It might seem hard to object to Hessel’s message, which, on one level, is as platitudinous as a high-school graduation speech: care about the world you live in, fight injustice, cherish non-violence (“I am convinced that the future belongs to non-violence, to the reconciliation of different cultures”). Yet there is actually something quite troubling about the huge popularity of Indignez-vous! and about the political use it makes of the Resistance legacy. For what defined the years 1940 to1944 in France was, precisely, the absence of politics: a country under foreign occupation is deprived of the opportunity, and the responsibility, of self-government. This is a source of humiliation and suffering, but it can also, to those brave people who continue to engage in public life, be a source of exhilarating clarity. Especially when the occupier is as unmistakably evil as Nazi Germany, and especially when the resister is half-Jewish, like Hessel, the compromises and uncertainties of ordinary politics are abolished. “Resisting, for us, meant refusing to accept German occupation and defeat. It was relatively simple,” Hessel recalls.
And what could be more natural than wanting to carry this simplicity and urgency into the realm of ordinary politics, where everything is so maddeningly complicated and drawn-out? “We are determined to replace politics with morality,” Camus wrote in an editorial in Combat, the Resistance newspaper, on September 4, 1944. “That is what we call a revolution.” Yet, within days of the Liberation—as you can see dramatically in the remarkable volume Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947—the Resistance’s exemption from politics began to crumble, as the compromises involved in actual governing returned.
Since I am the translator of the Camus volume, and have also been struck by the abrupt transformation of Camus's thinking occasioned by postwar divisions and purges, I am pleased by this comparison. But no doubt it will make some readers indignant, because Hessel's book has become a rallying point for many.