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Dag Hammarskjöld – biography

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905–1961) was the UN Secretary-General 1953–1961.

After finishing his doctoral studies, Hammarskjöld began a successful career in Sweden. He was Governor of the Riksbank (the central bank of Sweden), State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, minister without portfolio and a member of the Swedish Academy.

As Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld played a very active diplomatic role in the conflicts that went on. His quiet diplomacy proved to be very effective and won great respect.

Dag Hammarskjöld died in unclear circumstances in a plane crash in 1961. He was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Dag Hammarskjöld’s family and relatives

Hammarskjöld, also Hammarskiöld, Hammarsköld and Hammarskjold (the latter due to the lack of the letter ö in English) is a noble family, originating in southern Sweden. The oldest ancestor is Cavalry master, colonel, and Stadtholder Peder (Per) Mikaelsson, who was knighted in 1610.

Dag’s father Hjalmar Hammarskjöld (1862–1953) was born in Tuna parish in Småland, Sweden. Hjalmar graduated with outstanding grades, and began studying at Uppsala University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts and then Professor of Law degrees. Hjalmar then had a career as a public servant and was Prime Minister of Sweden 1914–1917. Many described Hjalmar as a loner and when he was governor in Uppsala, he was often called “the loner in the palace”* (Fredens pris 2005).

Dag’s mother Agnes Hammarskjöld, née Almqvist, (1866–1940) grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. Her father Fridolf Almqvist was half-brother to the author Carl Jonas Love Almqvist. Since Hjalmar was very busy with his duties, it was Agnes who dominated at home. She wrote many letters and was deeply religious.

Agnes and Hjalmar met in 1884 and married in 1890. They settled in Uppsala, where Hjalmar had a post at the university’s Faculty of Law. A few years later, Hjalmar became a department chief in the Ministry of Justice. This meant that the family, which consisted of Hjalmar, Agnes and the children Bo (1891–1974) and Åke (1893–1937), moved to Stockholm. A third son, Sten, was born in 1900. Hjalmar continued with his public service career and became Minister for Justice in 1901. In 1902 however, the government was forced to resign after harsh criticism, but it did not take long until Hjalmar was appointed as president of the Göta High Court of Justice in Jönköping.

Early life


Dag Hammarskjöld was born on 29 July 1905 in Jönköping, Sweden. His father, Hjalmar, had recently been appointed Minister for Education and was in Stockholm when Dag was born. The baptism was postponed due to Hjalmar’s participation in the negotiations on the future of the Union between Sweden and Norway. It was not until two months later that the son was namned Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld.

In 1906, the family moved to Copenhagen, where Hjalmar appointed envoy at the Swedish Embassy. However, the stay in Denmark was not long lasting. In 1907 Hjalmar became county governor in Uppsala, a task that he valued highly. The family moved to Uppsala and, more specifically, the castle – which Dag himself considered to be his childhood home.

According to letters from family members, Dag was kind and good-natured as a child. He developed an early interest in nature, particularly plants, which he collected and pressed.


At the age of six, Dag began his schooling with a self-educated private teacher. She later said that he had seemed to have “a rare ease of learning.”* (Thelin 2001, p. 52).

In 1916, Dag attended Uppsala Högre Allmänna Läroverk. He was a very industrious and talented student with a particular interest in history, literature and social issues. He graduated in 1923 with twelve A, five a and one B in physical education. A schoolmate later said that Dag Hammarskjöld “was a very nice friend, but he was reserved. We had respect for him, as you always do for those who are clever. He was not at all a swot, but extremely interested in things. He was helpful and loyal – with the same meaning as adults attach to the word collegial.”* (Thelin 2001, p. 90).

After his confirmation and a study trip to Cambridge in England, he began his studies at Uppsala University. He studied Romance languages (French), practical philosophy and economics. After only two and a half years of studies, he obtained a Bachelor of Philosophy degree – twice as fast as his brother Sten.

With Hjalmar as his father, Dag also had the privilege of meeting the intellectual elite of that time, which certainly acted as an important informal education for him.

Dag decided to continue studying economics. By 1930, he had obtained Licentiate of Philosophy and Master of Laws degrees. Even before he was finished with his law degree he got a job as assistant secretary of the unemployment committee. Dag Hammarskjöld was thus given the opportunity to translate his knowledge into practice.

