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Stéphane Hessel on Occupy Wall Street: Find the Time for Outrage When Your Values Are Not Respected

Web ExclusiveOctober 10, 2011
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As the Occupy Wall Street movement expands across the United States, drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring in Egypt and the protests in Spain, Democracy Now! speaks with former French Resistance fighter, Stéphane Hessel, whose pamphlet-length book, Time for Outrage, helped inspire some of these uprisings. His book has sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 10 languages, with several more planned. Hessel, 94 years old, has occupied many positions in his life: immigrant, French Resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, diplomat, advocate and author. He joined the French Resistance during World War II, was caught by the Gestapo and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He escaped during transfer to Bergen-Belsen and later helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then became an honorary “Ambassador of France,” appointed to special government missions. He has since been a fierce advocate of the Palestinians. Democracy Now!'s Juan González interviewed Hessel earlier this month. “You must find the things that you will not accept, that will outrage you. And these things, you must be able to fight against nonviolently, peacefully, but determinedly,” Hessel says, noting his support for the Occupy Wall Street encampment. “They're there determined to see that their values are to be respected.”

Visit Democracy Now!’s archive of reports on Occupy Wall Street

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As protest encampments take root here in New York with the movement to occupy Wall Street drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring in Egypt and the protests in Spain, we turn to one of the people whose work has helped inspire those uprisings: Stéphane Hessel. Stéphane Hessel’s new pamphlet-length book became a publishing sensation soon after it was released last October. Time for Outrage has sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide.

Stéphane Hessel has occupied many positions in his life: immigrant, French Resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, diplomat, advocate and author. Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917 and arrived in France at the age of seven. He joined the French Resistance during the Second World War and was caught by the Gestapo and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He escaped during transfer to Bergen-Belsen. He subsequently helped to draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became an honorary “Ambassador of France,” appointed to special government missions. He has since been a fierce advocate of the rights of the Palestinian people.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

STÉPHANE HESSEL: Delighted to be with you this morning.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This book, that has sparked such huge popularity all around the world for the ideas in it, it’s a very short book, Time for Outrage. Tell us, why did you decide to write it, and have you been surprised by the response?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: Very much surprised. When I first asked an editor, Indigène Editions of Montpellier, to publish a little pamphlet, a little appeal, I thought it would hark back to the French Resistance, and that the movement of the French Resistance brought up some basic values, which they considered fundamental and they wanted General de Gaulle to apply when the war would be over. These values are still eminently the basic values. I found them carried forward by an American president for whom I have the greatest admiration and respect, Franklin Roosevelt. He was the one who allowed the Charter of the United Nations to come up. And I’m still working, 66 years later, to try to make those values felt by the younger generation. That is why in this small book—not very expensive, easily distributed all around—we try to say, these are the values on which, if they are violated, you must protest. You must find the time for outrage when these values are not respected.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’re 94 years old now. And as you were telling me earlier, you were born during the Russian Revolution.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In terms of the key lessons that you are trying to impart to this extraordinary resurgence that we’ve seen of young people around the country, from—around the world, from Tahrir Square to Spain to England, and now even here to the United States with Occupy Wall Street, what are the main lessons from your time that you are trying to impart to the young people?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: I think we have had the possibility of living in democracies. What does it mean? It means places where the privileged are not the one to make the decisions, but that the underprivileged are going to rise to a status where they are normal human beings and human citizens with their freedoms and their rights. When that is no longer the case, whatever the circumstance—in France, with President Sarkozy, definitely; in Spain, perhaps, after many attempts—then it is proper for the young generation to listen to the very old ones who tell them, “We have been resisters at a time where there was fascism or Stalinism. You must find the things that you will not accept, that will outrage you. And these things, you must be able to fight against nonviolently, peacefully, but determinedly.” That is why I am so happy about what happens these days in Wall Street, because they’re indeed very peaceful. They are not throwing any bombs or any stones, but they’re there determined to see that their values are to be respected.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your years in the French Resistance, as you remarked, really the Resistance really shaped the modern French republic. And could you talk about what you did during those years and the important lessons you learned in that battle during World War II against the Nazis?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: In that time, as in all other times of my life, I was extraordinarily fortunate. I managed to leave France in 1941, helped by a marvelous American young man, Varian Fry, who was there to try to get out of France people with some merit as creative people. And he also helped me. And I joined General de Gaulle. I spent two years in London working in relationship with the French Resistance. This was a special office in the headquarters of General de Gaulle. We worked, of course, with the British intelligence. And that lasted two years. And then I said, “I don’t want to sit in an office anymore. Please send me to France.” And I organized a mission to France, very interesting, trying to prepare for the liberation of France.

