Dag Hammarskjöld’s life and legacy

Dag Hammarskjöld – a compromise candidate – defied expectations during his tenure as UN Secretary-General and became known as an intrepid and dedicated international civil servant.

Dag Hammarskjöld served as Secretary-General of the UN with the utmost courage and integrity from 1953 till his death in 1961, creating standards against which his successors continue to be measured.

He stood firmly by the UN Charter and lost his life in pursuit of dialogue and peace; Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on a mission to mediate in the 1960’s Congo crisis. For his service, he was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hammarskjöld’s most notable achievements while serving as the world’s top international civil servant include restructuring of the UN to make it more effective, creating the basis for UN peacekeeping operations, and successfully implementing his “preventive diplomacy” in crises from the Middle East to China.

When meeting these international challenges, Hammarskjöld combined great moral force with subtlety and insisted on the independence of his office. In doing so he created a lasting legacy of the role and responsibilities of the international civil servant.


Childhood 1905-

Growing up in Uppsala castle

Dag Hammarskjöld was born on 29 July 1905 in Jönköping, Sweden. He was the fourth son of Agnes and Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, Prime Minister of Sweden during World War I. Hammarskjöld spent most of his childhood in the university town of Uppsala where his father then served as Governor of the county of Uppland.

Hammarskjöld’s upbringing and parents’ influence had a great impact on his future career: ‘From generations 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, in the very radical sense of the Gospels, all men were equals as children of God, and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God.’

In this picture, taken sometime between 1907-1912, we see a very young Dag standing outside his childhood home, the Uppsala castle. The spires of Uppsala cathedral are seen in the background. Photo: National Library of Sweden.

Dag as a child by Uppsala castle



Student Years at Uppsala University

Coming from an academically high-achieving family, Dag Hammarskjöld enrolled without delay when he was eighteen in Uppsala University and completed in 1925, with honours, a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Linguistics, Literature and History. After that he went on to pursue a degree in economics and completed a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1930.

However, it was not only studies. In the spring of 1928, he reluctantly undertook the position as 'first curator' at Upland's student nation. After two months of service he is said to have described the time as his 'happiest so far in Uppsala'.

Dag Hammarskjöld then moved to Stockholm, where he became a secretary of a governmental committee on unemployment and received his doctoral degree in economics from the University of Stockholm. He went on to assume the responsibilities of Assistant Professor of Political Economics and taught at the University of Stockholm for one year.

The photo shows Agnes Hammarskjöld and her two sons, Sten (to the left) and Dag, wearing his student hat (to the right). Photo: National Library of Sweden.

Dag as a Student



Swedish Civil Servant

Dag Hammarskjöld became the top civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, at the tender age of 31, simultaneously taking up the role as Board Chairman of the National Bank of Sweden (Sveriges Riksbank) in 1941. From here his distinguished career as a Swedish civil servant in the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs started and culminated with the appointment as Deputy Foreign Minister in 1951.

During these years, Hammarskjöld played an important part in shaping Sweden’s financial policy. He led a series of trade and financial negotiations with other countries. This work included heading Swedish delegations to the United Nations General Assembly in Paris and New York. Hammarskjöld regarded himself as politically independent and never joined any political party whilst serving in the Social-Democratic cabinet, Hammarskjöld.

In this photo Dag Hammarskjöld is together with the National Bank of Sweden Board.




UN Secretary-General

Unexpectedly, Dag Hammarskjöld – a compromise candidate – was selected as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations on 31 March 1953. The UN Security Council believed they had chosen a competent administrator who would not challenge the existing world order.

Before long, they would learn just how thoroughly mistaken they had been. Hammarskjöld set out to lead by realising both dimensions of his title – as a “general” and a “secretary”- and went on to develop and transform the UN.

One of his first transformations took place within the UN building itself. To create a neutral and independent office, Hammarskjöld threw out the FBI, introduced 'staff days' and emphasised the importance of loyalty to the UN chapter over one's nationality. The photo, taken shortly after his arrival in New York in 1953, shows a seemingly hopeful Secretary-General in front of the UN building. UN photo.