After being promoted to First Secretary of the unemployment committee, he wanted to complete his academic career with a doctoral degree. His doctoral thesis The Spread of the Business Cycle was finished in 1933 and Dag Hammarskjöld was thus able to call himself Doctor of Economics.

Some of his friends from his school years include Rutger Moll, Jan Waldenström, Herbert Tigerschiöld, Gudmund Björck and Per-Olof Eklöf.

Career in Sweden

Public servant

Dag Hammarskjöld quickly developed a successful career as a public servant in Sweden. He was secretary of the Riksbank (the central bank of Sweden) 1935–1941, State Secretary in the Ministry of Finance 1936–1945, Governor of the Riksbank 1941–1948, Swedish delegate in the OEEC (Organization for European Economic Cooperation) 1947–1953, Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1949–1951 and minister without portfolio in Tage Erlander’s government 1951–1953.

As State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Hammarskjöld worked with the economic problems that arose as a result of the Second World War. Hammarskjöld’s mission meant that he played an important role in how the Swedish economy was designed in the years after World War II.

Hammarskjöld had a leading position in Sweden’s delegation to the sixth and seventh UN General Assembly. His role as a Swedish delegate in the OEEC would prove to be very important for his future career. It was during the OEEC’s post-war negotiations in Paris that a number of influential UN officials noticed Hammarskjöld.

After the death of Hjalmar Hammarskjöld in 1953, the Swedish Academy selected Dag Hammarskjöld as successor to Chair number 17.

Secretary-General of the United Nations

The surprising choice

Retiring Secretary-General Trygve Lie greets Dag Hammarskjöld at Idlewild Airport in New York, 1953.

Retiring Secretary-General Trygve Lie greets Dag Hammarskjöld at Idlewild Airport in New York, 1953. (Photo: UN/DPI)

In 1952, the first UN Secretary-General, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, resigned from his post. By supporting the American line in the Korean War, Lie had completely lost the support of the Soviet Union. Criticism was spreading and when the people in Lie’s own secretariat began to show signs of distrust, the situation became untenable.

The search for a successor started in early 1953. A number of names appeared in the discussions, but none had the support of all permanent members of the Security Council. Eventually, one name came forward that everyone could agree on – Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjöld.

Hammarskjöld was not a member of any political party, although he sat in the Swedish government. That plus the fact that he came from neutral Sweden made him a candidate that both East and West could accept. The fact that he was fluent in English, German and French was also an advantage.

Hammarskjöld himself had not been consulted in advance and was surprised when the news came. However, he accepted the offer. After having responded to numerous questions from journalists, Dag Hammarskjöld traveled to New York. At the airport he was welcomed by Trygve Lie, who was not fond of the fact that a Swede would succeed him, with the words “you are going to take over the most impossible job on Earth” (Fredens pris 2005). Dag Hammarskjöld swore the oath of office in the General Assembly on 10 April 1953.

Focus on the UN initially

Hammarskjöld’s arrival at the United Nations can be seen as something of a fresh start in the political world. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had recently died and the U.S. had elected a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Hammarskjöld was very cautious in the beginning. He gave the impression of being shy, but friendly. He went around and shook hands with all employees in the United Nations Headquarters.

In the Secretariat, there was chaos, so Hammarskjöld’s first challenge was to try to resolve the problems. By proposing new rules, reorganizing staff and removing unnecessary middle management, he succeeded in improving coordination within the organization. He also managed to decrease costs. Hammarskjöld also showed a great interest in the UN Building’s art and architecture. He, for example, was deeply involved in the interior design of the UN Meditation Room.

When Hammarskjöld took office, McCarthyism was at its peak. The United States put heavy demands on its UN officials and Trygve Lie had allowed FBI agents into the UN Building. Dag Hammarskjöld was very critical of this and made sure that the FBI left the UN Building and he noted that UN employees did not have to respond to any external authority, if it did not concern criminal charges.

Hammarskjöld believed that the UN’s main task was to keep the peace, which he saw as the basis for social progress. Peace could be maintained through an enhanced respect for international law and of an independent, supervisory organization. He, however, was well aware of the criticism of the UN’s effectiveness, but defended the organization by saying that the UN was “not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 48).

Despite the fact that a significant part of the criticism came from the press, Hammarskjöld wanted to have a mutually good relationship with the media because he realized that they played an important role. With his intellectual capacity, Hammarskjöld could talk a lot without saying anything new or controversial at press conferences. Biographer Mats Svegfors writes: “Whatever he did, it was world news. Despite the massive growth of a media savvy society over the past half century, hardly any other Swedish person has reached a media coverage corresponding to that which Dag Hammarskjöld was exposed to.”* (Svegfors 2005, p. 83).

