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Stéphane Hessel - The humanist †

  • January 2017

The humanist

Stéphane Hessel, Resistance fighter

“What we really desire, we can manifest.”

Stéphane Hessel’s life spanned more than nine turbulent decades of world history, during which he often played a dramatic role—as a fighter in the French Resistance, survivor of three concentration camps, and an influential member of the French diplomatic service. Although he was no stranger to fame and controversy during his long and productive life, it wasn’t until the ripe age of 93, three years before his passing in 2013, that he unexpectedly received global acclaim, particularly among the young disaffected core of the Occupy movement, with the publication of his best-selling Time for Outrage! The imperative of the original French title, Indignez-vous!, can be read as a rallying call to preserve our own dignity and the dignity of those around us by standing up to anything that devalues and demeans us. Set out in a polemic of barely 30 pages, it was a clarion call that won Hessel millions of readers across Europe and beyond. In France, he became a cherished national icon and the country’s moral conscience, although his interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his call for its just resolution gained him a reputation as a controversial intellectual among some commentators. For Hessel, though, there was no conflict—national or international—that couldn’t be resolved if there were the sufficient will to do so. The tools he sought to use were diplomacy and negotiation, a search for a shared language to bring together warring parties or states, and, above all, non-violence. Hessel’s guiding principle was the same principle that underpinned the creation of the United Nations—being a channel for conciliation and mediation. His goal was to achieve human rights and dignified living conditions, equality, and mutual respect throughout the world. His political challenge was his call to individuals to think globally even if their interest lay in local action. And although he experienced firsthand some of history’s darkest hours, he had an astonishing and engaging faith in the capacity of individuals to get involved and make things better. His elegance, sense of style, admirable memory, and knowledge of German, French, and English poetry all testified to that. Egon Zehnder had the great privilege of meeting with him during a brief lecture in 2012.

The Focus: Stéphane Hessel, at 94, you’re a best-selling author and you’ve gained a reputation for political influence, particularly among young people. What has that been like for you? Has it all taken you by surprise?

Stéphane Hessel: I’ve been surprised how well the book has sold outside France, though not by its success in France: the French are quick to become indignant about all kinds of things, and social discontent was running high when Indignez-vous! was published in France in 2010. I had no idea, though, that it would find such resonance in Spain, Germany or Italy, let alone in the Arab world. Of course, the scale of its success has been exaggerated – my critics are right on that point. But when I go out or call into the bakery, for example, people recognise me because they’ve seen me on television. It’s very odd and rather disconcerting at times, but I suppose it will stop eventually.

The Focus: What’s your explanation for the book’s success?

Hessel: There is a very widespread feeling that we are currently facing a very deep crisis. Young people in particular sense that something has to change. They want to lead a fulfilled life in a new kind of society and they want a different kind of politics. And I’m trying to support them in those aspirations. It’s important that they don’t give up and come to terms with their problems or, indeed, with the injustice that others face. And that’s as true of human rights and the environment as it is of social issues.

The Focus: You followed up Time for Outrage! with a whole series of publications that were much more specific in their approach. Did you want to point to solutions and challenge people to get involved as well as merely identifying the problems?

Hessel: Definitely. I’m particularly proud of Get Involved!, which I published in 2011, because Gilles Vanderpooten, who interviewed me for it, is an interesting young man. He chairs an organisation called Reporters d’Espoirs or “Reporters of Hope”. Its journalist members want to keep the idea of hope alive; they believe that we need to know about the good things happening around us and not just the bad – that we need to know when something new, something good, something hopeful happens. That sort of approach is one I really like.

The Focus: In The Path to Hope, which you co-authored with Edgar Morin, you combine your vision of social renewal with a call for a system of politics that will improve the conditions of the civilisation in which we live – the ‘politics of well-being’, as you call it. What is that system of politics based on?

