Best-selling French author and Holocaust survivor has some advice for Israel
French nonagenarian Stephane Hessel made the bestseller list with his 2011 essay ‘Time for Outrage!,’ which attacked Israel’s policy in the territories. Yet the concentration camp survivor says his criticism of Israel should not be taken literally.
PARIS - On a chilly winter morning in Paris, the phone rings in the 14th arrondissement apartment of Stephane Hessel and his wife, Christiane Chabry. Hessel, who is one of the most affable people on the planet, breaks off from our interview politely and speaks in a tone of pleasant camaraderie with his interlocutor, who is trying to organize an event for him in the German city of Essen. “Yes, I am fine, mon cher,” he says in response to a question from the person on the other end of the line. “I run right and left. Run and run. It is terrible.” After he hangs up, Hessel sits down on the sofa, very young in spirit but also very clearly not young − he will soon be 95. He mumbles, as though to himself, “I am going to Essen. Again I am traveling. I travel a little too much.”
The apartment is lovely and modest. The paintings on the living room walls recall a period in the early 20th century when modernism, surrealism and cubism reigned. On the bureau, table and desk rest very old framed photographs of family members attired in the fashionable garb of the late 19th century. However, Hessel keeps photographs of his parents − the Jewish-German writer and translator Franz Hessel and the journalist Helen Grund − in a drawer.
There is also a photo of Franz with Henri-Pierre Roche, his good friend and his wife’s lover, who later wrote the novel “Jules and Jim” about their love triangle. Roche is tall and thin; Hessel’s father is shorter and rounder. The actors who played Jules and Jim in the 1962 Francois Truffaut film are very different from the originals; though maybe in this case it is the actors who are the originals and not the replicas. After all, as Hessel wrote in his 1997 French memoir “Dance with the Century,” they used a “banal romantic triangle” in order to forge the legend.
Thanks to the threesome who raised him, Hessel was surrounded by Jewish intellectuals in his childhood and adolescence. As a young man he saw them being persecuted and murdered. In the introduction to “Dance with the Century,” he cross-checks the history of the 20th century with the events of his life. He was born in Berlin in 1917, as revolution raged in Russia. The artist Marcel Duchamp taught him mathematics and chess. He received French citizenship in 1937 and was one of the last to see the philosopher and family friend Walter Benjamin, a few days before Benjamin killed himself. In October 1944, he switched identities with a dead inmate in Buchenwald in order to survive. A year after the establishment of the United Nations, he was hired by the world organization and helped draw up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “My life,” he wrote in regard to his ride during the 20th century, “is about to come to an end upon its end.”
But 13 years later, in 2010, a new chapter began in Hessel’s life. He wrote the manifesto “Indignez-vous!” (Time for Outrage!), which was published by Sylvie Crossman and Jean-Pierre Barou’s Indigene. The first print run of the 48-page essay consisted of 8,000 copies and appeared in October 2010, priced three euros. This was in line with the publisher’s motto, “The price of the truth is cheaper than the price of a lie.” France discovered the manifesto in January 2011 and it soon became the guide to the developing revolution across Europe. (See box)
In September 2011, when the first tent camp went up opposite Wall Street, “Time for Outrage!” began to gather sales momentum in the United States. It has been translated into dozens of languages and has sold four million copies. “The global protest movement does not resemble the Communist movement, which declared that the world had to be overturned according to its viewpoint,” Hessel says. “This is not an ideological revolution. It is driven by an authentic desire to get what you need. From this point of view, the present generation is not asking governments to disappear but to change the way they deal with people’s needs.”
You miss the ideological revolutions?
“No. The revolutions of my century, the 20th century − the Soviet revolution, or the Chinese, or the revolutions that were fomented in Latin America, such as in Cuba − failed for the most part, a failure which was completely clear by the end of the century. It was not only Communism that failed; the neoliberal ideology also placed us on a dangerous course. The 21st century is trying to do something different. The difference, I think, lies in a reassessment of democracy. The word ‘democracy’ is crucially important here. For me, true and authentic democracy occurs when the privileged groups assist the unprivileged groups to become more privileged.”