The American prisoners in China

At the end of the Korean War a number of American pilots were held captive by Communist China for investigation for “violation of Chinese territorial air” (Urquhart 1972, p. 96). In the United States, the reactions were strong and many called for action. However, President Eisenhower said that it was the United Nation’s responsibility to ensure that they were released because they had served under UN command.

The UN acknowledged its responsibility and many possible solutions were brought to the table. The situation was very complicated since China was not a member of the UN and U.S. diplomatic relations with the country were non-existent. The General Assembly considered that Hammarskjöld was the most appropriate person to conduct any negotiations. Hammarskjöld sent the following letter to Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai:

New York, 10 December 1954—The General Assembly of the United Nations has requested me to seek the release of eleven United Nations Command personnel captured by Chinese forces on 12 January 1953 as well as of all other captured personnel of the United Nations Command still detained. Taking into consideration all facts and circumstances the Secretary-General must, in this case, take on himself a special responsibility. In the light of the concern I feel about the issue, I would appreciate an opportunity to take this matter up with you personally. For that reason I would ask you whether you could receive me in Peking. I would suggest a visit soon after 26 December and would, if you accept my proposal, ask you what date at about that time would be suitable to you.

DAG HAMMARSKJOLD, Secretary-General, United Nations (Urquhart 1972, p. 101).

Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai with Dag Hammarskjöld, 1955.

Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai with Dag Hammarskjöld, 1955. (Photo: UN/DPI)

Chou En-lai’s response was positive and Hammarskjöld went to China. Much of Dag Hammarskjöld’s and the UN’s reputation was at stake.

En-lai and Hammarskjöld discussed, in addition to the issue of airmen, the People’s Republic of China’s ostracism from the UN. It was the Chinese government which fled to Taiwan during the civil war that was represented in the United Nations despite the fact that the communist People’s Republic of China represented a quarter of the world’s population.

The discussion was friendly and the two developed a relatively good relationship. Per Lind, who was with Hammarskjöld in China, later said that “it struck sparks at the highest intellectual level”* (Fredens pris 2005) during the meeting. Because of caution from both sides, the talks gave no clear results. The press was irritated at Hammarskjöld’s silence and they began talking about failure.

After many months and several exchanges of correspondence between Hammarskjöld and Chou En-lai, four prisoners were finally released. The remainder was released on Hammarskjöld’s 50th birthday, and Chou En-lai was careful to point out that it was not a concession to the United States. This success was the first display of Hammarskjöld’s famous quiet diplomacy. He said that premature publicity had “often frozen positions in a way which has rendered the situation much more difficult.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 113).

The relatively good relations with China did not last long. Chou En-lai had many objections to the report that Hammarskjöld wrote to the UN. This led to a break of all contact between the UN and China.

Middle East – the build-up to the Suez Crisis

The Arab invasion of the new state of Israel in 1948 resulted in a massive military build-up on the Israeli side. This led to increased tensions and many saw that the ceasefire agreement between the countries was very fragile.

During the summer of 1954, there were small-scale conflicts in the Israeli border. Attacks were followed by counter-attacks and soon a number of Arab countries were dragged into yet another conflict with Israel. The Security Council called on Hammarskjöld to travel to the region to try to negotiate a new ceasefire agreement. The situation looked very difficult.

Hammarskjöld was able to form good relations with both President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, who both respected Hammarskjöld and relied on his neutrality. During the negotiations, Hammarskjöld said, among other things: “When everybody is playing safe in the way you do, the result is a state of utmost insecurity.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 151).

The parties agreed to cease the fighting and when Hammarskjöld returned to New York he was received with great joy and optimism. Many saw it as a fresh start in the Middle East issue. About the Arab-Israeli conflict Hammarskjöld said “for the first time in my life, I believe that I understand it.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 153). Once the initial joy was over, some remarked that nothing concrete was actually was achieved and Hammarskjöld himself saw that major problems were to come.

Suez Crisis – success for the first peacekeeping force

With financial support from Britain and the United States, Egypt would build a large dam near the town of Aswan. However, the two western countries backed out shortly after they had promised the aid. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser responded by nationalising the Suez Canal and imposed customs duties on all foreign ships that wanted to pass. Calls for a peaceful solution came from many directions.

