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Stephane Hessel: the ultimate European

How could someone be more European than Hessel by origin, shared culture and values - his cross-border, supranational vision making us ashamed of our weaknesses, our lack of vision and courage?

Stéphane Hessel, who died in Paris on Wednesday, February 27, 2013, and was born in Berlin in 1917, the very month the Russian Revolution started, was probably the last of the great Europeans.

Stéphane Hessel. Wikimedia Commons/Rama. Some rights reserved.

The founders of the new Europe, raised out of the ashes of World War II, have died long ago and would have turned in their graves if they had seen the Europe of today. So have the European leaders who fought to strengthen and widen the European Union, from François Mitterrand to Helmut Kohl or Edward Heath. And the icon of Eurocracy, Mario Monti, who strove to save Italy from the crisis, has just bitten the bullet, defeated by a coalition of jingoistic clowns – an old one, Silvio Berlusconi, and a new one, Beppe Grillo.

In these times of European crisis, of loss of faith in the long lauded benefits of globalisation – now once again put into question by the horse meat crisis – a social and moral crisis of peoples who have lost faith in their leaders and the ideals long fought for, Hessel appeared as a last, flickering beacon of the fading greatness of the Old Continent – which includes, and always has included the British Isles, whatever some people think on that side of the Channel, its universalism of ideas and culture. 

In a world where politicians fight tooth and nail to stay in power, businessmen have lost all scruples in order to make more and more profit at the cost of human livelihood and health, where employees want to keep their jobs at all costs – even that of the millions of jobless - and where the privileges of the current generation are threatened by a dispirited younger generation, what more optimistic example could we have found than this eternally young and elegant man, never indifferent, who, at the age of 95, could still patiently enter into discussion, on an equal footing, with an audience 75 years younger than he was, and still be understood by them!

For many of them he was more than a mentor, the man who wrote in 2010 this amazing 30-page booklet which sold more than 4 million copies - called “Indignez-vous!” (“Time for Outrage!”) which inspired the short-lived outburst of protest by “The Outraged” in London and Wall Street, “Los Indignados” in Spain or “Les Indignés” in France. “What I find fantastic is his pedagogic dimension and the bridge he was able to build between generations so far away from each other”, said one of the Indignados, Jorge Sanchez Kaeser, of Hessel to the daily Libération. 

Yet he knew he lived in the real world. Talking with sociologist Edgar Morin in 2011 in Le Monde (reprinted March 1, 2013), he replied to those who criticised “Indignez-vous!”: 

“Some say about it that it's fine but it does not tell us what we should do. Effectively, this short text is only a prelude to a necessary thought. We have to start by feeling outraged in order not to be lulled to sleep (...) To know that things are going the wrong way is not enough, we have to know how to take the right direction (…) It is vain at present to only rely on the government to take the necessary measures to put the world economy back on track (…) We must not say that, 'I won't vote because all political parties disappoint me'; they are all disappointing, but we need a government. We lack political inventiveness”.

His thinking was an original blend of idealism and realism.  Hessel was born German, from a father banker of Jewish origin and a stunningly beautiful mother close to the Montparnasse artistic world. She eloped with a French writer and settled in Paris with Stéphane when he was seven. Her ebullient and dramatic life was put on screen by nouvelle vague director François Truffaut in “Jules and Jim”. By now a brilliant French, but also bilingual student, he added English while at the London School of Economics; until his death he could memorise dozens of poems in English, French and German.  His culture knew no borders, whether physical, linguistic or intellectual; neither did his ideas, his thoughts or his career.

He joined the Free French in London, was sent to France in the Resistance, was caught by the Nazis, sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he survived by taking on the identity of a dead inmate. Luck, which he called his ‘Guardian Angel’, was always at his side, helping him to meet the great men of the day. Of the war, and of his character he wrote about, “a lightness that it was too easy to pass for courage”! Now a diplomat, always smartly dressed and with his eternal enigmatic smile, he assisted the French co-writer of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Right, René Cassin, and developed a passion for international issues and institutions. His career as a diplomat and a civil servant had its ups and down, as he stood for his own leftist ideas and his humanistic universal vision, often at odds with his own government. 

His real career, the one which really matters now, he started after his retirement, after he was made Ambassadeur de France by newly elected Socialist president François Mitterrand in 1981. Just like Bertrand Russell, he started his second life when others think of retirement. He got involved in politics with the Socialist Party and the Greens, with his friend Daniel Cohn Bendit, himself born in France of German anti-Nazi parents. He was up for every fight for human rights, for the rights of illegal immigrants who had sought asylum in a Parisian church in 1996 - “les sans-papiers” - for those of the Third World. Idealistic, but not at any cost, he knew when realism ended and sectarianism and populism started, defining himself as a “citoyen résistant”. 

His slow, didactic speech, his sense of humour, his eternal optimism, his caring for those who have been let down by fate or by history, his skilful mastering of the media, his never ending availability to causes worth defending made him an icon for those who refused to ignore the pleas of the outcast, at home and abroad.

Russell’s last great fight was against the Vietnam War. For Hessel, it was Palestine and the rights of the Palestinian people. In the name of his Jewish roots and of his support for Israel as the haven for the survivors of the Holocaust. The rights the Jews deserved should also be shared by the Palestinians. Passionate as always - going so far as to call the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in 2009 a “Crime against Humanity” - he aroused the anger of members of the Jewish community and intelligentsia, even contempt and hatred from a few. “It is sad to see them shooting at a resistant Jew defending peace” he said after having been fired at by Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

How could someone be more European than Hessel by origin, shared culture and values - his cross- border, supranational vision making us ashamed of our weaknesses, our lack of vision and courage? Nurtured by the European multiple and also unique classical cultures, shaken to the core by the Nazi and Stalinist violence which almost engulfed Europe – his universalism was based on the UN experiment, not on its communist ‘internationalist’ caricature - he also radiated the optimism carried by generations of humanist thinkers before him.  

Hessel died in his sleep in Paris 14th arrondissement, where he had lived since he had left Berlin and where he had been arrested in 1944. The same 14th where Simone de Beauvoir spent almost her entire life. Till his last days he kept up his whirlwind of activities, travelling, writing articles and several booklets, giving interviews, talking, debating, lobbying for his ideas and for the rights of the rejected. Neighbours, like myself, could see him walking in the street, taking the bus or find themselves joining him in political or social gatherings where he spoke tirelessly – and also listened - with a special fondness for the youth and those who, like himself, had had to leave their home country to look for work or safety abroad. Even if, sometimes, he felt more wearied by the endless bickering of French politics, than by the passing of time which finally caught up with him at the young age of 95. 

About the author

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde


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