Stephane Hessel; French Resistance hero helped inspire Occupy Wall Street

Stephane Hessel, an icon to many generations.
2011 file/Reuters
Stephane Hessel, an icon to many generations.

PARIS — As a spy for the French Resistance, Stephane Hessel survived the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald by assuming the identity of a French prisoner who was already dead. As a diplomat, he helped write the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And at age 93, after a distinguished but relatively anonymous life, he published a slim pamphlet that even he expected would be little more than a vanity project.

Au contraire.

Mr. Hessel’s 32-page ‘‘Time for Outrage’’ sold millions of copies across Europe, tapping into a vein of popular discontent with capitalism and transforming him into an intellectual superstar within weeks. Translated into English, the pocket-size book became a source of inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement.


In the book, Mr. Hessel urges young people to take inspiration from the anti-Nazi resistance to which he once belonged and rally against what he saw as the newest evil: the love of money.

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The book, called ‘‘Indignez-vous’’ in French, had an initial run of 8,000 copies in 2010 and sold for $4 before becoming a bestseller.

Mr. Hessel died overnight in Paris. He was 95.

‘‘I’m eagerly awaiting the taste of death,’’ he said in 2011. “Death is something to savor, and I hope to savor mine. In the meantime, given that it has not yet happened and that I’m generally getting around normally, I’m using the time to throw out some messages.’’

Born in Germany, he moved with his family to France, where they settled into an avant-garde life, hanging out with artists like Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp.


In 1941 Mr. Hessel fled to London to join the resistance led by General Charles de Gaulle. He snuck back into occupied France on a spying mission in 1944, was arrested by the Gestapo, and shipped off to the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp. The day before he was to be hanged, he swapped his identity with another French prisoner who had died of typhus.

As a French diplomat after World War II, Mr. Hessel joined Eleanor Roosevelt on a panel that wrote the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr. Hessel ‘‘leaves us with the invaluable heritage of fighting for universal human values and his inalienable sense of liberty,’’ Mayor Bertrand Delanoe of Paris said Wednesday.

A proud Socialist, Mr. Hessel said the aim of ‘‘Time for Outrage’’ was to convince young people that they can change society for the better — even if they feel the world is controlled by entrenched and financially powerful interests.

Mr. Hessel said he purposely offered no solutions.


‘‘I am not giving them a meaning, but I am saying, ‘Do try to find for yourself what would be meaningful.’’’

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Mr. Hessel had succeeded in that goal.

‘‘In France, in Europe, in the world, Stephane Hessel was the spirit of resistance incarnate,’’ Ayrault said. ‘‘For every generation, for young people, he was a source of inspiration but also a reference. At 95, he embodied faith in the future of this new century.’’

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council observed a minute’s silence in Mr. Hessel’s memory, which the organization said was unprecedented.

‘‘Stephane Hessel was a towering figure in the human rights world,’’ said Navi Pilly, the organization’s high commissioner for human rights. ‘‘His close involvement with the team who drafted the Universal Declaration is enough by itself to earn him a place of honor in global history. But he went on to do so much more and kept contributing to the advancement of human rights well into his 90s.’’