How a tiny book by a 93-year old French war veteran helped inspire a European youth uprising.
The past two weeks have seen an historic and unprecedented wave of civic protest bursting through Europe. A veritable popular uprising appears to be in the making, largely led by a ‘lost generation’ of outraged youths.
Fascinatingly, however, the 20-somethings who have taken to the streets of Spain, Greece and countless other countries, have found their inspiration in a little book written by a man four times their senior.
As a Buchenwald survivor and a French resistance fighter during WWII, Stéphane Hessel had been faced with, outraged by, and had struggled against his fair share of injustice in life.
Afterwards, as a co-drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he also experienced the triumph of our inclusive democracy over divisive fascism, and the power of personal outrage in transforming indifference into engagement, crisis into solutions, and, indeed, war into peace.
So when last year, at the noble age of 93, Hessel told his fellow Frenchmen that it was ‘time for outrage’ once again, it certainly made an impact. The first edition of his 30-page pamphlet, Indignez-vous!, quietly published by a humble local publishing house, instantly sold all of its 6,000 copies.
Within months, the booklet was a best-seller in France, selling over 1.5 million copies and being translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Basque, Slovenian, Dutch, German, Korean and English. Today, it has become nothing less than a manifesto for peaceful uprising for a generation of outraged Europeans.
For Hessel, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the treatment of illegal immigrants, the restrictions on the freedom of the press, the political influence of the financial sector, the ideological assault on the welfare state, the overwhelming environmental crisis, and the oppression of the Palestinian people all call for a sense of personal outrage similar to the one that he experienced when he joined the resistance against the Nazis during the war.
« Le motif de la résistance, » writes Hessel, « c’est indignation. » Therefore, “we, veterans of the Resistance movements and the Free French Forces, we call upon the younger generations to revive, to pass on, the heritage of the Resistance and its ideas. We tell them: take over, indignez-vous! Get angry! Our political, economic and intellectual leaders and society as a whole should not stand down, nor let themselves be impressed by the present international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is threatening our peace and democracy.”
For someone who fought the Nazi oppressor and survived one of its most notorious concentration camps (Hessel only escaped Buchenwald after swapping identity with a deceased friend), it must be crystal clear that « l’indifférence, c’est le pire des attitudes, » or that indifference is the worst of possible attitudes. His words, therefore, should not be taken lightly.
Agitating against this predominant attitude of indifference, Hessel calls on the younger generation to engage itself with the resistance against the dictatorship of financial capital and to struggle for a better world in which everyone has equal opportunities and the right to flourish on an ecologically vibrant planet. Calling for an « insurrection pacifique, » Hessel urges the youth to embrace at once the spirit of resistance and a commitment to non-violence.
Now it appears that the youth of Europe have answered Hessel’s call. Exactly two weeks ago, on May 15th, tens of thousands of Spaniards — calling themselves ‘los indignados‘ — took to the streets in a mass protest demanding real democracy now. And then, the unexpected happened: the 15-M movement transformed itself into a full-blown non-violent youth uprising. Spain’s major city squares have now been occupied for two weeks straight.
In a matter of days, protests spread throughout Europe (videos of 20+ cities here). When the Spanish protesters called on their brothers and sisters in Greece to wake up and embrace the pacifist insurrection, tens of thousands of Greeks, calling themselves the ‘indignants at Syntagma‘ heeded the call and took to Parliament square for the fourth consecutive day, unfolding a giant Spanish banner reading: “We are awake! What time is it? Time for them to go now!”
Amazingly, the international media have been conspicuously absent throughout this continental youth uprising. Foreseeing this, Hessel used the last paragraph of his book to call for a ”genuine pacifist insurrection against the means of mass communication that propose as a horizon for the youth only mass consumption, the contempt of the weakest and of culture, general amnesia, and excessive competition of all against all.”
And so we, the network generation, are heeding that call too, as we spread the European Revolution through social media. Visits to this blog have skyrocketed in the past week as people in Spain, Greece and throughout the world are desperately looking for the information that the mainstream media are categorically refusing to provide. Social media will never start a revolution, but our followers will definitely be the ones to bear witness to it.
Finally, there appears to be hope again. Not the hope of electoral sloganeering, but the genuine hope that this movement can restore power to the people. Towards the end of his own life, Hessel cites his great inspiration, Jean-Paul Sartre, who, in his last interview just three weeks before his death, famously said that “hope has always been one of the dominant forces of revolutions and insurrections, and I still retain hope as my design for the future.”
« Créer, c’est résister. Résister, c’est créer. »
To create is to resist. To resist is to create.