And that is where I met these people, these workers of the Resistance, brought together by Jean Moulin, who was an extraordinarily important person for the Resistance. And they sat around and said, what are the values that we want to see implemented? Not the Vichy values, not the Nazi values, not the fascist values, but the real democratic values, inspired by the New Deal of President Roosevelt, inspired by Beveridge of Great Britain, welfare states, states where the rights, social and economic rights, of the ordinary people would be respected. And they drafted that into a program. I listened to that.

I was then sent—unfortunately, I was captured, sent to Buchenwald. And when the war was ended, I said, “Now I have a responsibility, as a survivor,” as one of the relatively few survivors of concentration camps—many of my comrades had died there. So I said, “Now I have a responsibility. I want to carry it.” What is the responsibility? It is to let the values, on which we have fought, known to the succeeding generations. That is what I’ve been doing until now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your experiences in Buchenwald?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: Buchenwald was a camp where one could survive, but of course not if one was condemned to death. I arrived there not knowing that I was condemned to be hanged. But when I heard about it, I tried to escape. And I escaped by accepting the identity of a young Frenchman who had just died of typhus. His body was sent to the crematorium under my identity, and I captured his. Quite a trick. Not easy. And it was Eugen Kogon, a great German activist, who managed this thing. And that is when I was sent to another camp. From that other camp, I escaped. I was recaptured after five hours and sent to one of the worst camps, Dora, where the V1-V2 were being built and where the unfortunate Häftlinge were working under conditions that were hardly survivable. I, again, was fortunate. I stayed there only a month and a half. And when I escaped, I managed to join the American army in Hanover. And they said, “Who are you?” “I am a concentration camp inmate.” “Well, where could you come from? Do you know anybody in France?” I said, “Well, I know General de Gaulle.” “Oh,” they said, “all right, well, we work—you work with us.” And so, I ended the war with an American uniform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of the Resistance in terms of the government of France afterwards and the social policies of France, and how do you see the move backward of the current French government?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: That is what I’m worried about. I think the 30 first years after the war, the French democracy was solid, and there were problems like everywhere, but at least we knew what values we were up to. After the election of Chirac, and now of Sarkozy, I find that these values are no longer really, really present, and that lobbies, not only in France, but in many other countries, lobbies of the financial, capitalistic, unregulated powers, they weigh on our governments and make them bleed ways, for instance, against immigration, for instance, school systems being kept back for reasons, budgetary reasons. All this is a line which I consider extremely dangerous, because it will gradually bring the powers of finance to exercise in overriding power, and democracy will be only a dream, and not a reality.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned immigration is—the anti-immigrant fervor that’s swept all of the advanced West—here in the United States against Latinos and Carribeans, France against Algerians and Moroccans and Tunisians, and England against Pakistanis and Jamaicans and Indians. Your sense of the impact of this hysteria in terms of the unity of the peoples of those countries?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: Yes, I think the word “security” is one of the most dangerous words that can be used by governments. They say, “For reasons of security, we cannot accept this, we cannot do that, we cannot do the other.” Security is all right, but freedom is even more important. What did we learn in the concentration camps? We learned solidarity, living together. It was really a place where Europe was born, because so many Europeans of different nationalities were together in these camps. And they knew that what they wanted was good not only for one country, but it was good for Europe as a whole. So I was glad that Europe was indeed—it was a great moment for Europe, these last hundred years, but we are still not sufficiently federalized in Europe to be strong enough. And now when something comes up like the East—the Near East problem with Palestine and the Israelis, we are not in a position to really exert important pressure. And that is why I feel much has to be done by the younger generation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your book specifically says that the two principal problems that you see are the growing income inequality in the world—and of course, obviously, right now, in Europe, there’s the huge financial crisis, and the people are being made to pay while the banks are being bailed out—and also the violation of human rights and national rights around the world. Could you talk about both of those?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: That is, to my mind, one of the gravest challenges, and that challenge is really a worldwide challenge. That is why I’m happy to work with a group called the Ethical International Collegium, of which Michel Rocard of France is one of the chairmen. What do we think? We think these challenges, the ones that you just described—human rights and extreme poverty—and of course the other great challenge of the earth, the planet, which is being overexploited, we must bring people together with government experience, and others with philosophical experience, and have them work together to change the way in which we look into the future. And that is why to be with you on Democracy Now! is exactly what I’m dealing at. We need to get people to think that democracy is the answer. There is no answer to our worldwide problems but to work all together in a spirit of basic values that are the values of democracy since Aristotle.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to get your reaction to President Obama’s speech recently at the United Nations. The President used his speech to focus on his rejection of the Palestinian effort for recognition. He urged diplomats to reject the statehood bid, while refusing to level any criticism of Israel. Obama made no mention of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and chose to highlight Israeli victims of Palestinian militants over the years, ignoring the many tens of thousands more people in the Occupied Territories and Lebanon that have been killed in Israeli attacks. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so, we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.

