Louisa Thomas: Review of Eyal Press's "Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times" (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2012)

Louisa Thomas is the author of “Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — a Test of Will and Faith in World War I.”

BEAUTIFUL SOULS: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times
By Eyal Press
196 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.

Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander, had a simple explanation for why he broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. His daughter remembered that he would repeat the words “I could do nothing else.” It is a humble answer, as if to say that anyone would have done the same.

Except that most Swiss police officers didn’t: they turned the refugees away, as the law required. Grüninger made a choice, and it was certainly not the expected one. He did not fit the image of a resister. He was not a political activist and did not have a history of rebellion. He had a family to protect and provide for. He had taken an oath to uphold the law, and he considered himself faithful to his country. When the authorities discovered that he had falsified the documents of Jews, he became a pariah. So why did he disobey his orders?

That is the question that Eyal Press asks in “Beautiful Souls.” It is not a book of moral philosophy. Press is a journalist, and he is interested in how moral problems play out in particular lives. To that end, he relates the experiences of Grüninger and three others: a Serb who saved the lives of Croats by lying about their ethnic identity; an Israeli soldier from an elite unit who refused to serve in the occupied territories; and a financial industry whistle-blower. Press is not simply storytelling, however. He splices his case studies with brief accounts of other dissenters, along with insights drawn from sociology, political theory, history, neuroscience, psychology, fiction and philosophy....

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