Stéphane Hessel: Résistant and UN diplomat who became a hero of the left in his nineties

 

Few people achieve global celebrity in their nineties. In 2011, at the age of 93, Stéphane Hessel, French resistance hero, diplomat, poet and essayist, became a worldwide bestseller and patron saint of the left-wing "indignant" protests in Europe and the United States. His tiny pamphlet Indignez-vous! (Get Angry! Or Time for Outrage), first published in France in October 2010, sold 4 million copies in over 100 countries. His spiritual "children" include the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and Beppe Grillo, the comedian who led the populist revolt against the élites of both left and right in the Italian elections last weekend.

Hessel, who died in Paris aged 95, called on younger generations to recapture the spirit of resistance to the Nazis and fight for the "values of modern democracy" against the "insolent, selfish" power of money and markets. His message – "indifference is crippling; be angry; revolt, peacefully, for what you believe in" – struck a nerve with those who felt that poor-to-middling people and welfare states were being unfairly punished for the economic collapse of 2007-08.

Hessel was not alone in being astonished by his book's success. The 19 pages of interviews were occasionally inspiring but often repetitive, unoriginal and simplistic. They included a lengthy, passionate digression criticising the Israeli government's treatment of Gaza. Hessel said last year that his book was successful because it had accidentally stumbled on an "historic" moment. "Our societies have lost their bearings," he said. "We are looking for new ways forward – ways of making sense of the human story." Even the most fervent admirers of Hessel's book would be hard-pushed to discover "new ways forward" in the text.

The worldwide triumph of the book angered many people on the Right in France, including President Nicolas Sarkozy. It infuriated the French Jewish lobby, which had long accused Hessel of being anti-semitic, despite his own half-jewish background. The book also generated unproven suggestions that Hessel's war record was not all that he claimed.

Stéphane Frédéric Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917. Although global celebrity arrived late, his early life was interwoven with many of the great events and great names of the 20th century. After his parents emigrated to Paris in 1925 they mixed with the movers and shakers of the modern movement: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Le Corbusier, Picasso, Max Ernst and André Breton. His parents, Franz Hessel and Helen Grund, were two-thirds of a ménage à trois with the writer Henri-Pierre Roché – a relationship later described in the classic François Truffaut movie Jules et Jim.

The young Stéphane studied for a year at the London School of Economics in 1934-35 before returning to France, where he was granted French citizenship. His first love affair was with Jeanne Nys, the sister-in-law of Aldous Huxley, who was 17 years older than he was.

In 1939, to his mother's fury, he married Vitia Mirkine-Guetzevitch, a young Russian-Jewish emigrée. They had three children after the war: Anne, Antoine and Michel. Mobilised in September 1939, Hessel's unit surrendered to the Germans without fighting in June 1940. He escaped, and found Vitia in Toulouse before travelling to London, via Africa, in 1941, to join Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement.

Although retrained in Britain as an aircraft navigator, he joined De Gaulle's intelligence unit, the Bureau central de renseignements et d'action (BCRA). In March 1944 he was flown back to France to help distribute radio transmitters as D-Day approached.

Hessel was captured in July 1944 after another agent betrayed him to the Gestapo under torture. He, in turn, was tortured and revealed information to the Germans. This is the origin of some of the recent claims that he was no true Resistance hero.

Hessel was deported to Buchenwald with 36 other captured French, Belgian and British agents. All but three were executed. Hessel and two others survived because a German camp doctor switched their identities to those of prisoners who had died in medical experiments. After narrowly avoiding hanging for a first escape attempt, Hessel broke out of a train transferring him to the Bergen-Belsen camp in April 1945 and reached the American lines.

After the war he retrained as a diplomat. His first job was on loan to the United Nations, then based in Paris. He was secretary to the committee which drew up the UN's universal declaration on human rights in 1946-1948. He went on to represent France in the UN on human rights and social questions before joining the staff of the moderate Socialist reforming foreign minister and prime minister, Pierre Mendes France, in the mid-1950s. After a posting to the newly independent Algeria from 1963-69, he worked in the UN in New York and then, in 1977-81, as French ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

His wife Vitia died in 1985. Two years later he married Christiane Chabry, who survives him. Hessel retired in 1993. He remained active in moderate left-wing politics and became an increasingly passionate campaigner for Palestinian statehood.

His central message in Indignez-vous! was to exhort young people to apply the lessons of the 20th century to the 21st. "When something makes you want to cry out, as I cried out against Nazism, you become a militant, tough and committed," he wrote. "You become part of the great stream of history ... and this stream leads us towards more justice and more freedom but not the uncontrolled freedom of the fox in the hen-house."

John Lichfield

Stéphane Frédéric Hessel, war hero, diplomat and writer: born Berlin 20 October 1917; married 1939 Vitia Mirkine-Guetzevitch (died 1985; one daughter and two sons), 1987 Christiane Chabry; died Paris 26 February 2013.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links