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Dag Hammarskjöld: The Longest Journey is the Journey Inwards

Dag Hammarskjöld

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, Carol O'Connor pays tribute to this remarkable diplomat and man of faith, who died prematurely in suspicious circumstances.

“I don’t know who - or what - put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer yes to someone - or something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal. From that moment I have known what it means ‘not to look back,’ and ‘to take no thought for the morrow’.”

Words of Dag Hammarskjöld written at Pentecost 1961, a few months before his tragic and untimely death. He consciously affirmed and surrendered in faith to something in the universe bigger than himself. This saying Yes illumined a Way, a path in life for him.

This is a moment that resonates for many people of faith, the memory of a pivotal moment whereby it is felt that something inside oneself that has been resisting, finally is let go of, and assent is given. This assent brings meaning, clarification about one’s own goals and strivings.

In March, Miroslav Volf spoke in Melbourne about human beings living in two distinct systems, that of faith and politics. These systems overlap but are nevertheless distinct. To live authentically, a human being needs to give priority to the world of faith. Volf says, “to be in creation is to be in reference to God.” This reminds me of Hammarskjöld in his work as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961). His biographer Roger Lipsey has put it well:

“Hammarskjöld knew two unlike worlds very well. The world of politics and political leaders, deception and honesty, violence and kindness, reflection and the search for solutions. And another world: a world of inwardness and prayer, of self-scrutiny and ancient wisdom, of periodic return to a centre of stillness surrounded by silence that nourishes, situates and restores. In the first world, he was nearly always with people. In the second, nearly always alone with his own person and his God. In both worlds he was a lifelong inquirer with initiative; it wasn’t enough to pass through, contributing cautious splashes of oneself here and there. In the world at large, he strove to summon the best of himself, look carefully and imaginatively, and act as wisely as possible.”

When we observe his actions as UN leader, e.g. his passionate belief in personal dialogue with world leaders at critical moments in a nation’s history, we see this took immense courage and integrity on his part. Hammarskjöld was breaking new ground for the budding organisation. Though always strictly adhering to the UN charter, he helped forge and grow the unique character of UN nations at a particularly early and vulnerable stage of its development in the cold war. Where did he get his insight from? Where did he get his courage? What sustained and nourished him?

Given that we have, I think, a paucity of leaders with such depth today, I wanted to know more about him. But also, how do each of us translate our inner dialogue, our ‘negotiations with ourselves and with God’ into our everyday world? For Hammarskjöld, as for me, that God is the Christian God, the centre of which is Love. It’s the Trinitarian God of Father/Mother, Son and Spirit. How can we with more conscious awareness transcribe our inner life in God, relationship with Jesus, into our own actions in our lives?

Dag Hammarskjöld was born July 29th 1905, the youngest of four sons. He grew up in a castle in Uppsala built by King Gustav Vasa in 1545, one of Sweden’s oldest and most historic castles. Below the castle stands the school he attended. And on the other side is the brick gothic Lutheran Cathedral which he attended with his family. The Castle is ten minutes by foot from the University, and not far from the university library.

Hammarskjöld’s family moved in soon after his birth, and lived there for almost quarter of a century, until his father retired as Governor of Uppsala. He continued to live with his parents when they left the castle. It was only at the age of 40, five years after his mother’s death, as he was about to transfer to the Foreign Office, that he established his own home. Hammarskjöld had a privileged, and on one level cloistered childhood.

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.

Dag Hammarskjöld was both an idealist, and a realist. He believed that the world could be a better place, but was not naïve to the risks involved in accepting the responsibility to make it so. His aspiration was for all nations, large and small, to work together with peaceful interdependence.

Hammarskjöld always worked hard and was totally dedicated to his professional responsibilities, particularly during difficult periods, e.g. as discussions became more difficult during the Congo crisis, he went to bed at 5am and was up working by 9am. For rest and relaxation he liked to translate. In June 1961, friend and artist, Bo Beskow, reports these words from Hammarskj:

"If I have one unsolvable problem to think of night and day, I can manage. And even if I have two or three at the same time - but when they start multiplying my brain starts to boil. I simply have to find something to translate. But what?"

That what, became Buber’s I and Thou. That Hammarkjöld found translation a means of relaxation tells us something about him. It was calming to translate words from one language to another, to move across languages, ideas, worlds, ideas. He enjoyed seeing connections, bringing together that which is in disparate places. It is as if he was hard-wired to seek out the impartial position. It is the fitting place of someone who is most comfortable working with the bigger picture as well as the fine details and who is working for world peace.

Markings, or Vagmarken in Swedish, has a certain meaning. They are trail marks, cairns - the piles of stones a climber leaves to mark his progress on an uncharted mountain. These piles of rocks aid the climber in his descent, so he should know his way and not lose direction.

These words we encounter in Hammarskjold’s journal are the word shapes of a man who wanted to signify certain points in his life. Why? He often felt he was pushing limits at the frontier of the unheard of, in Swedish vid gransen or det oerhorda - oerhorda, meaning, the unheard of, or, the ineffable, unfathomable, inapprehensible, hidden, latent, numinous. The first thing explorers want to do when they enter an unknown landscape is to chart their course; map out the territory they are going through so they can find their way back. And also show others what they have discovered.

Markings is the record of a pathway through Hammarskjöld’s own life. It reveals a man who finds himself a little like Job, struggling and working through suffering out there in the wilderness of the white northern mountains with his God. Like Job, it’s the testament of a man who is attempting to live authentically in the times that he finds himself in, the spiritual struggles inside of himself. Hammarskjöld constantly opens himself to self-scrutiny and cross-examination.

Just as Markings kept his inner journey on track, he used the UN Charter to keep his role as Secretary General of the UN in check. During difficult times of conflict within the House, he always referred back to it as the place where he gleaned discernment and justification for his decisions. He drew strength from the charter in his work for impartiality amongst all nations, particularly the smaller ones under threat by the super powers. We see this particularly in the later years with the aggressive, eroding stance taken by the Soviets. Just as he let go in a spiritual sense, in Markings, to his Christian God, with the UN he would let go in terms of requesting the House as a whole to vote on contentious issues. In both the private and public sphere he sought to walk a path that was being revealed to him, but also in some sense he was surrendering to. He was both in control, and surrendering that control. So both Markings and the UN Charter gave him signposts. Each was a compass, representing something to which he held himself accountable.

I conclude with his own concluding words at Pentecost 1961: “Lead by the Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of life, I came to a time and place where I realised that the way leads to a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and that the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation (or humility). After that, the word ‘courage’ lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken from me.

“As I continued along the way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying of the hero of the Gospels stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross.”


Full paper and quotes can be found on the Carmelite Library Blog.


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