Who is Stéphane Hessel?
He is the much-loved, best-selling author, former French Resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor and ex-diplomat, who died this week at the age of 95.
Tell me more.
Well, Hessel is probably best known outside France for his 2010 political pamphlet ‘Indignez Vous!’ or ‘Time for Outrage’ as it was called in English. It was a rallying call for people across the world to stand up and fight, just like he and his compatriots had done in the French Resistance. Hessel did not mean literally of course, but he wanted to see people resist the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots and stand up against the destruction of the environment. The book, which sold three million copies worldwide is credited with starting the Occupy Wall Street campaign that soon spread into a global movement. “When something outrages you, as Nazism did me, that is when you become a militant, strong and engaged,” Hessel wrote in Indignez Vous!.
But that’s not all right?
No. There’s much more to Hessel’s remarkable life. He was born in Berlin before moving to France. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1939. He fled Paris to London after the Nazi invasion where he met Charles de Gaulle. In 1944 he joined the French Resistance which led him to being arrested by the Gestapo and sent off to a concentration camp. But that did not deter a man of Hessel’s resolve and after having been sentenced to death he escaped the camp. He was later captured and sent to a second camp but Hessel escaped again and by the time he returned to Paris the French capital had been liberated.
So he survived the war, what happened next?
Hessel went on to work for the United Nations as a diplomat and in 1948 he was involved in the editing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hessel regularly spoke up for the cause of the downtrodden, demanding the French government provide housing for the homeless. He was also vociferous in his condemnation of Israeli rocket attacks on Lebanon. And he was close to France’s Socialist Party. In spring 2012, Hessel was a keen supporter of François Hollande in the French presidential elections. Following Hollande’s victory, Hessel spoke of the need to be patient with the new president.
Anything else interesting about his life?
Well his uncommon upbringing in which his mother and father were involved in a three-way affair with writer Henri-Pierre Roché is believed to have inspired François Truffaut’s famous film Jules et Jim.
What was the reaction to his death in France?
With the passing of such a respected figure there was naturally an outpouring of emotion, with politicians eager to pay tribute to Hessel. Hollande said Hessel was “a huge figure whose extraordinary life was devoted to the defence of human dignity. He leaves us a lesson, which is to never accept injustice.” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also paid a glowing tribute. “For all generations he was a source of inspiration, but also a reference. At 95 years of age he epitomized the faith in the future,” the PM said. But it was not just the politicians who reacted to Hessel’s death. There was also a spontaneous gathering on the steps of the Opera House at Bastille. Hundreds gathered to pay their respects. “I feel as though I have lost a father,” said one activist, summing up the mood. “He paved the way and now we must take on the torch.”
What did he say about himself?
Well there was one particularly poignant interview with French TV TF1, in 2012, when at the age of 94 a typically philosophical Hessel spoke lucidly about his inevitable death.
“Death is a big project of mine, the experience could perhaps be the most interesting of my life,” he said. “It’s important not to live too long. Life is enjoyable as long as you have the ability to express yourself.”
“Life is behind us, for me it was beautiful.”