An intellectual autobiography by the French activist who wrote Time for Outrage, the pamphlet some claim sparked the Arab Spring.
Now 94, Hessel hopes that the era of nation-states is passing. He fled his own nation during World War II to join Charles de Gaulle's resistance group in London. Returning to France, he was captured by the Nazis and deported to Buchenwald; he survived with help from Eugen Kogon, later a witness against Nazi atrocities. Hessel was one of 12 people who worked for three years to draft the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published in 1948. Subsequently making a distinguished career in French government, he was inducted into the Légion d'honneur in 2006. In Hessel’s view, the Universal Declaration offers an agenda for the future. Its groundbreaking feature is the assertion that human rights are primary; Hessel and others intended that this would provide the “fundamental value on which the new world would be built.” The sovereignty of governments has “to cede to human rights,” he argues; potential conflicts must be settled rather than fought. Nation-states, products of the Treaty of Westphalia, are driven by two forces: libido possidendi, the lust to own or possess, and libido dominandi, the thirst for power or domination. These imperatives transform leaders into tyrants and citizens into subjects. Hessel buttresses his argument with references to contemporary European philosophers and politicians; he grounds his opposition to Marx, Freud and Nietzsche in the abiding truths of the Greek classics. Reliance on these sorts of sources means that Hessel’s book is very much out of step with the political discourse favored in contemporary America, but he does provide insight into a particular strand of contemporary European thought, rooted in what he calls “indignation” over the selfish, irresponsible behavior of today’s political elites.
Unfocused, and not for the fainthearted, but a clarion call for the like-minded that will perhaps attract the curious as well.