Hessel followed the protest movement of Israel’s “angry people from the Boulevard Rothschild,” as he called them, with special interest. Three pages of his manifesto (in the English edition) are devoted to his “own outrage” at “the situation in Palestine.” He is scathing about Israel’s settlement policy and the siege of the Gaza Strip, which reminds him of ghettos and concentration camps.
This section of the book, combined with his activity on behalf of the Palestinians, drew fierce criticism from the official Jewish community in France. In one case, after Hessel called for a boycott of the Israeli government, pressure brought by CRIF − the umbrella council of Jewish organizations in France − led to the cancelation of a symposium with his participation.
Hessel seems to have been surprised by the intensity of the reaction. Until then, the book had been criticized for being too short or too simplistic. (In January 2011, the French prime minister, Francois Fillon, said, “There is nothing less French than indifference, but rage for the sake of rage is not a worldview.”) But the attack by Jewish groups, some of whom accused Hessel of anti-Semitism, struck a raw nerve. He was deeply moved when Haaretz requested an interview.
“In this small book, ‘Time for Outrage!,’ the only country I mentioned specifically, and which I attacked specifically, is Israel,” he says. “But that attack must not be taken literally. We have an opportunity to make the Israeli reader, who is on the defensive against attacks of this kind, understand their motivation.
“I was working at the United Nations in New York when Israel was born,” he continues. “I knew and loved Ralph Bunche, the man who demarcated the partition boundaries and who succeeded the mediator [Count Folke] Bernadotte after he was assassinated. The world war, in which I was witness to the horrific Holocaust, had ended not long before. I was delighted on the day the decision was made to establish the state. At last, I told myself, the Jews will have a state. At the time, it did not especially grieve me that Palestinians had to be removed. I thought this was a natural reaction by Israel and I told myself that maybe this is a sad story for a particular nation, but a wonderful story for our Jewish friends.”
You say “our Jewish friends.” Did you never identify yourself as a Jew?
“I never felt like a ‘good Jew.’ My mother was not Jewish, and that makes me a non-Jew according to Jewish religious law,” whose paternal grandparents forsook Judaism and had his father, Franz Hessel, baptized. “My father, who was a Jew, took more of an interest in Greek mythology than in Judaism. Actually, I am doing him an injustice. He was a treasure trove of knowledge and had many Jewish friends, among them two important Zionists − Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem and Walter Benjamin − though the latter, as is known, did not join the ranks of the Israelis.
“My father’s family was a typical Jewish family in Germany. My grandfather was a successful merchant who left a shtetl in Poland and went first to Szczecin and then to Berlin. My father, although he was not a believing Jew, lived in a Jewish milieu. When he married my mother, who was a Protestant, his parents were worried, because they thought she was after his money. That was, of course, very unfair of them, but it shows you that their Jewishness was not completely erased, as they found it difficult to accept the fact that a Protestant woman had fallen in love with a Jew.
“I, in contrast, not only did not have a bar mitzvah, but did not hear much about Judaism or learn about it at home, either. Nevertheless, I felt very close to the Jews. I saw how my homeland, Germany, had treated them. I was a teenager in Paris in 1933, when Hitler took power. I was a young man in 1938, when my father had to flee from Germany − this was a few weeks before Kristallnacht. For all these reasons, I was very moved by Israel’s birth.”
A free woman
Stephane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917. His father’s parents, Heinrich and Fanny Hessel, had come in 1880 to the German capital, where they joined the Lutheran Church. One of the children, Franz Hessel, became a writer, essayist and translator. In 1906, he went to Paris, where he became friends with the artist and collector Henri-Pierre Roche. In 1912, at the Cafe du Dome in Montparnasse, Franz Hessel met Helen Grund, a German banker’s daughter who had come to Paris to study painting.
“She was a free woman, an exemplary model of a liberated Berlin woman,” Hessel says of his mother. “And she was surrounded by women of the same kind, who did not want to be led by men.” In 1913, Franz and Helen decided to get married. Their son says they did not marry in order to be mutually bound. “My father had deep, non-possessive friendships with young women. When he proposed to my mother, he said, ‘Now you will be even freer than before.’” They returned to Berlin. Both the assimilated parents and the Prussian parents were dumbstruck. The marriage, Hessel says, “was undertaken in part as a declaration of their freedom vis-a-vis the families.”
