Bookaroundthecorner reviewed this tiny little booklet a few days ago and since I had bought it last October when it came out and am one of the happy few to own a first edition, I thought I might as well read it. Besides it is only 13 pages long + an additional 14 of introduction and afterword.
Since the French original came out the essay has been translated into many different languages and is a success pretty much everywhere. There is always a very good indicator whether a book is spoken of in Germany when you look at the number of reviews and the number of comments the reviews get on amazon and whether there are articles and TV programs on Swiss TV as well.
Reviews of Indignez-vous! generated up to 200 comments on amazon.de. One could say that Stéphane Hessel hit a nerve.
In France alone it sold far over 600’000 copies, in Germany I think it hit the 1’000’000 mark a while back already.
Hessel, a German Jew, is a charismatic man and looks back on a life story that isn’t shared by many. Hero of the Resistance, member of de Gaulle’s Free French organisation in London, he was captured upon returning to France in 1944, tortured and sent to two different concentration camps which he both escaped. He helped to draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and became a famous French advocate for Human Rights.
With this background and credibility it isn’t surprising that he would make people listen.
Hessel wants to incite a sense of outrage in his readers. Outrage is the fuel for resistance and the only way to stop things as he says. Our world is drifting away from democratic principles with the supremacy of money over everything else.
The worst attitude facing social injustice and exploitation is indifference. There are numerous things that outrage Hessel, one of the most important ones – and source of a lot of controversy – is his take on the situation in Palestine and his statements against the Israeli government. Despite being of Jewish origins he was promptly accused of anti-Semitism. Silly, really as there is a long tradition of Jewish intellectuals, starting with Hannah Arendt, who criticized Israel.
That this book is such a success in France where the current politics give a lot of reason for outrage isn’t surprising. That it is an equal success in Germany isn’t any more astonishing. You cannot write anything and name Jews, Resistance, Nazism, concentration camps and Israel and not be read in Germany. To overlook this book would seem to many a German intellectual almost a sign of anti-Semitism. But there is more to it. His call for non-violence is something that strikes a chord in Germany more than anywhere else. The last time people were really outraged, they ended up killing people (RAF) and this cannot be a solution.
Still, why is it such a success? I think because it is so unflinching. There isn’t any superfluous word in this slim book, no adornment, no digression.
It is short and to the point and tells you without any ambiguities what his author considers to be right and wrong.
I am one of those who is against all sorts of relativism that seems to me just a means to avoid clear thinking and taking responsibility. The most outrageous things are just explained away by people who do not want to take position. There isn’t an excuse for everything, no matter how much some would like this. I particularly abhor cultural relativism and can still remember how I was ostracized as a young student because I dared criticizing the practice of female genital mutilation practiced in many African countries. One female fellow student dared telling me that I was “showing all the sings of the deluded belief of Western and Judeo-Christian supremacy” in criticising an African custom. Now I may be naive but I think whenever something harms someone it can not be right, whether this may be rooted in someone’s culture or not.
Another point in which I agree with Hessel is when he makes clear that outrage that leads to terror is not a solution.
Hessel would like to reach young people but I have my doubts whether his essay is read by the very young. I think those under 30 are getting more and more apolitical. I’m not even sure that growing insecurity will wake them up. Still, one should always try.
Hessel is a “phenomenon” that our world needs. A world that tends to pay attention to the young and good-looking rather than to the elderly. Although strong in numbers they seem to be treated more and more like a minority. We need positive role models in every age group. Hessel demonstartes that you can be 93 years old and your thinking can still be fresh, your engagement intense and your ideas important enough to create an interest in a lot of people.
I attached a great interview for German-speaking readers.