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Dag Hammarskjöld: The Longest Journey is the Journey Inwards

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations second Secretary-General (1953-1961), was a devout Christian whose faith gave him the courage to lead the UN through some dangerous years of the Cold War. Writer, teacher and  bookshop manager, Carole O'Connor pays tribute to this remarkable diplomat and man of faith, who died prematurely in suspicious circumstances.

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The family was of the old nobility.  Dag’s father (1862-1953) was a scholar in philology, law and government.  He was the first delegate to the second Peace Conference at The Hague. Viewed, himself, as a non-party participant in international affairs, he was so successful that the King summoned him to form a Cabinet and he was Prime Minister through most of the First World War, managing to keep Sweden neutral. From his father, Dag inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country, or humanity.


Dag came to be influenced strongly by his father’s non-partisan position in political affairs and eventually took his place, quite literally his chair, seat No. 17, in the Swedish Academy in 1954. In his speech when he took his father’s chair he spoke of him with respect and admiration. 


In 1917, Archbishop Nathan Söderblom moved to the Cathedral and close friendships developed between the two families. Overtime Söderblom, himself was one of the original founders of the Ecumenical Movement for Christian Unity, became a mentor for Hammarskjöld. He strove to bring a Christian perspective onto social, political and international issues. The guidance of Söderblom would have countenanced another lifelong influence, Axel Hägerström, a fierce and formidable atheist professor of philosophy who taught him at University. Where Hammarskjöld came to value the intellectual rigour, language and method Hägerström disciplined into his thinking, he came to reject Hägerström’s demolition of medieval Christian mystics and complete dismissal of spiritual experience. 


Still today it is unexplained how and why Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed over the Congo, as he travelled to speak with Moise Tishombe, a Congolese politician.  When he died only one person, his friend Leif Belfrage, knew  about his personal journal, Markings.  A few years before, Hammarskjöld had asked Leif that if he died, could he please receive the book and see if it were something worth publishing. A letter to this effect was inside the journal, which was found by his bedside in his New York apartment after his death.


Markings is a diary, described by its author as a book “concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God.”   At the beginning, he quotes Meister Eckhart: Only the hand that erases can write the true thing. So It was a journal that was read and reworked by its writer over time.


As a child, Hammarskjöld had a great interest in biology. Carl Linnaeus, originator of taxonomy and professor of botany at Uppsala mid-18th century was an inspiration. Linnaeus also had found spiritual renewal by exploring mountains in the Swedish far north.  In 1957, Hammarskjöld said: ‘With the creative power of the poet (Linnaeus) showed us how better to capture and hold the elusive experience of the moment in the net of language…A great naturalist guided the author, but a great poet permitted the scholar to peer into the secret council chamber of God.’  Linnaeus had a mind that liked classifications, minute details. He had a fascination with the natural world, as well as a passion for broad ideas, open spaces.  Hammarskjöld’s words Numen semper adest (The divine is breaking in around us) is a reference to Linnaeus, who had the words: Innocue vivite, numen adest (a line from Ovid’s Art of Love , ‘Live innocently, the divine is always breaking in’) placed in a prominent place in his home.


Hammarskjöld read widely: Otto’s Idea of the Holy, Schweitzer, Pascal, Thomas A Kempis, Hesse, Conrad. The writings of the Christian mystics increasingly interested him. He gave a copy of The Cloud of Unknowing to David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel in 1953. He loved Saint John of the Cross.  Later he was to meet with Martin Buber and on that last fateful trip was several chapters into translating I and Thou from the German and English, into Swedish. 


Hammarsjköld wasn’t one of the leading candidates for the UN position.  The offer came out of the blue, for him and others.  He was thought a good middle of the road candidate from neutral Sweden, who wasn’t a member of any political party and spoke four languages fluently.  He was a quiet,reserved man with moral integrity, intelligence, knowledge and experience in foreign affairs who, it was thought, would toe the line. They didn’t know what they were in for. And in truth, it looks like Hammarskjöld didn’t know either.


In 1956 Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings: The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action. Hammarskjöld brought a new character, a moral force to the United Nations. His first move as Secretary-General was to tackle the presence of the FBI within the House. The era of what he called “McCarthy-ish hysteria” had led to suspicion and mistrust of many members being secret Communist sympathisers. For Hammarskjöld, the presence of the FBI could only create dysfunction and he found ways for its removal. As well as believing in the integrity of its members, Hammarskjöld espoused the independence of the United Nations as vital for its health and proper functioning. In 1954 he remarked that ‘sometimes (the Secretary-General) will have to voice the wishes of the peoples against this or that government.’ Maintaining this attitude gained him respect, but not popularity in all quarters - particularly amongst the world superpowers.


Hammarskjöld believed that when you have a problem with someone, you talk face to face with that person. Translated into the international political scene, talking directly with world leaders in times of tension or high conflict took courage on his part. Initially, his approach was viewed as novel, or reckless, but later vindicated in what became known as the Peking Formula. In 1957, China took 11 US airman, and 2 CIA agents hostage. Hammarskjöld took the extraordinary measure of travelling to Beijing (Peking) to negotiate their release. He kept these negotiations confidential; discretion, particularly with the media, was vital. He worked in terms of developing a personal connection with Premier Zhou Enlai and sought commonality of interests and understanding. There was no immediate outcome, and his comments to the US press were characteristically evasive and brilliantly diplomatic. But some months later, on his 50th birthday, he was informed in a letter from Zhou that the hostages were released as a birthday gift.


‘Leave it to Dag’ became a catchphrase in the late 1950s. With similar strategic diplomacy and personal approach during the Suez Canal crisis, he persuaded Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Egypt’s President Nasser to accept the UN peace keeping corps to work out peaceful means of differences.


Hammarskjöld got results. But these results came at a cost. He was always an advocate for the smaller developing nations, much to the chagrin of the super powers. When Belgium released its imperial control over the Congo in 1960, it left the nation ill-prepared for self-government and vulnerable to exploitation by the US, Russia and France. There were many valuable minerals of interest there, not least uranium. Initially, UN ambassadors brought in peace troops and sought constructive dialogue between vying factional leaders, but they were struggling. One UN representative and his wife had to be recalled back to the US for fear of assassination by Congolese politicians. The CIA had a presence and the Soviet Union had spies. These were volatile and dangerous times. Eventually, Hammarskjöld decided to personally travel to Ndola, a Rhodesian mining city, and mediate a dialogue between two of the major Congolese leaders - Tishombe and Adoula . Although cease fires were never guaranteed on either side, he thought it looked hopeful that some sort of constructive outcome would eventuate, and that the gradual withdrawal of UN troops from the Congo would be possible (by that stage 17000 troops from 20 different countries). To this day the nature of that last fatal air crash for Hammarskjöld and his crew remain problematic. Not least the reason for deliberate tardiness of response by European heads in Rhodesia once it was evident that the plane had crashed, and the fact that the autopsy report had subsequently been destroyed. Hammarskjöld was thrown free from the crash and appears to have been alive at that point. In 2012, an independent commission, instituted by a committee from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, found there is sufficient evidence to warrant a new US investigation into whether Hammarskjöld’s plane was shot down or had a bomb planted within before it crashed.


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