Hessel’s older brother, Ulrich, was born in 1914, shortly before their father was recruited to the German army. Hessel’s parents returned to Paris in the 1920s, this time with their two sons. The friendship between Hessel and Roche was resumed and grew closer. Roche introduced the Hessels to many poets and artists, among them Andre Breton, Alexander Calder and Man Ray, who photographed Helen in the nude. But “Marcel Duchamp impressed us more than all of Roche’s friends,” Hessel wrote in his autobiography. “To me, he was a heroic figure. There was an aura about him, stemming from his radically different attitude toward reality and toward artistic creation. I was 14 when he taught me basic mathematics and chess. I saw him as a master and myself as an apprentice.”
In 1926, Franz Hessel and his friend Walter Benjamin started to translate Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” Later, Benjamin wrote his famous essay “The Return of the Flaneur,” which is about Hessel’s 1929 book “On Foot in Berlin,” through which he developed his theories about strollers and strolling. “At that age I could not understand the conversations they held when Benjamin visited us,” Hessel says, “but I remember an introverted person,” someone whose being was “cloudy.”
After so many decades and dozens of interviews in which you have been asked about these people, what else can you say about them?
“I was a young boy when I met the Surrealists and the Dadaists. I admired them, and that is what they taught me: to admire. Admiration is very important. People who are unable to admire others lose an important part of their soul. My soul developed from a very early age through encounters with admired people. Maybe they also had less admirable traits, but that is how I saw them then: ‘Here are people who are doing things, people who are creating.’”
Years later, you attended the famous school Ecole Normale Superieure, where you met Jean-Paul Sartre.
“I was fortunate to be born into a family that was surrounded by fascinating people. Sartre came into my life when I was 17, at the time his first novels were published. His message was very clear: ‘You must devote your responsibility, you become a human being only when you feel your responsibility.’ That is I what learned then and that is what I still feel − that every moment in my life is a desire to invest in a goal. Just as Sartre himself invested his whole life in goals, some of them wonderful, others less so. That is why, after ‘Time for Outrage!’ I wrote ‘Get Involved!.’"
The relations between Roche and Hessel’s mother became closer shortly after his parents returned to Paris from Germany, when he was still a toddler. “She was 34 when we found ourselves in a totally banal triangle, whose adaptation into a novel and afterward a film gave it mythic status,” Hessel writes in his autobiography. Roche also shared other affairs with Hessel’s father. Accordingly, the son asks in his memoir, “Was it not natural for him to become the lover of the wife of his best friend?”
In 1953, 20 years after parting from Grund and a decade after Franz Hessel’s death, Roche wrote the novel “Jules and Jim,” in which the toddler Stephane is transmuted into a little girl. Roche died in 1959, three years before the director Francois Truffaut transformed the story into a legend with his film.
Wasn’t your father angry at Roche, wasn’t he jealous?
“He was certainly jealous, but he also said to himself: ‘Here is a great love story, one that is important and interesting from a literary viewpoint as well. Let us allow these two people, who are living an extraordinary and passionate love story, to write about those experiences.’ They both kept personal diaries and he was the middleman.”
Why did Roche, and Truffaut after him, end the story with the car in the water?
“That is, of course, not something that happened in reality. The book wants to say that a woman who wishes to maintain unconventional relations with a man is entitled to destroy the man, to destroy him because he is not ambitious enough to fulfill her passion. And not only to destroy him but also to make her loving husband miserable. We are talking about the book and the film, not about the story of the life of my parents and Roche.”
What did you learn from your mother about women?
“A great deal. Not only about women, also about ethics, honor, sincerity. She possessed all those qualities. And most important, she taught me how to be happy. She used to say, ‘Happiness is something people deserve and should share with others. You have to learn how to be happy and how to make others happy.’ Thanks in large measure to her, I had wonderful and meaningful relationships with women: with the love of my youth, with my late wife, with my present wife. Women fascinate me. They are the most marvelous experience a man can have.”
What did you glean from the love triangle?
“I was three − I gleaned nothing.”