Dag Hammarskjöld inspects UNEF force in Egypt, 1957.

Dag Hammarskjöld inspects UNEF force in Egypt, 1957. (Photo: UN/DPI)

British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had a strong distrust of Nasser. After unsuccessful diplomatic pressure, the United Kingdom, France and Israel decided to take matters into their own hands and sent troops to Egypt to restore the channel. This shocked Hammarskjöld; he could not imagine that two respected great powers could do something like this without UN approval. Furthermore, Britain and France blocked all suggested solutions in the Security Council.

Since the Security Council was blocked, the General Assembly was convened to discuss the issue. Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson proposed that a peacekeeping force be sent to the area. Hammarskjöld was skeptical and wondered how it would work in practice.

When Britain, France, Israel and Egypt had agreed to let the UN assume military responsibility the General Assembly asked “the Secretary-General to take such administrative measures as may be necessary for the prompt execution of the actions envisaged in the present resolution.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 179).

After intense negotiations by Hammarskjöld the UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force) was created. The force was composed of soldiers from 10 countries. In November 1956, the UNEF arrived in Egypt and the goal of 6,000 men was reached a few months later. The UNEF was to maintain the ceasefire and ensure that all foreign troops left the country, and in March 1957 all foreign troops had been withdrawn. Despite that, the UNEF remained as border guards for 10 years.

The way the Suez Crisis was handled was a major success for the United Nations and Dag Hammarskjöld. Despite UNEF’s effectiveness, Hammarskjöld was opposed to a permanent UN force:

We need, really to cut the suit to the body […] of which UNEF is an example […] to have one ready-made suit hanging somewhere in New York or stored I do not know where and to hope it will fit the situations in various parts of the world is just to dream. […] It is much better to have the cloth and go into action as a good tailor quickly when the need arises. (Urquhart 1972, p. 230).

The revolution in Hungary

In the shadow of the Suez Crisis there was ongoing unrest in Hungary. What had started as a student riot had become a rebellion against the communist government. In order to deal with the unrest the Hungarian government asked the Soviet Union for help, which led to strong international reactions. Several western countries called for a quick Security Council meeting. The Soviets viewed this meeting as interference in the internal affairs of Hungary and therefore vetoed a resolution that would force them out of Hungary. The General Assembly took action and called on the Secretary-General to examine the situation provoked by Soviet intervention in Hungary and then propose solutions.

Neither the UN observers nor Hammarskjöld were, however, permitted to enter Hungary. Criticism of the impasse grew and Italy’s UN representative said “while the Secretary-General studies, investigates, and reports, the Hungarian people is being massacred.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 236). Hammarskjöld, whose energy and commitment were focused on the Suez Crisis, became frustrated over the position he was in. He saw himself as a scapegoat who was expected to perform an impossible task.

Hammarskjöld re-elected as Secretary-General

Dag Hammarskjöld was unanimously re-elected to a new five-year term as Secretary-General in 1957. Despite the fact that the job was very stressful, he believed it was his duty to continue.

In connection with the re-election Hammarskjöld said that he considered the UN “as a venture in progress towards an international community living in peace under the laws of justice.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 253). He was satisfied with the Secretary-General’s enhanced role and wanted to expand it further. The experiences of the first five years led Hammarskjöld to the conclusion that the UN should engage in preventive actions, instead of trying to rectify things after the event.

With regard to the nuclear issue Hammarskjöld had no major hopes of a quick and easy solution, but he was convinced that small steps could be made, and above all that the issue must be kept alive. When the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) was formed in 1957, many scientists at the IAEA argued that their work should be cut off from the UN and politics. Hammarskjöld opposed this, saying that the nuclear issue was a central global political factor that must be well integrated within the UN.

During the 1950s, the UN’s financial assistance to poor countries was very limited and the issue was not a priority. Hammarskjöld, who was an economist, tried to highlight the issue. He said that a good economic development in poor countries would accelerate the decolonization and create stability in the world.

Lebanon – unrest that turned out to be exaggerated

Hammarskjöld, the UN observer Plaza and Dayla India’s ambassador in Beirut, 1958.

