Daily Reflections

Faith of a statesman

October 22, 2019

Dag Hammarskjold (I905-I96I), the late Secretary General of the United Nations, has been called “The greatest statesman of the 20th century”. He once wrote about the influence of his parents: “From a generation of soldiers and government officials on my father’s side, I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country or humanity. From scholars and clergymen on my mother’s side, I inherited a belief that all are equal as children of God”. 

Dag Hammarskjold was by common consent the outstanding student of his day at Uppsala University, where he took his degree in I925. He mastered several languages, and enjoyed poetry, music and painting. He was also a competent performer in gymnastics. Someone referred to him as being a ‘Renaissance Man’ (having wide interests and expert in several areas.)

In I934 Dag Hammarskjold took a doctorate in economics. Both his desire and his heritage led him to enter public service to which he devoted thirty years to Swedish financial affairs, Swedish foreign relations and global international affairs. Finally, from I94I to I948, he was placed at the head of the Bank of Sweden, the most influential financial structure in the country.

Dag Hammarskjold represented Sweden as a delegate to the United Nations in 1949 and again from 1951-53. Receiving 57 votes out of 60, Mr. Hammarskjold was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953 for a five year term. He was re-elected in 1957. Such was his reputation as a statesman.

Shortly after his appointment, the new Secretary General said: “Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. How can we fight for liberty, if we are not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice, if we are not ready to do so?”

In the six years after his first major victory of 1954-55, when he personally negotiated the release of American soldiers captured by the Chinese during the Korean War, Dag Hammarskjold was involved in struggles on three of the world’s continents. He approached them through what he liked to call ‘preventive diplomacy’. While doing so he sought to establish more independence and effectiveness in the post of Secretary General itself.

Out of these crises came procedures and tactics new to the UN-the use of UNEF, employment of a UN ‘presence’ in the world trouble spots and a steadily growing tendency to make the Secretary General the executive for operations for peace.

Finally, Dag Hammarskjold had to deal with almost insuperable difficulties in the Congo. A last crisis arose in September of 1961, when arriving in Leopoldville to discuss details of UN aid to the Congolese government, he learned that fighting had broken out. In an effort to secure a cease-fire, he left by air for a personal conference with the President. Sometime in the night of September 17-18, he and fifteen others aboard perished when their plane crashed near the border of Katanga and North Rhodesia.

After his death, the publication in 1963 of his ‘journal’ entitled Markings reveal the inner man as so few documents ever have. “The entries in this document”, Hammarskjold wrote, “constitute a White Book concerning my negotiations with myself- and with God”. They are spiritual truths given an artistic form.

Dag Hammarskjold wrote: “We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours. He who wills adventure will experience it according to the measure of his courage. He who wills sacrifice will be sacrificed according to the measure of his purity of heart”.

The Secretary General re-opened the meditation room in the UN building. On that occasion he wrote: “We all have within us a center of stillness, surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense”.

As a necessary balance, the Secretary General also wrote: “In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action”.

One author has remarked:  “Markings is the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph. It is perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written”. Mr. Hammarskjold has left us with the faith of a statesman.