The upshot was that Franz Hessel and Helen Grund were divorced. Hessel returned to Berlin, and at the beginning of the 1930s Grund lived with Roche and her two sons in Paris. Then, in July 1933, Grund discovered that, throughout the entire period, Roche had been secretly married and had an infant son, Jean-Claude. “She couldn’t bear the ongoing lie,” Hessel wrote. “A fight broke out that escalated into a rare outburst of violence. Helen aimed a pistol. Roche, who was badly frightened, threw a punch. Helen decided never to see Roche again.”
Jean-Claude Roche, the infant who triggered the pistol episode and now in his eighties, calls Hessel. “Jean-Claude! How are you, mon cher?” Hessel replies with a warmth that radiates across the room. Holding the receiver, he nods his head with the empathy of an older brother. Occasionally he chuckles. A great deal of steam is apparently being let off at the other end of the line. “Do you hear what he is telling me?” he says to me with an ironic look. “They are going to build a new hotel, the Jules and Jim Hotel.”
“Och,” his wife Christiane Chabry clucks, followed by Hessel. “They” would seem to be a broad term that incorporates everyone who has milked Truffaut’s cow and tired out the descendants of “Jules and Jim.” At the start of the interview, when it became clear that we would talk not only about Israel and the Palestinians, but also about Jules and Jim, Chabry excused herself, saying she had a few things to do. “She has heard enough about Jules and Jim,” Hessel explained. “It is important for her to talk about Israel and the Palestinians."
Stephane Hessel knows a thing or two about danger. His father returned to Berlin in 1928, after divorcing Hessel’s mother, and earned a living as a translator and as a publisher’s reader. “I visited him after Hitler came to power,” Hessel recalls. “He would say, ‘This Hitler will never succeed. Even his German is not real German.’ Anyone who reads about the period between Hitler’s rise to power and Kristallnacht sees how badly the West behaved. Anti-Semitism was not grasped as a concrete danger, and it was strong everywhere, including the United States and Britain.
“I spent a year in Britain in 1933, and I saw how many good British families supported Hitler,” Hessel recalls. “My father paid a price for that naivete. At one point in the 1930s he was no longer allowed to publish anything in his name, but his publisher let him publish under an assumed non-Jewish name. That form of protection softened reality for my father but also endangered him. And then came 1938. My mother felt that the story was becoming too dangerous. She went to Germany and she and my father remarried, so that he would be able to get an exit permit. She then put him on a train to Paris, almost by force.”
Grund stayed in Berlin when Franz Hessel returned to Paris. A few weeks later, the countrywide wave of pogroms known collectively as Kristallnacht took place. “My mother wrote an article on Kristallnacht for the New Yorker, posing as a Dutch tourist in Berlin. She described the events and the stunned reaction of her friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It was clear to her that Kristallnacht was the first indication of just how far Hitler was prepared to go,” Hessel says.
At the beginning of the war, the Hessel family fled Paris for the south of France and were hosted by the writer Aldous Huxley in his villa in the town of Sanary. Under an order to arrest all foreign nationals in Vichy France, Franz and Ulrich were taken into custody and sent to Camp des Milles, an internment camp. Released with the help of friends, they reached Sanary, where Franz Hessel tried to resume his writing routine. However, he had fallen seriously ill during the period of incarceration and died of a heart attack a few weeks after his release.
At the time, Stephane Hessel was living apart from the family and looking for a way to get to Britain, so he could join the Free French Resistance. He reached London in May 1941 and was invited to dinner with Charles de Gaulle at the hotel in which the French leader lived with his wife. “I was very moved,” he writes in his memoir. “I wanted most of all to understand why this rebellious general, who had actually saved our honor, was being accused of being power-hungry and of trying to reign over the Third Republic. Nothing in his behavior during that meal justified that image.”
After a time, Hessel joined the Free French air unit and became a navigator. In March 1944, he entered Paris illegally in order to make contact with underground activists and find new sites for radio transmitters for conveying intelligence information to London. On July 10, 1944, Hessel had planned meetings with a dozen Resistance activists at various places in Paris.