Hammarskjöld, the UN observer Plaza and Dayla India’s ambassador in Beirut, 1958. (Photo: UN/DPI)

After the Suez Crisis, the relationship between Egypt and Lebanon was tense. This was mainly because of Lebanon’s good relationship with the western countries that had attacked Egypt. When Lebanese President Camille Chamoun supported an extension of the constitution that would give him the right to seek a second term, disturbances broke out. Chamoun asked the United States for help, but President Eisenhower refused because he felt that the situation was too tense.

Lebanon accused the United Arab Republic of aggravating the situation in the country by supporting the rebellion against the president. In June 1958, the UN sent an observation group to Lebanon. Hammarskjöld traveled to the region and said he was pleased with the start of the mission.

A month later, the Iraqi king was overthrown in a coup and Lebanon once again asked the United States for support to maintain law and order in the country. This time the United States felt that the situation was so serious that they immediately sent troops which would stay until the United Nations came up with a better solution. Because of the wave of unrest, Britain sent similar troops to Jordan.

The Soviet Union protested against the two western countries’ interference and Dag Hammarskjöld was anxious to find a solution to the situation. A number of resolutions were presented, but none was supported. Hammarskjöld therefore proposed that the UN presence in the Middle East be increased. His proposal was accepted, because it was less controversial than the others.

The UN force reported that support for the rebels did not exist on the scale that many expected. As a result, the General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution that asked the Secretary-General to arrange for the withdrawal of the United States and Britain. The head of the UN mission in Lebanon, Rajeshwar Dayala, said “the unanimously adopted Arab resolution, which has been described as a miracle, has the unmistakable stamp of the 38th floor [Dag Hammarskjöld].” (Urquhart 1972, p. 291).

Laos – instability in the neutral country

After the independence of Laos, there was great political instability in the country and President Souvanna Phouma tried to reach reconciliation. However, Phouma lost the election and a right-wing regime took over. The new government thought that the communist Pathet Lao group was getting too strong and was concerned that neighboring North Vietnam would support a communist seizure of power. Laos’ government therefore decided to introduce more stringent laws and also asked for international assistance.

Dag Hammarskjöld traveled to the region to get an idea of the situation while trying to launch negotiations between Laos and North Vietnam. When Hammarskjöld came back, complicated and protracted Security Council meetings began. Laos announced that it would accept help from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization if the UN failed to come up with a solution.

The facts presented in the case came mostly from Soviet and American reports, and from the press. Hammarskjöld began to suspect that the picture being presented was not accurate and he therefore decided to once again travel to the region. After the trip he said he had a better understanding of the situation.

At a UN conference that was arranged, it was decided that Laos would be a neutral country. However, the instability continued but the problems were overshadowed by the Vietnam War and the crisis in Congo.

The Congo – chaos broke out after the independence

Unrest broke out in the Congo shortly after independence from Belgium in 1960. The country was not prepared for self-government and the newly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s position was weak so, in practice, it still was the Belgians who ruled. Dissatisfaction among the black population grew and governor Moise Tshombe of the province of Katanga proclaimed independence from the rest of the Congo. The Belgian army made efforts to protect the white population from abuse – without the approval of Lumumba.

Dag Hammarskjöld in Elisabethville, 1960.

Dag Hammarskjöld in Elisabethville, 1960. (Photo: UN/DPI)

Yugoslavia’s President Tito, together with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, 1960.

Yugoslavia’s President Tito, together with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, 1960. (Photo: UN/DPI)

The situation became untenable and Prime Minister Lumumba requested assistance from the United Nations. Dag Hammarskjöld called in the Security Council, which decided that Belgium would withdraw all its troops from the Congo. Hammarskjöld was given the task of creating a peacekeeping force called ONUC (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo). Hammarskjöld was careful to ensure that the force would be composed mainly of African troops, in order to avoid a conflict of the Cold War East and West blocks.

The day after the Security Council decision, the first ONUC soldiers landed in the Congo. The purpose of ONUC was to ensure that the Belgian troops could leave the country and to maintain law and order. They would not do anything about Tshombe, because it was an internal matter in which the UN should not interfere.

Hammarskjöld visited the Congo himself to get a better view of the situation. He landed in Katanga, where Tshombe had control. The visit led to sharp criticism from the Soviet Union, which supported the Lumumba, because it was interpreted as an endorsement of Tshombe.

The Congolese government had by then completely lost control. Prime Minister Lumumba dismissed President Joseph Kasavubu, who in turn responded by dismissing Lumumba. Patrice Lumumba decided to flee the country, but was caught on the road and taken to Tshombe, where he was executed. UN official Sture Linnér was given the task of administering the lawless Congo.