Dag at the UN



Re-election and Peace Mission in the Congo

In 1957 Dag Hammarskjöld was unanimously re-elected to a second term of office, a time characterised by global turbulence and a decolonisation wave.

The world faced continuous political discord and deepening distrust which led to the need to establish and deploy a United Nations Peacekeeping force. Their maiden mission was intervening on behalf of the newly established democracy in the Congo when the Belgian army delayed transferring military power in 1960. Through this time the multilateral system was put to the test and the competing interests of UN Member States in the General Assembly and Security Council strongly came to the forefront testing Dag Hammarskjöld’s diplomatic skills.

On the 13 September 1961, Hammarskjöld arrived in Leopoldville (as seen in the photo to the left) where he called for a ceasefire and attempted to start a mediation process. A Peace Mission that had grave consequences for Hammarskjöld and for the highest office of the United Nations.

Photo: UN

U.N. Secretary-General Arrives in Leopoldville  UN photo


18 September 1961 - Ndola

The Death of Dag Hammarskjöld

On the night of 17-18 September 1961, Hammarskjöld's plane was headed for Ndola where he was to mediate directly with Katanga's President Moïse Tshombe. The aim was to unite the breakaway region of Katanga with the other three provinces and unify the Congo.

Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed near Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). All of the 16 passengers and crew perished. The UN report on the cause of crash in 1962 was inconclusive and UN resolutions since have called for further inquiries into the crash conditions and circumstances. What remains unquestioned though is that Dag Hammarskjöld has left a lasting legacy, one that will forever be an example for those who follow in his footsteps.

Hammarskjöld was buried in Uppsala. This photo shows his coffin brought to his family grave, followed by his brothers Bo (front, with wife) and Sten Hammarskjöld (with daughter, Marlene), then Knut Hammarskjöld, a nephew, in front of the former Archbishop of Sweden, Erling Eidem. UN Photo.



Legacy as UN Secretary-General

While serving in his post as the world’s top international civil servant, Dag Hammarskjöld restructured the UN to make it more effective, created the basis for UN peacekeeping operations, and successfully implemented his “preventive diplomacy” in crises from the Middle East to China.

His most commonly cited diplomatic successes include the release of American soldiers captured by the Chinese in the Korean War, the resolution of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and the 1958 withdrawal of American and British troops in Lebanon and Jordan. When meeting these international challenges, Hammarskjöld combined great moral force with subtlety and insisted on the independence of his office. In doing so he shaped an enduring impression of the role and responsibilities of the international civil servant.

Photo: UN

U.N. Secretary-General Visits Battalion of UNEF


Personal Legacy

Dag Hammarskjöld is often described as a twentieth century Renaissance man. He mastered English, French, and German and could converse freely about music, literature, poetry, art and culture as well as philosophy and theology.

Even though the demands of his post were great, he gladly served as a member of the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also found time to translate work of philosophers and poets such as Saint-John Perse, photograph Mount Everest for National Geographic, engage in the redesign of the UN meditation room and chronicle his hikes in the Swedish mountains as the president of the Swedish Alpinist Club.

As a result, Dag was keen to seize the opportunity as it rose. In this picture, the UN Secretary-General, together with his colleague George Ivan Smith, Director of the UN Information Centre in London, climbed the Mount Ruapehu during a visit to New Zealand in 1956.

Photo: UN

U.N. Secretary-General in New Zealand



Dag Hammarskjöld’s most celebrated legacy may well be his journal of personal and spiritual reflections which was published posthumously as Markings in 1963.

Hammarskjöld described the entries in the journal as “the only true ‘profile’ that can be drawn…concerning my negotiations with myself- and with God”. The texts are poetic in nature, some of them in haiku verse, and reflect an intense and deeply personal dialogue with God about duty, responsibility, guilt, love and faith.