What he did not know was that one of the local underground activists had been arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, and had agreed to meet with Hessel while being followed by Gestapo agents. Hessel was arrested and locked up in a small loft on prestigious Avenue Foch. He decided to lie in the interrogation. “I speak German and the interrogator gets confused,” he writes. “But the next day the tone changes ... ‘Do we have to force you to talk?’ ‘You can try.’ ‘Fine, move over to the sink.’”
“Waterboarding is a method that is not meant to kill you but to make you talk,” Hessel reflects now on the torture technique. “The question is how long you can hold out before breaking. I was dunked three times and I was not much of a hero. I lifted my head out of the sink and said, ‘Now I agree to talk.’ Of course, what I told them was fabricated. I was not hysterical. It is a very physical thing, without any sort of mental dimension. You are the one who decides how long you will last and what you are going to say. As I see it, that decision makes torture ineffective. The Declaration of Human Rights forbids torture, but if we are already talking about people who were tortured, you should know that generally they provide irrelevant information. There are better ways to make people talk.”
Still, you carried in your pocket a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead.”
“The moment I was arrested I thought my life was over. I knew I had been arrested as a spy − and what would the Germans do to a spy? They would kill him. But their bureaucracy was slow enough so that I could survive for a month in Paris. It was a dramatic period and I was young and romantic. I wanted my wife, Vitya, to think I was a real man, so I put a copy of the sonnet in my pocket.”
A month later, the Gestapo decided to end the interrogation. A few days before the liberation of Paris, Hessel was sent to Buchenwald together with other members of the Resistance. It soon emerged that they were all going to be hanged. The historian Eugen Kogon, who would later write the book “The SS State,” was able to persuade the Kapo to switch the identity of three underground men (two of them British) with three Frenchmen who were dying of typhoid fever. Hessel was chosen to be one of the three, perhaps because he spoke German. “We were incarcerated on the first floor of Bloc 46,” he writes. “In the basement were young French people who were very sick. It was agreed that we would use the identities of the first three who died. Their bodies would be sent to the incinerators with our names. If they wanted to execute us, the documents would show that we had died of typhoid fever.”
Two of the sick inmates died and Hessel’s comrades took their identities. Hessel waited his turn. Michel, the dying young man whose identity he would assume, started to feel better. On October 18, Hessel suggested an alternative plan to Kogon: “The condition of my substitute is improving. May God bless him! There are no other Frenchmen who are terminally ill. We must not lose time: I want to take advantage of the next opportunity to escape. Today is Wednesday, and it is almost certain that the next execution list will arrive tomorrow. Please organize the transfer for me so that I will be able to leave the camp tomorrow.”
The plan was rejected as too dangerous. The Frenchman died on Hessel’s 27th birthday. On October 27 he wrote to Kogon, “Everything is arranged. I feel like someone whose life has been spared at the last minute. What a relief!” He added, “God! How I was relieved to hear that he was not married!”
Did you meet with his family after the war?
“Yes. I undertook the sorry task of talking to the three dying Frenchmen. We knew that if the Frenchmen died quickly, we would be spared. If they survived, we would be hanged. Michel died on my 27th birthday, so I was saved. As soon as I got back to France after the war, I looked for his family. I sat with his mother and his sister, and we cried together.”
From Buchenwald, Hessel was sent to the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. On one occasion he was forced to strip the dead of their clothing before they were sent to the crematorium. He also remembers well the day on which Jews from Auschwitz were brought to the camp. “They were specters,” he wrote, “moving about without leaving a trace. Shadows.” He managed to escape and, with the aid of Allied soldiers, reached liberated Paris.
Hessel passed the tests of the French Foreign Ministry and was posted to the fledgling United Nations. The world body’s offices were then located outside Manhattan, in a huge U.S. Air Force hangar. Hessel was the bureau chief for Henri Laugier, the assistant secretary general of the UN and secretary of the commission which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The vote on the declaration was held on December 10, 1948, in Paris. Hessel recalls this as the most moving moment in his life.
At the same time, he understood that Stalinism held sway in Russia, that the Iron Curtain was coming down across Eastern Europe, and that the place of survivors and resistance fighters in the war, who had joined the UN to fight for a better world, was being taken by officials looking for hefty salaries. He left and joined the French foreign service, where he held senior diplomatic posts for decades.
