a POW camp, eventually escaped and joined de Gaulle’s band of Free French resistants.

The Gestapo captured him while serving in one of the resistance networks, sent him the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. He escaped from both. After the war he was a key figure in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

His short manifesto became a rallying cry to the Occupy Wall Street movement that has all but been forgotten about now. But surely this is just as much a time for outrage and active resistance as it was two years ago.

Hessel’s death reminds me, perhaps reminds everyone of the truths he so clearly enunciated.