The great powers’ confidence in Hammarskjöld fell and the Soviet Union demanded his immediate resignation. Nikita Khrushchev accused Hammarskjöld of being an agent of the western countries. Khrushchev suggested that Secretary-General should be replaced by three people – one from the East, one from the West and one neutral (a troika). Hammarskjöld’s response to the criticism in the General Assembly in the autumn of 1960 was met with standing ovations:

By resigning, I would, therefore, at the present difficult and dangerous juncture throw the Organization to the winds. I have no right to do so because I have a responsibility to all those states’ members for which the Organization is of decisive importance, a responsibility which overrides all other considerations.

It is not the Soviet Union or, indeed, any other big powers who needs the United Nations for their protection; it is all the others. […] I shall remain in my post during the term of my office as a servant of the Organization in the interests of all those other nations, as long as they wish me to do so. (Urquhart 1972, p. 464).

Bizerte – France did not want to abandon its military base

During the summer of 1961, the Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba asked France to evacuate the military base they had in the Bizerte area. French President Charles de Gaulle did not want to go along with it, because he felt that the base was of strategic importance for France. Tensions arose and Tunisian soldiers fired shots against the French base. France responded strongly by taking over the whole city of Bizerte, after which Tunisia immediately called for a Security Council meeting.

Hammarskjöld was concerned about the situation and appealed for a rapid ceasefire. A ceasefire agreement was signed, but it was fragile. Hammarskjöld went to Tunisia to get a better perspective of the situation. After the Congo crisis, France’s confidence in Hammarskjöld had begun to deteriorate and Charles de Gaulle was not sympathetic towards Hammarskjöld’s trip.

When Hammarskjöld came back from his trip new negotiations began, which France boycotted. Despite the French boycott, a decision was reached that gave Tunisia the right to demand the French exodus from the country. France left the country shortly thereafter.

Dag Hammarskjöld’s death

Continued problems in the Congo

In the autumn of 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld was very concerned about the situation in the Congo. Foreign interference had grown along with the troubles. Hammarskjöld, however, rejected a proposal that the UN forces would step in and take control of Katanga. Instead, he appointed Conor Cruise O’Brien as his representative in Katanga. O’Brien, with Hammarskjöld’s support, began to use tougher methods. These efforts paid off and the situation in the country calmed down somewhat.

Dag Hammarskjöld meets members of the Government of Congo, 1961.

Dag Hammarskjöld meets members of the Government of Congo, 1961. (Photo: UN/DPI)

In August, the Congolese Parliament asked Cyrille Adoula to form a new government. This was seen as a great success and Hammarskjöld gently suggested that this could be the start of a de-escalation of UN troops in the country.

Hammarskjöld decided to travel to the Congo once again, after having received an invitation from Prime Minister Adoula. Hammarskjöld had decided that this would be his last personal attempt to resolve the Katanga problem. If he failed, he would resign from his post as Secretary-General.

New unrest broke out when Hammarskjöld was in the air on his way to the Congo. Without Hammarskjöld’s or UN approval, UN troops in the Congo launched a small operation to prevent the rebel radio broadcasts and at the same time put pressure on Tshombe. However, Tshombe’s troops were stronger than expected and the situation degenerated. Hammarskjöld found it difficult to accept the first report on the situation, because he could not imagine that his representatives had approved such an irresponsible operation.

After a few days of investigating what had taken place, Hammarskjöld sent a message to Tshombe which suggested a meeting so that together they could “try to find peaceful methods of resolving the present conflict, thus opening the way to a solution of the Katanga problem within the framework of the Congo.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 582). One requirement from Hammarskjöld and the UN was that orders of an immediate and effective cease-fire be issued in advance.

Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed for reasons unknown

Although Tshombe had not clearly accepted a ceasefire agreement, Hammarskjöld’s plane took off for Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where the meeting would take place. The flight path had been kept secret.

Just before landing at night between the 17th and 18th September 1961, something went wrong and the plane crashed, plowing through the forest. After about two hundred meters the plane turned around and began to burn vigorously.

Despite a report of a bright light near the airport, authorities thought that the plane had decided to land elsewhere. It took a long time before the search for the missing plane was initiated. The airplane wreck was found 15 hours after the crash. Of the 16 people who were on board, there was one survivor, Harold Julien, but he died soon after because of major injuries. Dag Hammarskjöld’s body was found near the plane and judging from his injuries, his life could not possibly have been saved even if the plane had been found sooner.

