Dag Hammarskjold: Statesman

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Dag Hammarskjold-Swedish diplomat, United Nations leader, statesman-was in his lifetime a well-known and admired public servant. And yet, as it was discovered after his accidental death in 1961, he was also a remarkably private man. Throughout his life he had kept a series of secret diaries which revealed him to be a man concerned not only with the outer events of the world around him but with the inner workings of the spiritual side of human beings. He was a man of action and a man of contemplation, and his life was an integral blending of these two seemingly opposite ways of being.

He was the youngest of four brothers, born on July 29, 1905. The Hammarskjold family was one of the oldest families in Sweden. Traditionally, the family worked in public service, and Dag's father and his two brothers all went into some sort of government work. Dag's father had been a professor of law and a scholar but, due to financial difficulties, was forced to go into government work in order to raise a family. He took this step with sacrifice and yet perfected his work, eventually becoming Prime Minister of Sweden. His main work was in the area of mediation. Sweden has always been a neutral country and has a tradition of interceding between countries that are in conflict with one another. This time-the turn of the century-was a time of great controversy throughout the world. World War I was approaching, Norway split off from Sweden, and conflict was brewing everywhere. In fact, Dag's father became very unpopular in his country. There was a food shortage in Sweden during the war, and the elder Hammarskjold was blamed for it. He ended up being forced to resign as prime minister and returned to a previous position he had as governor of Uppland at Uppsala.

It is interesting to follow the career of the older Hammarskjold because there is a significant parallel with his life and that of his son. Dag went into public service, reached a high position in Sweden, and went on to become Secretary General of the United Nations. Dag had a great deal of respect for his father; he admired the work that he had done. But this respect was also tempered by a resentment because his father tended to be very hard with his four sons and pushed them into public service. Dag held this resentment in his heart for a long time. Dag's father was rather aloof, and Dag was a very sensitive person. This sensitivity he inherited from his mother, and he retained with her a long and fine friendship throughout his adult years.

Dag did his undergraduate work at the University of Solna and studied literature, philosophy, French, and economics. At this time, he discovered the writing of the Christian mystics from the Middle Ages. He developed a real love for them and later accredited them for his inner development. Dag went on to pursue graduate work in economics and had a difficult time with it because of a conflict he had with one of his professors. The professor would not accept his thesis, and Dag was forced to switch to another department because he found this conflict to be unresolvable in any other way. He was very disappointed and upset about this turn of events, and it caused him a great deal of inner turmoil. He ended up getting a bachelor's degree in law before transferring to another school of economics in Stockholm.


Throughout his graduate career, Dag suffered because he felt that his ideas were not as well accepted as they should have been. He was always exploring new approaches which were not welcome in the traditional academic setting. His academic interest began to shift over from an emphasis in research and economics toward that of government service, where he became most successful. It was also as a student, when he was in his early 20s, that Dag began to develop a real spiritual life. It was an inner search and was completely secret from those around him. He began to write a diary which was published after his death as Markings, a beautiful book on his thoughts and philosophy. In this book he wrote about everything that he thought and felt, especially about his devotion to God. Dag was also influenced by another Swede at this time named Bertil Ekman, a student who died at the age of twenty six. Dag copied something from this young Swede which reflects very well what they both were feeling at the same time: "It is not enough to believe in immortality with mind and heart alone. That belief must be part of the will which may then be wholly directed towards death." He then wrote: "Death must inspire longings toward life, not away from it." At a very young age, Dag did not have a morbid fear of death, but saw it as the great challenge of life. Part of a poem he wrote in Markings illustrates this idea when he writes: "Tomorrow we shall meet, death and I." And death, he adds, "shall thrust his sword into one who is wide awake. But in the meantime how grievous the memory of hours frittered away."

Death as a companion, as a reminder of the preciousness of the few hours we have on this earth, was an important concept to Dag. He was a very self-disciplined person, and the social behavior of most of the people he came into contact with bothered him greatly. He felt that too many people frittered hours away talking about things that were not really important. He was very disappointed in people who did not want to talk about anything serious. He had a real love for the inner, spiritual life and was not able to find anyone to share this love. He felt that it was a terrible thing, to waste time. This high standard he maintained throughout his lifetime. It was something that he never talked about publicly, and his view of society and the superficial ways in which people related were not revealed until after his death. Many people criticized him for this because they were offended by what he said. They thought that he was a very hard person. But actually Dag Hammarskjold simply had a desire for perfection for others and for himself.

Much of his early writing centers on this idea of perfection and his preoccupation with his own imperfections. He tended to be very critical of himself and had high personal expectations. He was a very strong person to be able to look at himself so honestly. It was a sign of real integrity, which came out in other aspects of his life, particularly his work in the United Nations.

