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Ex-French Resistance Fighter Hessel: ‘It Is Good for Us to Feel Outrage’

October 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Stephane Hessel, a 94-year-old former French resistance fighter, is urging young people to take to the streets and show their outrage. Ray Suarez and Hessel discuss his book, "Time For Outrage," which is also titled "Indignez-Vous!" in French.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a conversation about a very little book with a very big call to action. And it comes from a most unlikely source.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s not often that an elderly European writer can pack a room at an American college campus, but Columbia University had to find larger quarters when Frenchman Stephane Hessel visited recently.

Hessel’s journey to this place was long and action-packed, son of a German Jew, raised after World War I in Paris by parents whose marriage became the basis for the movie “Jules and Jim.” He joined the French resistance in World War II, escaping death in a Nazi concentration camp, a U.N. official who worked with Eleanor Roosevelt and witnessed the birth of Israel.

At 94, Hessel has suddenly returned to prominence and controversy with a book no longer than a pamphlet really, “Time For Outrage,” or, in French, “Indignez-vous,” telling the young to express outrage over everything, from Israel’s invasion of Gaza to the excesses of capitalism in the West.

Stephane Hessel, welcome.

STEPHANE HESSEL, “Time for Outrage”: Thank you. Very glad to be with you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: At an age when no one could blame you for just relaxing and maybe puttering in your garden, you have decided to take an argument to the people of the world, asking them to get indignant, to get angry.

About what, exactly?

STEPHANE HESSEL: About anything that they consider is contrary to the basic values for which we have been fighting all this long age along.

You see, my feeling was that certain values which came up immediately after World War II, which were raised by a great American president for whom I have the greatest admiration, Franklin Roosevelt — he made the charter of the United Nations applicable. And I’m very, very grateful to him and to his successors because, thanks to them, we have an ethical stand on which to judge what happens.

And if something happens that goes against that ethical standard, it is good for us to feel outrage.

RAY SUAREZ: So you think we’re contradicting, violating the ideals that World War II was fought around?

STEPHANE HESSEL: Indeed.

We are — some of us are trying to stick up, others are violating a little, others are violating a lot. To me, what brings my outrage to one particular spot of this world is, of course, the way the Israeli government treats the Palestinians. I consider that as a violation of international law.

In all our countries, there are things that are no longer really acceptable, the way one treats immigrants, the way that one doesn’t give social security that is really required, the one which lobbies, organized and oppress our governments.

All that seems to me a thing against which normal citizens, the older, but also the younger, should find a way to answer with outrage, and to react not by violence, not by another great revolution which would throw anything to pieces, no, but by a determined will.

And I was particularly happy to see that, for two months after my little book came out, October of 2010, the Arab spring arose, and that these Tunisians and Egyptians and Syrians really took it into their hands to get rid of the tyrants and to work for a more democratic world.

RAY SUAREZ: Your amazing life story, does this give you standing, in effect, say, hey, I’m not just some old guy, I have something to say, listen up, world?

STEPHANE HESSEL: You’re quite right. It is true that being so very old and having lived through that long period, people listen to me with a certain amount of respect.

And if I am together with younger people, as I am all the time now — I’m the oldest of them all — I can tell them, look, you may think that the problems today are not serious problems. You may think that we — my generation has had the good luck, if you want, to have a clear challenge to meet, a war of decolonization, a fight against Stalinism. Those are clear goals.

What are your goals now? Please, look around. Look around yourself and look at what makes you furious. And when something makes you unhappy, then engage yourself.

RAY SUAREZ: But you could have written a shelf full of books on that. You chose instead to make a simple set of arguments.

STEPHANE HESSEL: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: How did you design this book, this creed, if you will?

STEPHANE HESSEL: I started by having a meeting in a part of France which is Savoy, in the mountains, a spot where resistance during World War II had some of its worst moments — best and worst — fight against the German army and finally terrible defeat.

And we stood there with comrades of my age, old resistance workers. And we had a group of 3,000 people watching and listening to us, because they wanted to recall the days of the resistance. And we told them, look, the ideas that were put up at that time are still valid.

And if these ideas for an independent trust, for a social security for all, for the fight against the (INAUDIBLE) of money and of market, and if you look around you, and you find that these values are being threatened, then do something about it. That was how it started.

And the publisher of this little book, Sylvie Crossman, a charming woman, she came to me after I had given that speech and she said: “What you said is important. Why don’t we put it into a little book?” She says, “I suggest that it be called “Indignez-vous,” which is interesting because it contained the word dignity.

And what we are really trying to say is that the dignity of human beings has to be defended. And when one feels that the government, whichever government, is not really doing the thing to preserve that dignity, then we should get angry, or outraged, if you want.

RAY SUAREZ: We will continue this conversation online.

Stephane Hessel, thanks for joining me.

STEPHANE HESSEL: Thank you.