There are many theories about what caused the crash. An air or ground attack, sabotage, material failure or the human factor are the most common. A number of independent investigations were conducted, but no firm conclusion was reached. The UN Investigation Commission wrote in its report that it had found “no evidence to support any of the particular theories that have been advanced nor has it been able to exclude the possible causes which it has considered.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 592).

Dag Hammarskjöld’s gravestone at Uppsala old cemetery.

Dag Hammarskjöld’s gravestone at Uppsala old cemetery. (Photo: Hagberg Media AB)

Dag Hammarskjöld’s remains were flown to Sweden where he received a state funeral in Uppsala Cathedral. Dag Hammarskjöld is buried in Hjalmar Hammarskjöld’s family grave at Uppsala old cemetery.

Nobel Prize and Markings

In 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts “to create peace and goodwill among nations and men.” (Jahn 1961). Ambassador Rolf Edberg received the prize as a representative of the Hammarskjöld family.

A manuscript entitled Vägmärken (Markings) was found in Dag Hammarskjöld’s apartment in New York. The manuscript consisted of short diary-like notes, prose and haiku poems, which he himself described as “a sort of white book concerning my negotiations with myself — and with God.”* (Hammarskjöld 1963, p. 5). Markings was published as a book in 1963.

Dag Hammarskjöld as a person

His life’s mission

Dag Hammarskjöld was an intellectually inclined person who saw duty and spiritual maturity as key elements in life. He was religious, but in a very personal way that was not noticeable to the outside world. Hammarskjöld decided early to make the most out of life in order to die as a man “who became what he could be and was what he was.”* (Svegfors 2005, p. 123). Intensive study would prepare him for future tasks and trials. Engaging in small talk and similar pastimes were an inefficient use of time

Despite the fact that Hammarskjöld had achieved a successful career in Sweden, he felt that something was missing. The Secretary-General post filled the vacuum and biographer Brian Urquhart writes: “His new sense of vocation in that exalted position provided the keystone of the arch formed by his other qualities—intellect, courage, stamina, and political judgment.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 23).

Shy person with a great working capacity

Hammarskjöld had a natural shyness and preferred an informal style, which often made him appear stiff in public contexts. Despite this, he often smiled when someone was joking or if something funny happened. Hammarskjöld was careful to monitor the preparations for the arrangements he participated in so that everything would be smooth and trouble free. In regard to his personal safety, he said, however, that it was subordinate to the world’s interest.

Hammarskjöld’s self-discipline was strong and he was able to work intensively with one task for long periods with very little sleep. Sven Stolpe, however, describes it in a different way: “A man, who constantly has to use the nights in order to cope with his life’s work, is not the ideal organizer of a complex effort.”* (Svegfors 2005, p. 29).

Hammarskjöld rarely read or did things that did not interest him, unless he had to. He was very orderly and had a good memory. Friend and colleague Sverker Åström has said that: “Wherever we went, he knew and could tell of the place very well. He was eager to talk, and the memory was phenomenally good. […] One evening he suggested that we should recite poetry from memory. When Gösta and I had read two or three verses, Dag continued quoting Swedish and foreign poetry for an hour or so.”* (Fredens pris 2006).

His work with colleagues was not entirely trouble-free, because he usually assumed that they had the same intellectual capacity as he did. As a result, he often wrote his speeches and notes himself, because it was simply faster. Hammarskjöld spoke fluent Swedish, English, French and German.

The loneliness

Dag Hammarskjöld reading at the Swedish Embassy in Peking, 1955.

Dag Hammarskjöld reading at the Swedish Embassy in Peking, 1955. (Photo: UN/DPI)

Biographer Bengt Thelin has said: “He wanted solitude, but he suffered from it at the same time”* (Fredens pris 2005).

Hammarskjöld had no wife or family of his own, and during a press conference he jokingly said that the UN Charter should contain a clause, which says “the Secretary-General of the UN should have an iron constitution and should not be married” (Urquhart 1972, p. 25). Since he had no family, he was able to focus all of his energy on the UN and work long hours. In a letter to his friend Bo Beskow, Hammarskjöld said that he could sustain himself on “the light and easy warmth of contact with friends such as Greta and yourself […] When I see other possibilities (like yours), I can feel a short pain of having missed something, but the final reaction is: what must be, is right.” (Urquhart 1972, p. 26).