Hessel: Primarily, it’s based on combating the major risks that threaten us. They’re easy to identify: our world is destroying itself because we are not protecting the planet as we should. Humanity is splitting into the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, and the gulf between them is constantly widening, even though they share the same geographical space.
But these are risks that we can tackle. We have an opportunity to reform things, if not actually to instigate a revolution. The last century saw a number of revolutions, starting with the Russian Revolution in the year I was born, 1917, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Fascist revolutions, among others. Not one of them had a positive outcome. They achieved results, that’s for sure, but not the results they set out to achieve.
What we need now is democratic reform – that’s our immediate challenge. And educational reform is the most important aspect of all, of course. We have to give young people across the world a sense of meaning and the goal of working together to counter the greatest threats facing us.

The Focus: So what do you think are the key issues? You say that when you look at our current education system, you see many shortcomings. But what are the key things we should be teaching our children and young people?

Hessel: I believe it’s important to teach young people as early as possible to feel responsibility and to realise that they are citizens – not just citizens of their own country but world citizens. They need to be taught to focus not solely on themselves, their own family and their own country but on everything that is going on in global society. It’s much easier these days to think about such things because it’s so easy to forge links across borders, thanks to the advent of modern technology, and that means we’re now aware of global issues and can see for ourselves what is going on outside our own patch. It means we can be a part of everything that’s going on and join forces to try to change things.

The Focus: The scope that technology offers for making global connections is one thing, but individuals’ horizons are quite another. When you see what is going on around you at the moment, do you feel optimistic?

Hessel: No, not so far. It seems as if we are living in a consumer society in which people – even young people – are thinking about issues like how we satisfy our material needs and how and under what conditions production and distribution operate. Will we all get enough or not?
The outrage with which I have been very concerned recently has so far focused on material wealth. In Israel, for example – a place that is dear to my heart – there was a wave of outrage about social and economic injustice that spawned protests on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. It made me wonder whether the demonstrators had reflected on their own government’s policy on occupation and settlement and whether that wasn’t an equally huge injustice. Sadly, they don’t seem to have done.
Yet we live in a world in which large numbers of people now realise that we don’t know how we should evolve, that we lack clear goals and a clear sense of direction. That’s something we need to reflect on. We also need to think about what fundamental reforms we have to make if the next generation is to grow up realising that problems aren’t just local any more. We all need to think globally, even if we start by acting locally.

The Focus: Haven’t you argued, though, that globalisation is both good and bad at the same time?

Hessel: Globalisation is necessary and unavoidable. You could also say that it’s no longer something we are moving towards – it’s already a reality. We live in a globalised world, even if we don’t much like the idea. We can see the dangers and risks that globalisation brings and that it may mean doing without the various and very diverse cultural possibilities. If all the cultural specificities are homogenised in favour of a global culture, then conventional cultures will no longer be as able to carve out their own identities as we would want them to.
Then again, the ease with which we can make connections with any part of the world is something positive, so our goal has to be to work towards a global future but at the same time to protect the very diverse opportunities our discrete cultures give us. That’s a tough challenge, but it’s not impossible. It might even trigger a whole new growth process. And I believe that young people have the confidence and energy to do it. They want to make the world beautiful again by doing away with the unattractive aspects of global society; that’s become very clear to me since I’ve been toting my little pamphlet around the world and making efforts to meet young people wherever I go. This spring, for example, I was in the German city of Essen, in a huge old-style cinema, the Lichtburg, with an audience of 1,200. Now, when you discuss the future with young people, their immediate response is, “Yes, we understand that there’s a lot of work to do.” And if you inspire them, build them up and tell them that they have a real chance to change things and that they should be bold and confident, they are hugely enthusiastic and applaud wildly.
But to return to your question, I think we have reached a point in the history of the world when enormous transformations are possible. We can build a world free of all the things my generation had to suffer: violence, cover-ups, ideology.
We’ve experienced too much violence and we’ve seen that violence does damage and destroys hope but ultimately achieves nothing. We can now set about building a world free of violence. We have organisations like the UN to help us do it. The UN is hugely important. It’s not yet efficient enough, but it has the scope to become more effective if only we support it as we should.
Global GDP is adequate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to provide the seven billion people on our planet with everything they need. It’s just that that wealth is not yet distributed the way it should be.

The Focus: It’s good to know that young people are keen to hear what you have to say and respond enthusiastically. If they’re striving for freedom, responsibility and sustainability – assuming they can grasp these concepts – we have reason for hope. But what exactly do you say to them? What specifically should they be doing in this complex global world in which so many people focus primarily on their own personal advantage at the expense of their fellow human beings? What concrete advice can you give? What specific answers do you have to questions of that kind?

