Stéphane Hessel, whose pamphlet Indignez-Vous! sold 4.5m copies in 35 countries. The French president, François Hollande, said of Hessel: ‘He leaves us a lesson, which is to never accept any injustice.’ Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty
The story of the French author Stéphane Hessel’s long and extraordinary life reads like a Boy’s Own adventure.
From his childhood in Berlin and then Paris, where he was brought up by his writer and translator father, journalist mother and her lover in an unusual ménage à trois, to his worldwide celebrity at the age of 93, when a political pamphlet he wrote became a bestselling publishing sensation and inspired global protest and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
And then there was everything in between: his escape from two Nazi concentration camps where he had been tortured and sentenced to death, his escapades with the French resistance and his hand in drawing up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Sometime between Tuesday and Wednesday, just a week after his last big interview was published, Hessel’s long and extraordinary life came to an end. He was 95 years old, but as one French magazine remarked: “Stéphane Hessel, dead? It’s hard to believe. He seemed to have become eternal, the grand and handsome old man.”
Le Point magazine added that the man with an “old-fashioned politeness and elegance from another age” had “danced” with the best part of a century.
“When one is received by the world in television studios, when one writes bestsellers, when one has baptised an international mobilisation movement, does one still die?” the magazine asked.
In 2010, when most people are winding down and after a long career as a diplomat, Hessel’s life took yet another dramatic turn when his 48-page pamphlet Indignez-Vous!, sold 4.5m copies in 35 countries. It was translated into English as Time for Outrage.
The work was originally written as a speech to commemorate the resistance to Hitler’s occupation of France during the second world war. It served as a rallying cry for those appalled by the gap between the world’s rich and poor.
Hessel said afterwards he aimed to imbue French youth with the same passion and fervour as had existed in the resistance. He compared the 21st-century struggle against what he described as the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” to his generation’s struggle against oppression as a young man during the war.
His wife, Christiane Hessel-Chabry, told France’s AFP news agency on Wednesday, that the writer had died overnight. No other details were given.
The French president, François Hollande, said Hessel was an “a huge figure whose exceptional life was devoted to the defence of human dignity”.
“It was in pursuit of his values that he engaged in the resistance,” he added, concluding: “He leaves us a lesson, which is to never accept any injustice.”
The French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, also paid tribute to Hessel, whom he described as “a man who was engaged” and who was the incarnation of the “resistance spirit”.
“For all generations he was a source of inspiration, but also a reference. At 95 years, he epitomised the faith in the future of a new century,” Ayrault said.
As a committed European and supporter of the left, he was behind the Socialist François Hollande’s successful presidential election bid last year. On Wednesday after news of his death broke, French politicians lined up to express their admiration, respect and sadness.
Hessel was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1917, the son of a journalist and a writer. The family moved to France when Hessel was eight and he took French nationality in the late 1930s, having passed his baccalauréat at the young age of 15.
His parents’ unusual living arrangement was said to have inspired the celebrated François Truffaut film Jules et Jim.
The young Hessel refused to follow Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government and fled to London, where he joined General Charles de Gaulle’s resistance fighters. As a prominent figure in the resistance, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and deported to Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, where he suffered waterboarding torture. He escaped being executed at Buchenwald by exchanging identities with a prisoner who had died of typhus, and later escaped from Dora during a transfer to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. After fleeing his German guards, he met advancing American troops.
After the war, he worked with the US first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in editing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Time for Outrage! argued that the French needed to become as outraged now as his fellow fighters had been during the war. He was highly critical of France’s treatment of illegal immigrants, and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and passionate about the environment, a free press and France’s welfare system. His call was for peaceful, non-violent insurrection.
During the eurozone crisis, one of the names given to the protests against austerity programmes and corruption in Spain was Los Indignados, taken from the title of Hessel’s work. These protests, along with the Arab spring uprisings, inspired protests in other countries and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States.
“The global protest movement does not resemble the Communist movement, which declared that the world had to be overturned according to its viewpoint,” Hessel said in an interview a year ago.
“This is not an ideological revolution. It is driven by an authentic desire to get what you need. From this point of view, the present generation is not asking governments to disappear but to change the way they deal with people’s needs.”