Since he lived alone, rumors began to spread that he was homosexual and his opponents used this to besmirch him. None of his close friends believed, however, that he was homosexual. Sverker Åström, who is homosexual himself and known to be outspoken in recent days, has said “during our long coexistence, including in personal contexts, not the slightest sign of this ever appeared.”* (Fredens pris 2005).

Leisure – an outdoorsman

Hammarskjöld was a devoted outdoorsman and liked to go on hikes in the Swedish mountains. As Secretary-General, he traveled much in the world, and his fascination with foreign cultures never ended. Hammarskjöld often brought his camera on trips and he was a gifted amateur photographer. He has said “the camera has taught me to see.” (Falkman 2005, p. 11).

He also read a lot during his spare time, and sometimes translated complex literature. During his last trip, he worked on a translation of Martin Bubers Ich und Du into Swedish.

Some of Hammarskjöld’s closest friends were Per Lind, Sture Linnér, Lester Pearson, Hans Engen, Ralph Bunche, Leif Belfrage, Sture Petrén, Karl Ragnar Gierow, Uno Willers and Bo Beskow. One person who facilitated the daily life of Dag Hammarskjöld during the UN years was Bill Ranallo, Hammarskjöld’s bodyguard and driver. Ranello was good at solving practical problems and he was a good people person. He could also cook if it was needed.


Dag Hammarskjöld also had his weaknesses. He demanded very much from colleagues and it seemed that he did not care much for people who did not meet his high standards, something that could offend people. When Hammarskjöld disliked something or somebody, it was often noticeable in terse language or a cold silence. It was difficult to get close to Hammarskjöld on a personal level, and he did not like physical contact. Hammarskjöld also had a tendency to interpret his personal relationships with important people as better than they actually were. For example, his contacts with Chou En-lai were cut off shortly after Hammarskjöld’s last China visit.

Sture Linnér, a friend, once said to Hammarskjöld that he might lack understanding of how ordinary people could be. Linnér describes another side of Hammarskjöld like this: “Say that we were out and drove and he took the wrong path at a crossroads, which of course can happen to anyone. But then Dag had to explain why he took the wrong path; it was not he who had made the error, but it was the path that was in the wrong place in some way. It was a funny singularity of his.”* (Fredens pris 2005).

Hammarskjöld was good at writing speeches, but his performances were rigid and not very motivating. He mostly read monotonically directly from the paper because he felt that exaggerated gestures and rhetorical tricks looked staged.


Falkman, K. (2005). To speak for the world: Speeches and Statements by Dag Hammarskjöld. Stockholm: Atlantis.

Fredens pris (2005). DVD, directed by Stig Holmqvist and produced by Göran Gunér. 103 minutes. Sweden: Pan Vision (2006).

Hammarskjöld, D. (1963). Vägmärken. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag.

Jahn, G. (1961). The Nobel Peace Prize 1961: Presentation Speech. (Electronic) Nobelstiftelsen. Available: <> (2007-08-07).

Rystad, G. (last updated: 2006-09-25). Hammarskjöld, Dag. (Electronic) Nationalencyklopedin. Available: <> (2007-04-25).

Selin, E. (2005). Med Hammarskjöld i Sulitelma – intervju med Sverker Åström. (Electronic) Svenska Fjällklubben. Available: <> (2007-07-07).

Svegfors, M. (2005). Dag Hammarskjöld: den förste moderne svensken. Stockholm: Norstedts.

Thelin, B. (2001). Dag Hammarskjöld: barnet, skolpojken, studenten. Andra upplagan. Stockholm: Carlsson Bokförlag.

United Nations. UNEF I. (Electronic) United Nations. Available: <> (2007-05-01).

United Nations. UNOGIL. (Electronic) United Nations. Available: <> (2007-07-05).

Uppsala FN-förening (2005). Dag Hammarskjöld – en vandring i hans spår. (Electronic) Uppsala universitetsbibliotek. Available: <> (2007-04-29).

Urquhart, B. (1972). Hammarskjold. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

* = Author’s translation.

Author: Martin Hagberg
Publication year: 2008
Last updated: 2008-12-21

A special thanks to Paul Petersen who has proofread the biography.

”The concept of loyalty is distorted when it is understood to mean blind acceptance. It is correctly interpreted when it is assumed to cover honest criticism.”