The Original French Article: L’ancien résistant Stéphane Hessel est mort
Translated by Kristina Wischenkamper
Resistance fighter, deportee, diplomat and co-author of the Declaration of Human Rights Stéphane Hessel died during the night from Tuesday to Wednesday at the age of 95 years. There follows an interview he gave to l’Humanité on 31 December 2010 on the publication of Indignez-vous!
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Born in Berlin in 1917, he arrived in France as a child and was naturalized in 1937. Resistance fighter, deportee and Ambassador, Stéphane Hessel was most well known for his stances on human rights, the right to asylum, immigrant rights and the Middle East. Former student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and a friend of Pierre Mendes-France and Michel Rocard, Hessel took up a career in the diplomatic service and the United Nations. More recently, he was a member of the College of Mediators for undocumented migrants in 1996. His pamphlet Indignez-vous!(Time_for_Outrage! 2010), which defends the spirit of resistance, had a global impact, was translated into numerous languages and sold in the millions.
What is your reaction to the book’s success? Does it speak to an urgent need of our times?
Stéphane Hessel: Naturally, I was greatly surprised by the pamphlet’s success. I think it is because we live in a time of anxiety, and it is not at all clear where we are heading. We are clearly aware that we’re in the middle of a crisis – and not at the end of it – a crisis caused by a non-regulated neoliberal economy. It is only natural to question the reasons for the failure of our societies. When you live in a society that is malfunctional, the very first reaction is be outraged. We must remember that in other periods of our history, we also had to be outraged if we did not wish to undergo the occupation of France by foreign forces, or suffer passively situations of food shortage.
Public debt or a lack of finance are often used as arguments to bring into question the social battles won with the Liberation. How was the National Council of Resistance(Conseil National de la Résistance CNR) able to build these social systems in a Europe in ruins?
Stéphane Hessel: One must first remember that the CNR programme was developed in secret by people who had no political capacity other than reflection and propositions. With this relative freedom of thought, they posed the problem of how France, once liberated, could give its country a set of values and policies that corresponded to the spirit of what the French resistance represented. Essentially this was a social democracy that takes full account of fundamental freedoms, fights against feudal economic excesses, and a press run by the Vichy government. Have these values been usurped? Of course they have. And this is the logic behind being outraged. There is no reason why France in 2010 doesn’t have the means necessary when it has considerable resources of wealth, far greater than those of 1945. Nevertheless, the achievements on which we ought to have been able to rely were not carried forward. This should form the basis of profound reflection and create a sense of what there is to be done. Outrage is the first step but one must not stop there. We have to ask the question: How can we change things? We need a new direction for the country. That taken since 2007 is not satisfactory. However, we must know what we can propose in its place. This applies equally to Europe and to the world. And especially for those regions most affected by the crisis or in conflict … One naturally thinks of the Palestinians, the Sahrawis, and those who, contrary to what the UN Charter defends, do not yet have a independent state and whose auto-determination is not yet being realised.
You call for greater justice and freedom, but “not the unbridled freedom of the fox in the henhouse.” Do you mean by this that, without equality and fraternity, freedom is nothing?
Stéphane Hessel: Freedom is both one of the most basic and one of the most precarious rights. Freedom is meaningless if it does not ensure equal rights and therefore solidarity. This is why everything should be seen as a whole. The freedom which governs more and more the financialized markets, at the service of a few, and incompatible with equality and fraternity, has already caused considerable damage.
You mention the role Sartre played in training your mind, and his phrase: “We are responsible as individuals. “ What role, then, does the collective play?
Stéphane Hessel: The political and economic structures currently ruling human societies are in crisis. They are not equipped to solve the new problems we face: protecting the planet, the ever-increasing wealth gap between rich and poor. We can no longer rely on existing authorities; citizens must get mobilized in non-governmental organizations, movements which are increasingly international, as is the case of the large social forums. This is the way forward, collectively, so that the citizens – and not the existing power structures – can open the way to a complete and necessary overhaul of the way the global economy functions.
You also cite Hegel, the sense of history and successive shocks. Do you consider that democracy is currently regressing?
Stéphane Hessel: It has to be said, unfortunately, that democracy hasn’t yet been achieved. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the rights it defends can only be achieved within a democratic system that outlaws any form of tyranny, totalitarianism or oppression. Let us not, however, underestimate the progress that is under way in Europe and, most particularly, in Latin America. Nevertheless it is insufficient because these democracies still do not sufficiently defend us against the influence of financial capitalism. This is where the efforts of individuals must be focussed.
Concerning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you mention the hypocrisy of certain powerful organisms in their adherence to these values. How do you think this has hindered the application of these rights?
Stéphane Hessel: The concept of hypocrisy is important in seeing how governments and larger companies claim to promulgate rights and equality, and an economic progress that will benefit all, especially the poorest. In reality, they do everything to retain their power even if that power is harmful to the needs of citizens. They also want to retain economic control even if the benefits accrue only to a very small elite, the elite that Susan George (Honorary President of Attac) calls “the Davos Class”, that is to say the possessors . We still live in a world where the possessors are entitled to all the benefits and where the dispossessed do not yet know how to resist sufficiently.
You conclude that we need to overcome a clash of ideologies. Faced with financial oligarchies, in particular, do you not agree that we need to have a solid ideological basis?
Stéphane Hessel: We are fortunate enough to have the United Nations, that is founded on a charter decreeing a number of rights and freedoms for all. The UN should be given greater power. We need global governance, not a one world state which would be an absurdity, but a system of cooperation between states which is based on democratic principles. If we were to use UN institutions, giving them the necessary authority, we could finally put an end to conflict and replace violence with non-violence. Faced with violent confrontations between states, or cultures, between religions and civilizations, between opposing ideologies, we must instead look towards negotiating thought as exemplified by people like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi amongst others. One of the major reasons for moving towards solidarity and interdependence is the risk to the planet. We are living in a time where, if we do not all work together to put forward ecological solutions, within fifty or a hundred years the planet will no longer be viable for human life.
 Susan George quotes Adam Smith: ‘“All for ourselves and nothing for other people” seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind,’ wrote Adam Smith in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, universally considered the first comprehensive inquiry into the nature and practice of capitalism.
An excerpt from Susan George’s book can be read here:https://www.tni.org/article/davos-class