Feature

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press

Press looks at four cases where, despite great personal risk, individuals took stands against wrongdoing being practiced around them.

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

What kind of person breaks ranks in morally challenging situations? said Michael S. Roth in The Washington Post. In his thoughtful, understated new book, journalist Eyal Press looks closely at four cases where, despite great personal risk, individuals took stands against wrongdoing being practiced around them. Paul Grüninger, a Swiss border guard, allowed Jews fleeing the Nazis to enter Switzerland despite a strict closed-border policy. Aleksander Jevtic, a Serbian soldier, risked his life to rescue Croatians from execution in the 1990s. But don’t expect a quartet of nonconformist rebels. These heroes were idealists of a different sort—people who broke from the crowd because they “perceived the crowd to be departing from the deeper ideals traditionally voiced in the community.”

“Press is right” to view individual resistance “as an abiding mystery,” said Rosa Brooks in Bookforum. Historians and social scientists have assembled a clear picture of how ordinary people are coaxed into committing atrocities, but shockingly little has been written about what makes resisters resist. The portraits Press gives us are “finely sketched, and enriched by old-fashioned journalistic effort.” Unfortunately, the stories tell us little about how to nurture moral courage. These characters advanced in imperceptible baby steps toward their heroic acts, explaining their ultimate choices simply as what they “had to do.” Instead of providing a call to action, Beautiful Souls just “peters out.”

“If Press made more comprehensive claims, I wouldn’t trust him,” said Louisa Thomas in The New York Times. “It’s no more possible to explain an act of conscience than it is to dissect a dream.” But Press is finely attuned to the costs of resistance. For Grüninger, the costs of acting nobly included the loss of his job and the smearing of his reputation. For Leyla Wydler, a whistle-blower who tried to disrupt the Ponzi schemes of convicted financier Allen Stanford, there’s lingering anguish. Press’s book is in some ways just “a thoughtful gesture of support” to such individuals. “That might sound like a small thing, but it’s not. Compassion never is.”

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