Hessell achieved worldwide celebrity at the age of 93, when a political pamphlet he wrote became a bestselling publishing sensation and inspired global protest and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Originally written as a speech to commemorate the resistance to Hitler’s occupation of France during the second world war, it served as a rallying cry for those appalled by the gap between the world’s rich and poor. He compared the 21st-century struggle against what he described as the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” to his generation’s struggle against oppression as a young man during the war.
The short 2010 manifesto, “Indignez-Vous!,” was published just as Spain’s 15th of May protest movement began gathering steam. These protests, along with the Arab spring uprisings, inspired protests in other countries and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States and around the world.
“They get together, they think together, and they act together,” Hessel said of the 15M group. “They can find the kinds of civic organizations that would put pressure on their governments and hope that their governments would do the right thing if they are sufficiently pressed to do it.”
“When something outrages you, as Nazism did me, that is when you become a militant, strong and engaged,” he wrote. “You join the movement of history, and the great current of history continues to flow only thanks to each and every one of us.”
The book, 29 pages (only 14 of text), held together by two staples and released by a two-person publishing house out of an attic office, had an original print run of 8,000. But it struck a chord with young people distressed by the policies of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Translated into more than a dozen languages, and distributed in 35 countries, it sold more than three million copies in Europe in less than a year; in July 2011, translated into English, it was published in the United States as “Time for Outrage!” and was circulated in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Time for Outrage! argued that the French needed to become as outraged now as his fellow fighters had been during the war. He was highly critical of France’s treatment of illegal immigrants, and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and passionate about the environment, the influence on the news media by the rich, and the shrinking social safety net. His call was for peaceful, non-violent insurrection.
Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917. His father, Franz, a German writer and translator, had lived for many years in Paris, where he met and befriended Henri-Pierre Roché, an artist and writer, and Helen Grund, a German art student, who would become his wife and Stéphane’s mother. When the boy was still a toddler, the family returned to Paris, where Helen took up with Roché, and a three-way love affair ensued, becoming the basis for Roché’s 1953 novel, “Jules et Jim,” later adapted by François Truffaut into the well-known film.
The Parisian society the family joined included the poet André Breton, the sculptor Alexander Calder, and the photographer Man Ray. The artist Marcel Duchamp taught the young Stéphane to play chess. As a teenager, he met Jean-Paul Sartre. “Sartre came into my life when I was 17, at the time his first novels were published,” he said in a 2012 interview for the English-language Israeli Web site Haaretz. “His message was very clear: ‘You must devote your responsibility, you become a human being only when you feel your responsibility.’ ”
In 1941, after France fell to the Nazis and the year his father died, Mr. Hessel escaped to London, where he met Charles de Gaulle, eventually joining the resistance movement. In March 1944, he returned to Paris on a mission to contact underground activists, but was captured and tortured by means now known as waterboarding, surviving, he said, by giving out false information.
He was subsequently sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he escaped hanging by exchanging identities with a French soldier who had died of typhoid fever. Sent to a different camp, he managed to escape and return to Paris, which had by then been liberated.
After the war, Mr. Hessel became a diplomat, working as an official for the newly formed United Nations, where he participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. He later held diplomatic posts in Algeria and Vietnam.
His posthumous book, “Don’t Give Up: In the Trenches with the Spanish for Liberty and Progress,” was supposed to come out in Spain in May, to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the Indignados movement , but will be published in two weeks. His editor, Ramon Perello, said the final book is a further call to resistance, infused with Hessel’s undying optimism. “It’s a rigorous update,” Perello said, “taking into consideration these last two years of crisis. And it’s a new call to non-violent protest against the dictatorship of the financial markets.” Yet, his final political testament contains the same core message as his earlier work:
“The greater and greater difference between the very wealthy and the very poor — these problems are sufficiently important for us to be indignant, or to be outraged, or angry .”
Mr. Hessel is survived by his wife, Christiane Hessel-Chabry, and three children from an earlier marriage.
Mr. Hessel wrote or contributed to several other books, including a 1997 autobiography, “Danse Avec le Siècle” (“Dance With the Century”).
- Danse avec le siècle, autobiography. Editors Seuil (1997) (French), 312 pages ISBN :9782020235563 (French)
- Ô ma mémoire, la poésie, ma nécessité, poems. Seuil (2006, republished 2010) (French)
- Citoyen du monde, conversations with Jean-Michel Helvig. Fayard (2008) (French)
- Indignez-vous! essay. Indigène, Montpellier (21 October 2010) 32 pages, ISBN 978-2-911939-76-1 (French) Published in English as Time for Outrage! by Charles Glass Books, London, 2011, ISBN 0704372223.
- Impegnatevi, Salani Editore, Italy, 2011 (Italian)
- Engagez-vous !, Entretiens avec Gilles Vanderpooten, Editions de l’Aube, France, 2011 (French)
- Comprometeos !, Destino, Spain, 2011 (Spanish)