Hessel: I tell them two things. I start by asking them to think about what makes them angry; that’s what the first pamphlet was all about. Then I tell them to reflect on what they find intolerable, because everyone finds something different intolerable. It may be the scale of poverty and hunger or the fact that we are still consuming so much energy – including nuclear energy – and that our soaring demand for energy is threatening our planet. So I say, “Look at what you find intolerable and start by getting angry and outraged about that. Then, of course, you need to get involved and take responsibility for helping to solve some of these problems.”
If they commit themselves to some cause, whatever it may be, that can lead on to great things – it may be something that has the potential to shape the future of the world or something more limited, such as the well-being of people in their community or of people who have left their home country and are finding things tough. Whatever it is, the only people who can feel fully human are those who identify and feel that sense of responsibility.
A friend of mine is a psychiatrist and he always says that if someone has a sense of duty and does something for other people, regardless of what it is and how big or small it is, then that person will feel better. That’s how we become human, it’s how our humanity develops fully, he says. As the humanist I have always been, I’m hugely impressed by that argument. I’ve always argued, of course, that we need to try to do the right thing by other people, but that had always seemed to me to be more of a moral position than a psychological one.
I see it this way. Imagine someone living in a rundown suburb or a deprived area, who is bitter and says, “It’s appalling here! I can’t stand the way people are treated – it’s intolerable”. If you can convince someone like that to do something to help his friend, who has it even tougher, then he will suddenly feel better about his own situation. So the goal is to become human.

The Focus: That reminds me of something that your mother used to say and that you like to quote: “Be happy so that you can make others happy too.”

Hessel: It’s true, isn’t it?

The Focus: Yes, it’s absolutely true and a sound principle to live by. And that ability to feel happy must be what has helped you rise above the many hardships you’ve experienced in your life.

Hessel: Yes, definitely.

The Focus: That ability isn’t something you’ve chosen to do but, to some extent, a grace, a blessing. Is that how you see it?

Hessel: I see it as you say, as a grace. But that doesn’t mean it’s just something that you have or you don’t have. We can also actively seek it out. If we reflect on ourselves, we start by finding fault. And of course, we all have lots of faults, but we can take a deeper look: what are my plus points? What are my talents? What am I good at? And if we reflect quite objectively and candidly on those questions, then we may come to realise that yes, I do have some talents after all, so how can I put them to good use, not only to make myself happy but also to make others happy? I think it’s really important that we take the time to reflect on that and actively seek out our own happiness.
It’s just as important to recognise the strengths of those around us. What are their talents? It’s easy to pinpoint their weaknesses, of course: we might say “My sister has no talent for music” or “My brother is a poor runner”. That’s not difficult. But we could put it another way: “My brother is a poor runner, but strangely enough, he has a great sense of poetry”. What I mean is that we can consciously try to reinforce the positive, both in ourselves and in other people.

The Focus: This optimism that you so obviously feel is really remarkable, given everything you’ve been through in your life. Do you feel that your life story gives you a particular responsibility to advocate hope?

Hessel: Definitely. The fact that I survived that appalling war under such dreadful conditions – as someone who was condemned to death, escaped and was immediately recaptured but then rescued – had an impact on me; that’s obvious. If you’ve been so close to death, if you’ve survived something so awful – and I did survive it – and despite all that you remain strong, then you have a huge responsibility. I’d always known that, but the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre reinforced it even more. He was very important to me – he was, by the way, also a student at the École normale supérieure. Sartre told his readers they had to get involved and acknowledge their responsibility for the state of the world.
If you lead a generally comfortable life and you take limited responsibility, then it may be that you don’t feel that urge so strongly, although it can develop if someone is willing to learn and grow. But if, like me, you’re lucky or unlucky enough – let’s say lucky enough – to have survived a dreadful situation, then you do have that urge. Of the group of 37 of us who arrived at Buchenwald in the evening of 16 August 1944, just three survived. The other 34 were executed. And if you’re one of just three survivors, you have a big responsibility towards those who didn’t survive. I’ve had that strong sense of responsibility for the past 67 years.

