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.
Dag Hammarskjöld Timeline and Legacy
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.’
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.
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.
Swedish Civil Servant
At the tender age of 31, Dag Hammarskjöld became the top civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, as well as Chairman of the National Bank of Sweden’s Board. From there he began a distinguished career as a Swedish civil servant in the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, culminating in his 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, and headed Swedish delegations to the United Nations General Assembly in Paris and New York. Although he served with the Social-Democratic cabinet, Hammarskjöld never joined any political party, regarding himself as politically independent.
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. He stood up against the superpowers in the Security Council and with unshakeable integrity defended the interests of small nations, using his good offices to prevent war and serve the aims of the UN Charter.
The Death of Dag Hammarskjöld
On the night of 17-18 September 1961, during a UN mission to try to negotiate peace in 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.
Legacy as 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.
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.
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.
More information about Dag Hammarskjöld’s life can be found in a concise biography titled Dag Hammarskjöld – Markings of his life, published by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation together with the Swedish publisher Max Ström.