"To know that the goal is so significant that everything else must be set aside gives a great sense of liberation and makes one indifferent to anything that may happen to oneself."
Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld was born in Jönköping, Sweden on 29 July 1905. On his father's side, he was descended from a long line of soldiers and government officials (his father, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, would be prime minister of Sweden during the First World War). On his mother's side, his ancestors were scholars and clergymen. These qualities combined in him to make him simultaneously a lover of God and men, a religious and high-minded, yet simple and unassuming man.
He had a distinguished academic career, earning degrees in the humanities, economics, and law from the University of Uppsala, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Stockholm. He joined the civil service in 1930. His achievements over the next 23 years included heading the Bank of Sweden, drafting the legislation which created the Swedish welfare state, serving as Sweden's deputy foreign minister (despite having no political affiliation) and playing a key role in planning the economic reconstruction of Europe. During this time, he also served for some years as President of the Swedish Alpinist Club, and acquired a reputation for his knowledge of the Impressionists, Beethoven, and Christian theology. In 1954, he became a member of the Swedish Academy.
"Do what you can, and the task will rest lightly in your hand."
On 10 April 1953, Dag Hammarskjöld became secretary general of the United Nations. From the very outset, he made his position clear: he saw his duty as being to the rules of the UN Charter and the principles that underlay it, even if it meant being at variance with the other members of the UN. He termed himself an international civil servant with only one master - the United Nations, and set about building an institution of strong, independent men who felt and acted in a spirit of impartial universality.
The 1950s were not good times to hold such beliefs. McCarthyism was rampant in the United States. The Cold War divided the world, and the division threatened the purpose for which the United Nations had been formed. The furtherance of narrowly conceived national interests, rather than the general good of the community of nations, dominated international relations. Yet these only strengthened Dag Hammarskjöld's resolve. An international community consisting of "sovereign national states in armed competition, of which the most that may be expected is that they achieve a peaceful coexistence" was doomed to failure, he told the General Assembly. The goal of the United Nations would only be attained when all countries regulated themselves by the spirit of the UN Charter, without the need for it to be enforced against them.
To this task, he brought a great moral integrity, patience, probity, impartiality and a seemingly indefatiguable energy and vigour. He resisted American attempts to subject the UN to the FBI and McCarthy's jurisdiction. In 1954, when eleven American airmen were captured in China, he personally negotiated their release which - in tribute to him - was effected on his 50th birthday. In 1956, the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez canal threatened to snowball into a major international crisis after Israel, France, and the UK attacked. It was only the personal intervention of Dag Hammarskjöld that produced a timely cessation of hostilities. The realities of international politics kept him from succeeding in many cases - most notably, during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and in his attempts to ban nuclear weapons testing. But he persisted, and worked not through politics, but through quiet diplomacy, negotiations, and - where required - swift, firm and resolute action.
"Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible - not to have run away."
In 1957, Dag Hammarskjöld was re-elected as Secretary-General. The newly emerging nations of the third world were being drawn into the conflict between the superpowers. The Soviet Union gave constant support to socialist or communist groups, while the U.S. backed conservative leaders who espoused democracy. In practice, groups on both sides were corrupt and authoritarian, and rarely practised the ideology they preached.
Dag Hammarskjöld saw the UN as the only world body that could insulate these countries from the ideological conflicts of the cold war, and instead focus on building efficient, honest administrations, feeding their hungry, and maintaining law and order. He used the various agencies of the UN to deal with agriculture, science, social work, transportation, labor, and health and laws in these countries, regardless of their affiliation to eastern or western camps. This policy won him few friends, and he was regularly attacked by both sides. He responded to these attacks and calls for his resignation with dignity. It was not the great powers that needed the vigilance and protection of the UN, he said, it was all the others, and he intended to remain at his post as long as it was necessary to strengthen the ability of the UN to do this.
He was not fated to live long enough to pursue this policy as he would have wished.
In 1960, a new crisis emerged with a secessionist movement in the newly independent Congo. UN peacekeepers were dispatched, but by September 1961, they - though noncombatants - were involved in constant fighting with the rebels. In an effort to secure a cease-fire, he left for a personal conference with the rebels. He never reached his destination. In the early hours of 18 September 1961, his plane crashed near the North Rhodesian border. There were no survivors. The reasons for the crash were never determined
"He who has surrendered himself to it knows that the Way ends on the Cross - even when it is leading through the jubilation of Gennesaret or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem."
Some weeks before he died, Dag Hammarskjöd was on holiday in Sweden. The natural beauty of the area moved him, and he penned a poem in his journal describing his sense of wonder. The concluding lines of the poem are a fitting description and epitaph for Hammarskjöld himself:
Was it here,
Here, that paradise was revealed
For one brief moment
On a night in midsummer?
Dag Hammarskjöld was posthomously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1961. Even today, when it is fashionable to attack and discredit the giants of the past, his integrity and stature remain undiminished.
"Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment."
All quotations are from Dag Hammarskjöld's own writings. Most are from his journal, published after his death as Markings.