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His father was a police officer in Emden who was removed from his post by the NSDAP. After a one-year book dealer apprenticeship he studied the history of art at the University of Munich. In the 1930s he started working as a journalist. During the war he served in SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers, a propaganda unit in Italy. Being large, well-built and fair haired, he corresponded to the racial ideals of the time in Germany. This made him the speaker of the Olympic Oath during the 1936 event in Berlin - for Riefenstahl's film, but not in reality. Many years after the war, he confessed that "I knew what was happening ... but I was too cowardly to do something against it." He got back to journalism while working for the Hannoverschen Neusten Nachrichten, the daily newspaper Abendpost and the youth newspaper Zickzack.
He was the founder of Gruner + Jahr and the news magazine Der Stern. He led the magazine from 1948 to 1980 to become one of the strongest in Europe. Gruner + Jahr is the largest publisher in Europe as of 2014.
Nannen gained popularity as an art collector and benefactor of the Kunsthalle in Emden, an art museum, that he built in 1983. The annual Henri Nannen Prizes are awarded in his honor.