Nevertheless, Hessel remains a true UN person. “We are fortunate to have the United Nations,” he says. “The UN Charter should be our guiding principle, and we should turn to it to solve every problem. The UN Security Council should be the body to resolve the worldwide issues of war and peace. I know this is not always easy.”
Two states for two nations
Until 1967, Hessel had visited Israel once and his firstborn daughter had been a volunteer in a kibbutz. Then came the Six-Day War. “I always say that when a country wins with such overwhelming might, it’s bad news for that country,” Hessel says. “That is what happened to Hitler and that is what happened to Napoleon. Regrettably, that is also what happened to [Moshe] Dayan. From 1967, all the Israeli governments continued making two big mistakes: occupation and settlement in the territories. Exactly 50 years ago, the UN passed a resolution prohibiting colonization.”
Hessel is a member of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a human rights organization established in 2009 and based on a body originally organized by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He and Chabry are also members of Voice of the Children, an NGO which operates in both the Palestinian Authority and Israel, “which makes it possible for us to meet children in different Palestinian cities,” he relates. “We arrived in Gaza three months after the operation [Cast Lead, in 2008/9] and we spent a week there. The evidence of destruction was everywhere. We read the Goldstone report and I was asked to write a commentary on it for the German media. I submitted our testimony about the destruction in Gaza together with the testimonies of a Gazan friend, who used to call us every day during the operation and tell us what was happening on the ground.” Referring to Richard Goldstone, who publicly changed his opinion on the report his commission issued in light of subsequent evidence, he adds: “Goldstone’s subsequent capitulation was very disappointing, especially in light of the fact that none of his colleagues on the commission recanted.”
You met with many young Palestinians. How do you imagine their Israeli peers?
“I know that only a few of them, to my regret, decided to refuse to fight in the territories. Unfortunately, the majority are educated not only to be against but also to be afraid of the Palestinians and of the Muslims. They are told − and this is not entirely wrong − that the schools in Arab states treat Israel as a country which should not exist. They are taught that millions upon millions of Arabs are threatening their existence. They are not allowed to mix with Palestinians, meet with them or get to know them. The result is that the image of Israel as an isolated country amid a sea of Arabs is a normal, daily image for most Israelis.
“I was very curious about the rage of the angry people on Rothschild Boulevard. I said to myself that the feelings of these young people are not far from the feelings of the young people in Cairo and Tunis. They too, like their neighbors in Cairo and Tunis, feel they are not being led to anywhere good and therefore they have to demonstrate. I told myself − and then it turned out I was wrong − that if the angry people on Rothschild Boulevard feel frustrated because of the cost of living and because of social distresses, they will talk about the main reason for this situation: the fact that their government is wasting so much money on the occupation and the settlements. We know it is very costly. If that money were not invested in the settlements, they would have a better life. I thought they would use that argument, but it turned out they did not.”
Nevertheless, he is certain that the protest is justified. “The Israeli government has not succeeded in providing for the well-being of all Israelis,” he says. “There is serious poverty in many areas of Israel, while the defense budget is bloated. I was also happy about the uprising against [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. I think he and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman are the worst leaders Israel has ever had, very close to the definition of fascist leaders: because of the violence, which they also direct internally, against quite large segments of the Jewish population, and also because of the concessions to the religious extremists.
“I always believed that Israel, to its good fortune, was not a religion-based country. It was a secular state which at a certain stage had a large socialist movement. But contrastingly, a different Israel is growing stronger, one in which some Jews think that God gave them the land. In my view, monotheism is one of the most dangerous things in modern society. We succeeded in overcoming the violence of the Church, though not yet of extreme Islam. But Judaism was always able to inspire the cultures amid which it lived. This shift is very unfortunate.”
Do you find Israeli security arguments completely unfounded?