STÉPHANE HESSEL: Let me say that I’m terribly disappointed. I was a staunch believer in President Obama. His campaign, I think, was a moment of life in the United States, exceptionally positive in mobilizing. And now, this way of giving in to pressure by lobbies, not only by the Israeli lobby but also by the financial lobbies, he’s giving in to that and trying to find some way, but not the one that he described in his Cairo speech in July of the year before. That is where I find that he’s giving way to something which is bad for Israel. The future of Israel depends, in my mind, on finding a way to have a neighbor with the Palestinians who can be a good and pleasant neighbor with whom one can work. But as long as one occupies that country, that makes this terrible business of Cast Lead on Gaza—those things are horrifying to my mind. And leadership in Israel by people like Netanyahu and Lieberman is just against all basic Jewish and democratic value.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Finally, I wanted to ask you—one of the chapters in your book, the Time for Outrage, you say that “the worst attitude is indifference” — the title of the chapter. What do you mean?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: I was worried that so many young people in all our countries seem to have forgotten their responsibility for values. They are just responsible to find a flat, to get some money, to have material wealth. And they do not realize that that is going to be jeopardized if the basic democratic values are not fought for. And that is where I think this indifference, which is widespread in many of our countries, obviously—resistance has always been a minority act, and we need minorities, and then they will spread. But indifference, just let it be, all discouragement—we wanted to do something, but it failed, and we are no longer capable of doing it. That is the danger that I try to fight by telling young people, “Have confidence. Trust your strength. If you go to the streets in a determined way, you will see the government will have to listen to you. And you have to be confident and brave.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you wrote those words last October, and then, since then, we’ve seen this wave of the Arab Spring spreading throughout Europe, as well, and now to the United States, as young people are pouring into the streets in major squares in so many of these countries, overthrowing tyrannical governments. Did you—and, of course, your book has sold 3.5 million copies. Do you think now that you might have, like, prejudged a little bit the youth?

STÉPHANE HESSEL: I feel that this is of course a pure coincidence. When I wrote this book, I didn’t realize that things were happening in the world. But it is a positive coincidence for me. Again, it is my lucky strike. I have been lucky throughout. I’ve escaped death several times. And now I am very, very happy to see so many young people listen to, read my little book. And I hope that the 12 editors who put out Time for Outrage here are going to have great success, because the more U.S. young citizens live for democracy—and not for democracy anytime, but for democracy now—the better it will be for our countries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, thank you, Stéphane Hessel, for being with us, a diplomat, ambassador, concentration camp survivor, former French Resistance fighter. He participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. His new book is called Time for Outrage.

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