Union Square, £9.99 Order for £9.49from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Small Acts of Resistance, By Steve Crawshaw & John Jackson

Moved by courage under fire

How do you change the world? It seems a preposterous idea: little me among 6.8 billion others, $4 trillion in Forex flows flashing across the globe every day, millions of men under arms, the vested interests of the ages. How do you change that lot? The most you can hope for in this life, you would think, is to make a little money and have a little fun.

But as Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson demonstrate in this inspiring book, the history of the past hundred years bears witness to the fact that the individual conscience, ignited by indignation, is capable of almost anything. "Never doubt," as Margaret Mead wrote, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The Nazis were hellbent on ridding Europe of Jews. Communism was set in stone. Racial segregation was part of the texture of life in the Southern US. But put sympathy, courage and imagination together into the test tube and the reaction is alchemical. Add surreal humour and a refusal to entertain the idea of being afraid, and people can achieve practically anything. "Disobedience," wrote Oscar Wilde, "is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made."

The result may be glory: Vaclav Havel, a nobody to the Czech communist authorities, was president soon after the Velvet Revolution. But just as often it is obscurity, even ignominy: Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat in Hungary who saved 60,000 Jews through his creative diplomacy, was rewarded with a hostile enquiry. Fritz Kolbe, a Nazi-hating German diplomat who smuggled thousands of secret documents to the Allies, was barred from working by the postwar German bureaucracy. But the point is to defy the logic of the status quo, at whatever cost.

That explains why we possess this amazing potential: because the vast majority of humanity has no intention of taking such risks. To stand up like Rosa Parks (who broke the whites-only bus rule in Alabama) or the protesters in Leipzig in 1989 means shaking off the fear of death. It is easy to identify the heroes of 20 or 50 years ago: hindsight is garishly illuminated. It is much harder to see our contemporaries with the same clarity. But that is what defines heroism: to be dedicated to the just end, with no way of knowing how things are going to turn out.

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