Telegraph by Obit | Thursday, 28 February 2013 | Click here for original article
Stéphane Hessel, who has died aged 95, was a half-Jewish German who became a French citizen, joined the Resistance in London and survived capture by the Gestapo and a death sentence in a concentration camp. He later helped to frame the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , and, in his nineties, became a bestselling author.
Hessel was a lifelong friend of the French statesman Pierre Mendès-France, sadly concluding that “our great man wasn’t made for the Fifth Republic”, and a co-founder of the Club Jean-Moulin with other anti-Gaullist former résistants. Though always a man of the Left, Hessel did not join the Socialist Party until 1995, when Jacques Chirac’s election as president enraged him.
In 2010, at the age of 93, Hessel became an unlikely bestselling author. Time for Outrage (published in France as Indignez-Vous!) was his response to the ever-increasing gap between the extremes of rich and poor, the trauma being inflicted on the environment and the situation in the Middle East.
In it he called for France’s youth to reclaim the spirit of the wartime Resistance movement and shake off the political ennui with which he believed they were shackled. It was only 32 pages long, published by a tiny press in Montpellier, but has to date sold 4.5 million copies worldwide.
The success of the polemic threw Hessel into the public eye during the 2012 election year, making him both an ambassador for the Occupy movement and an enemy of France’s Right — in particular the campaigning forces of Marine le Pen and the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Stéphane Frédéric Hessel was born in Berlin on October 20 1917, the younger son of Franz Hessel, a Jewish writer, and the former Helen Grund, a Protestant. His father’s closest friend was Henri Pierre Roché, whose relationship with the Hessels inspired Roché’s novel Jules Et Jim. When Stéphane was seven, his parents moved to Paris; Roché came too, bringing to their home Man Ray, Le Corbusier, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst and Picasso.
Roché also brought marital discord to the household. Stéphane’s mother pulled a revolver on him when she discovered he had married, whereupon Franz divorced her and returned to Berlin. In 1938, however, as persecution of the Jews intensified, she remarried him to get him out of Germany. The couple were briefly interned by the Vichy government, and Franz died soon afterwards. When he was 16, Stéphane spent a year with cousins in Croydon. He attended lectures at the LSE (where he met Harold Laski and Arthur Koestler), studied antiquities in the Guildhall Library and played cricket.
In 1937 Hessel took French citizenship, and on the outbreak of war was commissioned into the infantry. As the Germans broke through in Alsace, he came under heavy fire as he was cycling back to the previous night’s billet to retrieve his diary.
Taken prisoner when France surrendered, Hessel escaped to Portugal by way of Oran and Casablanca, and after a win at the casino in Estoril reached Bristol in March 1941. It took six weeks to convince the British that he was a loyal Frenchman; then de Gaulle invited him to lunch at the Connaught.
Hessel trained with the Free French air force, then joined de Gaulle’s counter-intelligence service based in St James’s Square and later in Duke Street. It was then that he first met Mendès-France, who over dinner gave a graphic account of his escape from a Vichy prison. Hessel always shared Mendès-France’s affection for Britain and America – in contrast to de Gaulle’s froideur.
In March 1944 Hessel was flown into occupied France to lead Mission Greco, reorganising Resistance communications with London. He headed for Paris to make contacts — starting with his mother, who was trying to reach Switzerland but returned to the city to help him.
Three weeks after D-Day an agent captured by the Germans mentioned Greco under torture, and Hessel was arrested. The Gestapo held him for 29 days. He talked, but told them nothing of value; the torture, he said, left no marks. On August 8 he left the Gare de l’Est with 37 other résistants, all manacled to their seats and under heavy guard. After four days they reached Buchenwald, where several of Hessel’s relatives had been taken before the war.
After an air raid killed several inmates, 12 of the group were executed, and the rest were expected to suffer the same fate. But a British airman, Forrest Yeo-Thomas, persuaded an SS officer to let three of the résistants take the identities of the next three prisoners to die of typhus.
Hessel became Michel Boitel, a mechanic; he learned to ignore conversation in his native German, but after being moved to a labour camp in Lower Saxony he found his lack of skills a hindrance when working on aircraft landing gear.
In February 1945 Hessel escaped, but was recaptured. At first he was threatened with hanging, but in the event he was sent to Dora, the giant underground plant where slave labourers were building V1 and V2 rockets. He earned extra sausage rations by undressing the corpses of prisoners marched from other camps as the Russians advanced.