The Focus: It is really admirable that you describe as ‘luck’ being able to take responsibility in the middle of misfortune, regardless of what has happened. What makes you so optimistic that a global sense of responsibility is developing? Isn’t it true that many people just have no sense of responsibility at all? But of course, we grow through what we do and we become stronger when we learn from our mistakes.

Hessel: Yes, you’re right. The tasks we take on make us strong, and responsibility makes us stronger still. If we push responsibility away and say “That’s nothing to do with me, it’s not my problem”, then we may be more or less contented with life in our own small world, but we don’t become a fully-rounded personality. I, for my part, feel I have a certain responsibility. And your job gives you responsibility, too, the responsibility to try to convey to others what is important to you. It’s responsibility like that that helps us to become a real human being.
So that’s what I feel, although I am, of course, surrounded as we all are by many, many people who have no sense of responsibility whatsoever. They live solely for themselves and are often unhappy, because if they take no responsibility, then they can’t have joy in their lives. Maybe they think that their lives are awful and then wonder, “But what can I do about it? There’s nothing I can do – I just have to put up with it.” Well, of course, someone like that isn’t going to become a happy person.

The Focus: We’re conducting this interview in the bookshop of the house in Düsseldorf where Heinrich Heine was born. What is the affinity you feel with Heinrich Heine? And what do you associate with him? Poetry has, after all, always played a very significant part in your life.

Hessel: Heinrich Heine has a very special place in my life, because he was an international intellect. He represents a tendency in the Jewish faith that is now, unfortunately, becoming less and less important, particularly in Israeli society as it is currently evolving. For me, Heinrich Heine embodies a strand of the Jewish faith that sees itself as connected to all the other cultures in the world. Jews have succeeded in many cultures. Think of people like Marx, Spinoza, Montaigne or Freud – the people who have broken out of the constraints of their own culture have always been Jews, although of course you can’t generalise and say that all Jews are like this or like that.
Heinrich Heine had a very strong international spirit, and for the French, he is someone who combines German and French cultures. For me, as someone who was born in Berlin but moved to Paris at the age of seven and then became a French national, Heine is, of course, a beacon. He’s someone I look up to, a poet whose work I love to read.

The Focus: You’re famed for your ability to recite poetry by heart. Is there some of Heinrich Heine’s work in your repertoire?

Hessel: I haven’t learned many of his poems, but this is one of them:

“The maid stood by the ocean
And heaved a grievous sigh.
The cause of her emotion?
The sunset drawing nigh.

‘Fear not, my darling daughter!
For experience doth teach
That the sun sets o’er the water
But then rises on the beach.’”

„Das Fräulein stand am Meere
Und seufzte lang und bang,
Es rührte sie so sehre
Der Sonnenuntergang.

‚Mein Fräulein! Sein Sie munter,
Das ist ein altes Stück;
Hier vorne geht sie unter
Und kehrt von hinten zurück.‘“

Talking with Stéphane Hessel in Düsseldorf were Ulrike Mertens and Hartmuth Maltzahn from Egon Zehnder.

Stéphane Hessel

Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917, the son of the writer Franz Hessel and his wife, the journalist Helen Hessel (neé Grund). The family moved to Paris in 1925, where Hessel was educated and took French nationality in 1939. His experiences during the erarly part of the Second World War prompted him to flee to London in 1941, where he was one of the first to sign up for General de Gaulle's Free French Movement. By the end of the war, he had worked for the Resistance, conducted clandestine operations in German-occupied Paris, been arrested and tortured, and survived three German concentration camps. In 1946, he began his career with the French Diplomatic Service and undertook frequent postings for the United Nations, including periods in New York, Paris, Saigon, Algiers, and Geneva. His work often related to human rights and development policy, particularly in Africa. When he retired, he was awarded the honory title of Ambassadeur de France, and remained politically active, campaigning in France for a more-just immigration policy, and on the international stage for an end to the civil war in Rwanda and a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. His polemic Indignez-vous! (translated into English as Time of Outrage!) was publsihed in 2010 and sold millions of copies around the world.

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