The ‘Indignados’ movement’s participants in Spain, throughout their breakaway yet inclusive attempts, refused to wear any political labels. “We are neither left, nor right,” they used to emphasize during their first spontaneous assemblies in 2011. Instead, they proudly exhibited an intellectual affiliation with a 95-year-old rebel – Stéphane Hessel.
Hessel died on the 27th of February, leaving as a posthumous gift for his followers, his new and last book: No os rindáis. Describing his life is telling a story full of big words and events. In fact, through his memoir, Danse avec le Siecle, the contemporary reader can sneak through his recollections of some of the most remarkable events of the twentieth century.
Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution. His mother, a painter, and his father, a Jewish writer, were converted Lutherans. They mingled with Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and other artists, as well as intellectuals of the time. The couple had a love triangle with the French writer Henri-Pierre Roché, who inspired the famous French film Jules et Jim, which was directed by François Truffaut.
Hessel moved to France and acquired the French nationality. During the Nazi occupation, Hessel was put under the command of De Gaulle (yes, the one who came to veto the accession of the UK to the EU). In 1944, the Gestapo arrested him. He was tortured and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was to be executed. Two days before this happened, with the help of a doctor, Hessel changed his identity using the name of a death prisoner and was thus able to save his life. He escaped from the camp, yet was captured repeatedly. Under the name of Michel Boitel, he was imprisoned in six Nazi prisons. Fortunately, he managed to jump out from a train during a transfer, and escaped. After his escape, he joined the American troops when they entered Paris.
When the war ended, he joined the diplomatic service and became ambassador to China. Soon after, Hessel became representative to the United Nations Secretariat, where he was able to participate in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Hessel was linked to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, collaborating with Pierre Mendes in the French decolonization process launched in Africa and Vietnam. From then on, he undertook diplomatic engagement regarding the development of new relations between Europe and the former colonies. In 1986, he joined the French socialist party because of his sympathy for François Miterrand (yes, the one who opposed the Gaulle’s plan of establishing the Fifth French Republic, and one of the signatories of the Maastricht Treaty).
At maturity, Hessel was more a political analyst than a militant. He recently he showed his support for François Hollande in the election campaign of 2012; urging Hollande to accelerate and deepen the political change in France after the Sarkozy era.
With a life story that could be expressed with many different adjectives, yet never as ordinary, it seems a bit less awkward that a nonagenarian philosopher had inspired a generation, often portrayed as passive and indolent, to think about politics and to dream about a better, different, world. The fact is, he was not just anyone.
Hessel was deeply concerned, as well as inquisitive about the present economic and political reality. His worldwide fame arrived when he combed only gray hair, after the publication in France of Indignez-vous. This was a tiny book of only 30 pages, but was full of ideas that encourage action for change. A small publisher called Montpellier, with little media promotion, published it. Surprisingly, it became a best seller in just a couple of weeks. This did not increase the income of the writer, who renounced his copyrights, but it did augment the number of commitments on his agenda.
In the last years, Hessel somewhat accidentally, has become the intellectual leader of a number of the youth in countries like Spain, Greece, or Portugal. These youth often do not feel represented by the traditional political parties and feel uncomfortable with the dogmatism of the unique thought that now is putting in danger their expectancies for a prosperous future. Indignez-vous had good timing; not enraging people, but making people realize how many discontent people were around them. In that sense, it was like a group therapy of fact-finding and recognition.
Hessel denounced materialism and the tyranny of the financial markets which, “threaten Peace and Democracy”. He spoke of the French welfare state, supposedly based on democratic values, yet “despise(s) weak people and exalts the cult of money”.
As a reaction, after being “disillusioned from liberal capitalism,” the old rebel prompted citizens to “take responsibility for things that do not work in our society” and to undertake “a peaceful uprising against mass consumption, the disregard for the weak people and the competition of everyone against everyone.”
Hessel also criticized mass media, which he felt was oriented for mass consumption, disregard for the weak members of the society, and for the culture. He wrote, “I want each of you to find a reason to be indignant with the system.”
I do not pretend to judge the validity or not of Hessel’s ideas. However, I believe that there is something to be grateful for in all this. It is the fact that this old wise man was able to inspire a generation of young people, the wealthy children of the twentieth century both within and outside the confines of Europe… to sit in front of a book and think, for the first time in their life, about what was occurring in the political or economic spheres and its impact on the lives of all.
To close this post, I think it is interesting to see excerpts from the note the Elysee published after Hessel’s death, referring to him as “a great figure who devoted his life to defending exceptional human dignity” with a capacity of indignation that has “no limits but its own life”.
To learn more about his life and idea, please watch the videos below.
Silvia Curbelo Betancort