In Vienna: A Prophet of Hope

94-year-old concentration camp survivor Stéphane Hessel calls for outrage

News | Christian Cummins | November 2011

Stéphane Hessel speaking in the Austrian parliament (Photo: Herbert Neubauer / APA)

On 14 Oct., a Friday evening, there was not a single spare seat in the council chamber of the Austrian Parliament. But it wasn’t politicians. Instead-, the chamber was occupied by a very mixed public audience – ranging from elegantly coiffed society ladies to flat-capped young hipsters. They’d come to hear the words of 94-year-old concentration camp survivor Stéphane Hessel, who in the space of a year, has become one of the most unlikely icons of the largely youthful protest movement that is sweeping Europe's cash-strapped capitals.

Hessel is an anti-Nazi resistance hero and champion of human rights whose remarkable life story had been largely forgotten until October last year when he wrote a 4,000 word political pamphlet called Indignez-vous that railed against the growing gap between the very rich and the rest, and against the vice-like grip that he feels big finance has over both the political class and the media. The pamphlet, which was sold at the bargain price of €3, became an instant best seller and has since reached a global audience, translated into 23 languages including English, in which it appeared under the title Time for Outrage!

In Vienna for a discussion with Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) journalist Michael Kerbler, the German-born French citizen and former diplomat looked terribly frail as he walked to the podium. He placed his feet with infinite care, as he moved his bird-like frame. There was even a slight shake in his arms as he acknowledged the applause of his audience. But any sense of fragility disappeared as soon as he began to speak, in slow, softly-toned, sonorous German sentences, gently cajoling the room to recognize their own responsibility. Here was a man who, three decades after the age of retirement, was strength to be reckoned with.

"When I meet young people," he said, "I tell them to have faith. I tell them that they can envisage a world where there is less inequality and where we do less to destroy the earth. Now it’s up them to make that vision come true."  Yet his call to rebellion is not a call to arms. Hessel, a professed admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, insists that "non-violent resistance always brings better results." In Hessel's eyes, insurrection should be peaceful but fearless.

Far from being a fire-brand, Hessel seems to revel in the charm of old age, flattering his audience into daring to believe in change, challenging them to believe in themselves:

"The great current of history continues to flow only thanks to each and every one of us," he writes in Time for Outrage! where he calls for more compassion for migrants and more respect for our natural heritage. This was the most alluring form of indignation, delivered by a chuckling-, humane, self-effacing prophet of empowerment; a man aged past the point of vanity, who has refused to receive royalties from his book and who told the audience his own life’s real achievement was having loved two wives and his mother. You felt gently tickled towards rebellion.

"You’re just a boy compared to me, you know" he told Kerbler, a man approaching his 60th birthday, "but I suppose you are an adult."

But, if being over 90 brings a certain serenity, there are some things that still really get right up Hessel's nose. These include being labeled an anti-Semite by French intellectuals, including Pierre-André Taguieff, because of Hessel's vocal condemnation of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, whose cause he has championed.

"Being accused of anti-Semitism makes me very angry," he told the audience in the parliament, insisting he is only anti-injustice. The accusation must sting for a concentration camp survivor whose own father was Jewish. After he was captured in Paris, the French resistance fighter was tortured by the Nazis, who employed water-boarding, a form of simulated drowning  defended by former US Vice-President Dick Cheney). Hessel spent time in both Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps and narrowly escaped death by hanging. After the war, Hessel worked with Eleanor Roosevelt editing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, completed in 1948.

His war-time experiences still drive his thinking today. The values of resistance he shared with so many in those dark days have to be re-embraced. If that involves saying things that irk parts of the intellectual establishment, so be it.

Hessel welcomes the protest movement that has occupied the streets of Athens at the Puerto del Sol Square in Madrid. But he is wary of the recent anti-politics trend, in which young people have no faith in the political system at all.

"We have to persuade young people to trust and support the democratic system. It is the only way to change the world," he told the audience in the Parliament.

The next day he was in Graz, addressing a crowd of mostly young protestors on the Mariahilf Square as part of the Global Day of Protest, an off-shoot of the US-based Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

"Even if it sometimes looks as though you can’t change anything," he told the crowd, many of whom were over eight decades his junior, "the truth is that you can."

Other articles from this issue