Global Politics

Stephane Hessel, Late Author of Human Rights Declaration, Still An Influence in Spain

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Stephane Hessel in 2010 (Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wiki Commons)

This week the former French diplomat turned best-selling author Stephane Hessel died, in Paris. He was 95. Hessel shot to fame with his 2010 short manifesto, "Indignez-Vous!," or "Time for Outrage," in the English translation. The book became an inspiration to citizen movements here like Occupy Wall Street, as well as in France and Spain. Well, it turns out Hessel managed to finish one last book before he passed away. It's in Spanish, and for Spaniards specifically.

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Hessel's "Time For Outrage" has been wildly popular in Spain, selling hundreds of thousands of copies since its release. It came out just as Spain's 15th of May protest movement began gathering steam.

That movement saw huge marches against government austerity measures, and led to permanent protest campsites in public squares — Spain's version of Occupy. Then, we spoke to him about his advice for angry people in Europe, and elsewhere.

"They get together, they think together, and they act together," he said. "They can find the kinds of civic organizations that would put pressure on their governments and hope that their governments would do the right thing if they are sufficiently pressed to do it."

Spaniards, mostly young people and students, followed this recipe. They even renamed their movement Los Indignados – after Hessel's book. But it's tough to see what they've accomplished, two years on. Austerity here moves full steam ahead, with more drastic cuts to education and healthcare. Unemployment is at 55 percent for the young, and rising.

Which is in part why Hessel's Spanish book editor, Ramon Perello, thought a little pep talk might boost morale. He says late last year he suggested Hessel pen something specifically for Spaniards. Hessel accepted, he said, delighted.

"Hessel had been pleasantly surprised by the impact his bestseller had on the protest movement in Spain," he said. "He always had a warm spot for Spain, its struggle during its Civil War, and during the years of the Franco dictatorship."

Hessel himself was no stranger to hardship. He was born in Germany but moved to France, where he became a resistance fighter during World War II. He was caught, and sent to a concentration camp, barely escaping execution. Later, he became a French diplomat, and helped write the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His posthumous book is titled: "Don't Give Up: In the Trenches with the Spanish for Liberty and Progress."

His editor, Perello, said the book is a further call to resistance, and infused with Hessel's undying optimism.

"It's a rigorous update," he said, "taking into consideration these last two years of crisis. And it's a new call to non-violent protest against the dictatorship of the financial markets."

Perello said it exhorts people to reclaim the political process, to reestablish real democracy in Spain. He's betting this will resonate today in Spain, which not only remains deeply mired in recession but is being battered by hundreds of political corruption scandals. Perello said Hessel gets very specific on what he thinks Spain, led by conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, is doing wrong.

Yet, his final political testament contains the same core message as his earlier work.

"The greater and greater difference between the very wealthy and the very poor," he said back in our 2010 interview, "these problems are sufficiently important for us to be indignant, or to be outraged, or angry."

Hessel's book for Spaniards, "Don't Give Up," was supposed to come out in May, to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the Indignados movement here. But the author's death this week has the publisher, Ediciones Destino, rushing to print as fast as it can. The book is due out in two weeks.

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