Dag was influenced by the writings of Martin Buber. Dag developed a personal friendship with Buber, and they wrote many letters to each other. At the time of Dag's death, he was in the process of translating Buber's book, I and Thou into Swedish.

He was especially interested in Buber's views that in modern society we habitually distrust other people. What Buber called "existential mistrust" is an ingrained way of relating that is very distant and defensive. Dag agreed with this approach and recognized it as a real problem. He expanded the notion of Buber's idea-which referred to relationships on a person-to-person level-to that of relationships between countries, and he carried this out in his work as a diplomat.

He had a fine career in public service. He worked as a government advisor and for the Bank of Sweden. He was also a part of the group known as the Stockholm School of Economics, an organization of young economists who were developing new ideas. Apparently, Dag Hammarskjold was the first who coined the words "planned economy," an approach which Sweden later adopted.

He was not involved in the political arena very much because he was such a mixture of political ideas. Labels did not seem to fit him. People thought he was conservative and social democratic all in one. But he did reach a high level in government by becoming Secretary of State in the Swedish foreign office.

He was also famous for his ability to work. He was the one who would undertake the most difficult problems and finish them off, finding a solution to improve them. Dag Hammarskjold was also known for his moral stature, sense of justice, integrity, and wholehearted commitment to responsibility, all balanced by friendliness to co-workers. Three words that seemed to sum him up were trust, reliance, and good will. He was an extremely popular person in his work.


Dag Hammarskjold wrote an essay, "The Public Servant in Society," in which he outlined his philosophy about his work. He felt that the public servant had to be neutral in his relationships. He should always be committed to his work but not committed to any particular personal view. He felt that it was very important to transcend the desire for personal satisfaction in public work.

He became Secretary General of the United Nations on April 10, 1953. It was a time of great world crisis. The first major problem that Dag Hammarskjold dealt with as a representative of the United Nations was relations with the Chinese communists. Several American airmen had been shot down in Korea and were being held prisoner by the Chinese. This was a delicate situation, and Dag had to gather all his diplomatic skills in resolving this problem. He finally was able to get the Americans released, and this success was to lead to a kind of turning point in the history of the U.N. He helped to transform the U.N. into an agency of action. Rather than remaining in the background, in conversation and exchange of viewpoints, Dag Hammarskjold was fearless in his direct involvement with mediation between countries in conflict.

Dag Hammarskjold was involved in the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 and in the mediation among Arab states over Lebanon and Palestine in 1958. In 1960, he worked on the conflict in the Congo, and this was to be his last work. During this crisis, Dag faced the most difficult of all situations in his diplomatic work. He was asked by the Soviet Union to resign, under the allegation that he always made decisions with a bias against the socialist countries. In a remarkably moving speech before the United Nations on October 3, 1960, Dag Hammarskjold made clear his sense of responsibility to the U.N. He pointed out how historical truth is often established: "Once an allegation has been repeated a few times," he said, "it is no longer an allegation. It is an established fact, even if no evidence has been brought out in order to support it. However, facts are facts, and the true facts are there for whomsoever cares for truth." He refused to resign under the political pressure of a superpower such as Russia, saying that it was not the big powers that needed the protection of the U.N. but all the others. In the interest of the small nations he would stay, as long as they wished him to. The members of the U.N. showed their approval by an enthusiastic standing ovation.

During the years he spent in New York, Dag carried out a very active private life. He was interested in art and drama and was outstandingly educated about them. He was personally responsible for reviving interest in Eugene O'Neill's plays in America and Europe during the 1950s, and he arranged the staging of many of them in New York. Eugene O'Neill was apparently very appreciative of this effort. Dag also liked modern art and was very knowledgeable about it. He went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to acquire some works of art to be displayed at the U.N. The curator did not know who he was and thought that he might be the curator of the Royal Swedish Museum because he was so knowledgeable. He was also a collector of books and had a huge personal library. He did translations, making many French and English writers available to Swedish readers. He translated the work of a French poet, Saint-John Perse, into Swedish, and because of its availability to the Swedish public, Perse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960. Dag carried on translations even during the most difficult crises. It was a kind of release for him.

Dag Hammarskjold's death in 1961 took place under rather mysterious circumstances. He died in a plane crash in the Congo, and controversy surrounds exactly what happened. Some people thought he was shot down, others thought that maybe he arranged the accident himself. This rather bizarre idea is indicative of the reaction to his book published after his death. People were very critical of him for his private religious feelings, especially in Scandinavian countries, where spiritual life is something that is not much discussed. But some readers recognized the true spiritual search that was part of Hammarskjold's writings. His journals have become a source of inspiration for those with a similar inner quest.

Dag Hammarskjold was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961.

References and Recommended Reading

Hammarskjold, Dag. Markings. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Stolpe, Sven. Dag Hammarskjold: A Spiritual Portrait. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966.

Reprinted from Walking With Contemplation