At 94 years of age, Stephane Hessel has already seen and done more than most people can even imagine. He witnessed the rise of fascism in Europe, fought the Nazis in the French Resistance; was interned in German death camps, designated for hanging, escaped and participated in the liberation of Paris; and worked as a diplomat, author and human-rights activist. His German father Franz Hessel was the basis for one of the title characters of the novel Jules and Jim, later a movie by François Truffaut. The character based on his mother is at the heart of the novel. Now Hessel himself is playing the role of instigator and analyst of the rolling wave of protest movements cropping up around the globe, and digging into what he calls the "indignation" pulsating through populations throughout the world.
"Whether we're talking about emerging countries like Brazil or India, or developed ones like the U.S. or Britain, we're seeing people stand up and demand that the widening gap of social injustice the spreading division between the richest and less wealthy be reversed and closed. That gap, that zone of injustice, is where the indignation is coming from," says Hessel, whose small book Indignez-Vous (or under its English tile, Time for Outrage) has sold around 4 million copies in 30 languages since it was released in October 2010 (its initial print run was a mere 6,000). "It's been interesting to see how citizens from so many diverse countries and political systems have all, in their own manner, assembled around the belief that they can no longer actively or passively support political and economic systems that are failing to defend and advance the values and desires of their people. The common, essential factor in all those movements has been public opinion feeling that government, political parties and the general system have abandoned them and the wider interests of society to focus entirely on far narrower financial interests. People are saying, 'One way or another, that must change.'"
Though eager to talk about the spread of the general protest movement which began in earnest in Europe under the name Indignados in Spain and took the form of Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. Hessel warns against assigning his book too great a role in inspiring (much less detonating) that spreading activity. "Things have gotten bad enough in the world the level of injustice and indignity is such that people were already thinking things had to be done to change the situation," Hessel says. "Perhaps the book has been useful in providing a framework of thought and general call to action that may have been able to rely on here or there. The important thing is that reaction is taking place, not precisely why."
Even so, Hessel's book is another reminder of how from little things, big things grow. The work is actually only 13 pages long, with a further few pages of notes, (the essay was so compact that, in the U.S., the Nation published it in its entirety in March 2011) and wasn't necessarily expected to sell out even the initial 6,000 printing. In it, Hessel essentially harks back to his experience before and during World War II fighting Nazism, and explains that outrage and indignation motivated people to wage that good fight and to undergo danger, without any evident reward, in the effort to combat evil and injustice. He notes that while, thankfully, most societies are no longer confronted with the specter of totalitarian systems, militantly racist political systems or genocide and death camps, there are ample levels of unbearable, untenable and entirely intentional injustice in countries around the world to feed a sense of humiliation and unleash efforts to right the wrongs visible to everyone.