“On the day that a Palestinian state comes into being, and on the day that state will be able to maintain independent relations with Israel − on that day it will be possible to start talking about Israel’s security, which is of central importance in modern history. As long as Palestinian violence exists, but not a Palestinian state, Israel is in danger. That is why I have always supported a two-state solution. I know there are voices today urging one state which will accommodate Jews, Muslims and Christians. That idea is completely unrealistic. None of the sides truly wishes to go in that direction. For me it is clear: we must show very solid support for Israel on issues of security and be highly critical on issues of occupation.”
The China syndrome
“Time for Outrage!” was recently translated into Mandarin and will soon be published in China. Why, I put it to Hessel, should a Jewish Israeli not say to himself that this is the height of absurdity: to appeal to the Chinese with a manifesto which is critical of Israel, instead of making changes in the Mandarin edition and assailing the human rights situation in China. “You, the European gentleman,” the hypothetical Israeli would say, “are totally blind to the atrocities perpetrated by others and are reaching an unbalanced conclusion about Israel.”
Hessel: “I object. I am not a European gentleman who is indifferent to Israel’s future, but a European gentleman who worked with the Israelis for many years and believes strongly in Israel’s ability to return to a place in which it functions as a central actor in the Near East and as a central actor in world civilization. This particular gentleman believes in Israel, and that is why he is critical of the bad direction in which it is being led.”
Still, why did you not wrote about human rights violations in China in the Mandarin edition? Israelis complain that Europe does not deal with human rights offenses in China, for example, the way it does with Israel.
“That is a complete exaggeration. Europe is totally in thrall to Israeli propaganda. Europe is not lifting a finger to prevent Israel from continuing to behave as it is now. Israeli propaganda in Europe, France and the United States is far more effective than any other. I, too, am very critical of the way international Jewry is aiding Israel. I think it is doing counterproductive work by encouraging Israel not to budge.
“And now, here is a very small book which has succeeded tremendously everywhere. Why doesn’t this book talk about China? If you read this tiny book, you will discover that the author explains why he does not talk about China, North Korea or Sudan. He writes that the most important problems which need to be addressed today are poverty and the unjust distribution of resources, and the terrible way in which the planet is being abused and destroyed. Those are the two major problems which young people have to address.
“But as it happens, I, the author, am connected to one specific problem and I want to talk about it. It is personally important to me. Why? Not because I have special ties with the Arabs or the Palestinians. It is because I feel an obligation toward Israel, the responsibility of one who survived World War II and saw firsthand the Jews’ suffering. It is that obligation which makes me write that Israel must be led differently to ensure its security. Israelis might think this is a verbal exercise, but I say it in all sincerity. And I am certain that if we look at the true feelings of the Israelis, we will find that most of them feel the same way. They know that in the long term it is not good for their country to use more and more force, and that Israel will benefit from having friendly relations with its neighbors.”
Angel of history
In 1940, when Hessel was 24 and on his way to London to join the Free French, he met Walter Benjamin for the last time. The meeting took place in a “small, disgusting hotel” in Marseille, where Benjamin was preparing for his final, tragic journey to the border with Spain. “Benjamin looked completely in despair,” Hessel writes. “His Germany had become a monster. He had no faith in America. His despair made me so angry that I could not pity him.”
Benjamin was “defeated and very miserable when I met him,” Hessel recalls now. “He felt that this was the worst moment for democracy in Europe, and the fact that [the eminent sociologists] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer rejected his writing did not help. They sent back his texts and were scathingly critical. In contrast, I was an ardent young man who tried to fire him up, to tell him I was going to join de Gaulle, that this war was not yet decided and that the ‘good guys’ would win. But he was apathetic and numb, and that, unfortunately, weakened him on his long journey and in the end led him to give up and kill himself.”
You write in the manifesto that his angel of history is not your angel of history.
“He felt that progress is a very bad thing. I agree with him in part, but I do not live with that agreement in the way that he did. He said that the angel of history is trying to stop progress, but that progress shakes him like a powerful wind; that progress is a horrible storm that must be resisted. I think differently: history is something we have to live with and move ahead with, even if it brings great dangers.”
What kind of dance did you have with the century? A waltz? A rumba? A Charleston? A fox-trot?
“In 1997, when I wrote the biography, I felt I’d had a long century. A century that hurtled me between wonderful events and appalling events, as though dancing with me. I feel that like a one-step dance. Step by step.”