Stéphane Hessel is a towering figure of 20th-century resistance. Born in 1917 Berlin to Jewish immigrants, Hessel immigrated to France at the age of 7. His mother was a journalist and his father wrote novels, and thus Hessel grew up in France’s prewar literary and intellectual milieu. In 1939 around the age of 22, Hessel studied at the University of Paris’ prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure. He joined the French army the same year. Shortly afterward in 1940, France fell to the Nazis. Unlike many of his fellow citizens, Hessel refused to recognize Vichy rule. He was captured during the Battle of France but was able to escape the Germans and flee to exile in London. There, in 1941, he joined French Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s resistance fighters.
In advance of the 1944 Allied invasion, Hessel returned to France to organize a home resistance. Within a short time he was captured by the German Gestapo and deported to concentration camps. The Nazis waterboarded him. The death of a fellow prisoner by typhus allowed Hessel to escape execution at Buchenwald by assuming a false identity. An unsuccessful attempt to escape the camp at Dora resulted in no similar reprisal. Eventually Hessel fled captivity while being transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. En route to Hannover, he met and was received by the advancing troops of the United States Army.
Those are bullet points from Hessel’s early life as a resister of fascism, then the primary threat to humanity in Europe and elsewhere. After the war, Hessel pursued a life of advocacy for the rights of human beings everywhere. As a United Nations diplomat, he co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights alongside Eleanor Roosevelt. He held diplomatic posts in Vietnam, Algeria and Switzerland and helped found organizations that furthered the cause of human rights. In 1982 he was appointed head of the French telecommunications regulatory agency.
During his years of work back home, Hessel retained the sense of moral outrage that drove him as a young man at war. He spoke up when he saw governments trampling citizens domestically and globally. In the late 1990s and 2000s, he condemned the Israeli government for deadly attacks on the Palestinian people and a planned strike on Lebanon. He denounced French officials for tolerating homelessness in violation of Article 25 of the declaration he helped write. He received numerous honors recognizing his efforts.
But Hessel wasn’t an international celebrity until he published the political pamphlet “Indignez-vous” at the age of 93 in late 2010. Written as a speech to commemorate the resistance to Hitler’s 1940s occupation of France, Hessel called on the young and old of France to renew the spirit of resistance that animated his generation and lead the world against the “international dictatorship of the financial markets.”
“Take over, keep going, get angry!” Hessel wrote, saying that peace was the way. “Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed.”
Hessel insisted that people worldwide should be outraged by their governments’ treatment of immigrants and the poor, by destruction of the environment, by deliberate and unnecessary threats to welfare programs, by the capture of government by business and the corporate corruption of the press. His work attracted worldwide attention. It sold 3.5 million copies in the following years and has been translated into 14 languages, with plans for publication in yet more countries. In March 2011, The Nation brought Hessel’s cry to American audiences, adopting the English title “Time for Outrage!” The magazine wrote at the time: “The popularity of [Hessel’s] slim but powerful volume answered the public’s need for a voice to articulate popular resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income disparities, banking and political corruption, and victimization of the poor and immigrants.”
“Indignez-vous” is widely credited with helping embolden the youths who took to the streets in 2011 in uprisings in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. As someone who participated in Occupy Wall Street in New York City as a journalist, I know Hessel’s urging to take a stand against the forces menacing the human future were an invaluable comfort and inspiration to many people. “When I see what’s happening these days on Wall Street,” Hessel said on television at the time of the protests in a kind, grandfatherly tone, “I am interested. These are young people who do not want things to continue the way they do. That’s good. That’s what we should support.” Youths who every day were being called silly, ineffective and idealistic for their efforts swooned with gratitude at those words.
Hessel is the moral opposite of people like Suzanne Nossel, the former State Department official and “humanitarian interventionist” who now runs the dubious “humanitarian” organization PEN American Center, and who was profiled by Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges this week; she claims, like too many in government, that the United States can force democracy on the rest of the world through military and economic imperialism. Hessel appears never to have been so compromised. His example serves as a point of reference for youths desperate to forestall the future they seem doomed to inherit.
The short video below was posted on YouTube on Feb. 27, the day after Hessel’s death. In it, he observes that the title of his work “contains the word ‘dignity.’ ”
“What we are really trying to say,” he states, “is that the dignity of human beings has to be defended.” Some people consider dignity a gift that we either give to or keep from one another. The gift consists of knowledge of the truth of our personal and collective circumstances, whether they are pleasant or not, and of the subsequent opportunity that knowledge provides to possibly do something to improve those circumstances. For spending his life giving us dignity, we honor Stéphane Hessel as our Truthdigger of the Week.