When Dora was evacuated. Hessel was put on a train for Belsen, but escaped and walked 100 miles to Hanover, where he joined the Americans. They moved on while he was sleeping, and he was recaptured in an SS counterattack. The SS commander was at a loss to know what to do with him, so Hessel took his 14 men prisoner and marched them to another American unit.
Hessel was repatriated to France, where he sat the examination for the diplomatic service, coming fourth. He chose a posting to Chungking, in China, but early in 1946 was diverted to the United Nations’ social affairs and human rights directorate.
There he helped draft the Universal Declaration which, to his surprise, was passed nem con in December 1948. Hessel stayed in New York for five years, during which the onset of the Cold War made the UN’s task more difficult, before returning to the Quai d’Orsay to supervise France’s relations with international agencies.
When Mendès-France became prime minister in 1954, Hessel joined him, writing his radio talks and drafting his speech to the UN General Assembly. When the government fell after seven months, he was posted to Saigon as France handed over power in Indo-China.
He returned shortly before de Gaulle took power and abolished the Fourth Republic. It was now that the Club Jean-Moulin was founded as an intellectual bulwark against autocracy; through the organisation Hessel came to know rising Left-wingers such as Jacques Delors and Michel Rocard.
In 1963 René Maheu, the head of Unesco, sent Hessel round the world to assess its operations. Of the nine countries he visited, Nigeria gave him the greatest culture shock: it was his first experience of British Africa.
The next year he was seconded to the Ministry of Education in Paris. He recruited teachers for Algeria to replace those who had left after independence, then travelled to Algiers to try to sustain francophone education as the country became Arabised. For a decade from 1986, he was president of the Franco-Algerian Association.
In 1969 Georges Pompidou, then Foreign Minister, appointed Hessel director for international organisation affairs at the Quai d’Orsay, and he joined a UN team promoting development in Africa. He was dispatched to Guinea in a vain attempt to persuade President Sekou Touré to join the postcolonial French Community, reviewed francophone education in Africa, and visited Dr Albert Schweitzer, who told him decolonisation would fail.
Hessel was eventually sacked by President Giscard d’Estaing after he had failed to secure the release of Françoise Claustre, an archaeologist held by rebels in Chad. He fared better, however, than France’s previous emissary: the rebel leader (subsequently Chad’s president) Hissene Habré had him murdered.
In 1977 Giscard appointed him Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. He considered this his most interesting job, although the election of Ronald Reagan ended many initiatives on development and education. By the time he retired, in 1982, he had become frustrated at what he saw as the reluctance of the United States, Britain and Japan to help the Third World.
The socialist premier Pierre Mauroy then commissioned Hessel to reform French aid and development policy; his blueprint involving governmental restructuring and long-term budgetary commitments was rejected by President Mitterrand, and a further study commissioned by Rocard as prime minister also fell foul of the Élysée Palace. Mitterrand did appoint Hessel to a commission on the future of broadcasting, a role which brought him to London, where he was warmly received by the BBC. The commission’s report proposed an orderly expansion of commercial radio, with political fairness embedded.
In 1990 Hessel was called out of retirement to head France’s delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights . Next he was dispatched to Burundi to assist the incoming president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, as ethnic strains there grew; weeks after Hessel appeared at Ntaryamira’s side at a ceremony in the national stadium, the president was killed in a plane crash, triggering a tribal war.
Hessel was also appointed (by Rocard) to commissions reviewing policy on immigration and the integration of immigrants. In 1996 he became spokesman for an independent “college of mediators” trying to end a stand-off between 300 African asylum-seekers occupying a Paris church and Chirac’s government, which was determined to deport them. He persuaded the Africans to cooperate, then took each case to the authorities; the Prime Minister Alain Juppé agreed that 15 per cent could stay, then sent riot police to storm the church.
Hessel devoted the rest of his long life to writing, and to poetry. At John le Carré’s 70th birthday party in 2001 he delivered a flawless rendition, from memory and in English, of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.
In 2010 he acted as the Free French spokesman in London on the 70th anniversary of de Gaulle’s appeal to his countrymen to fight on after the French surrender.
He was appointed a Commander of the Légion d’honneur, and a Grand Officer of France’s Order of Merit.
Stéphane Hessel married first, in 1939, Vitia Guetzevich, a Russian refugee, with whom he had three children. She died in 1985, and he is survived by his second wife, Christiane.