Dag Hammarskjold – an exceptional man highly gifted


Dag Hammarskjold was the second Secretary-general of the United Nations. He served as Secretary-general for more than eight years (1953-61). A few months after he joined the United Nations as the Secretary-general, while speaking to an audience in New York, he said, “We cannot mold the world as masters of a material thing… But we can influence the development of the world from within as a spiritual thing.” All through his life even in the midst of a brilliantly illustrious career where he was engaged at the highest level of diplomacy in world affairs, in Hammarskjold there was this deep, silent inner space where dwelled the seeker of truth, the student of peace probing the fundamental questions of human identity and the ‘maturity of mind’. It is from this large inner world of his where “new thoughts and glints of possibility could knock around freely and find a pattern that led on”(7) that Hammarskjold drew inspiration and strength to not only understand but also find solutions in highly trying and difficult circumstances. Manuel Frohlich rightly pointed to the two sides of Hammarskjold’s legacy – ‘the externally focused statesmanship and the internally directed inquiry into human being.’ (1)

Dag Hammarskjold’s academic career was amazingly brilliant. At the young age of thirty he was not only the chairman of the Governors of the Bank of Sweden but also the Under-Secretary of the Swedish Ministry of Finance. His work at the Swedish Ministry of Finance was extremely demanding. He worked at the Ministry for almost ten years before he accepted his position at the UN as Secretary-General (Hammarskjold was forty-seven years old). At the Ministry he had the opportunity to develop the necessary self-discipline that helped him enormously, in undertaking the huge responsibility at the UN. Commenting on Hammarskjold’s work at the Ministry of Finance one of his friend Sture Petren wrote: “Thus, for long periods, Hammarskjold was able to manage with very little sleep, he was able to absorb at breakneck speed the content of documents and books and possessed the gift of retaining the overall view of the principle lines in a large complex of problems while seizing on isolated details of it. He was however, also able to screen off what occupied him at a given moment, so that at that time this emerged for him as of paramount importance. Taken together, these traits endowed Hammarskjold with a crushing efficiency, a concomitant of which, however, was a certain disinclination to delegate work to others. The mode of life Hammarskjold had developed also required, apart from unfailing health, the absence of family life. On the other hand, he became the natural center in the circle of his closest collaborators, whose society he sought also for his scant leisure time and to whom he became, by the radiation of his personality and the multiplicity of his interests, a superior and friend of rare inspiration and stimulus. Also in his relations to staff in general, he was an esteemed and even loved boss by virtue of his natural kindness and personal interest.” (2)

Hammarskjold wrote and spoke fluently English, French and German. He was a man whose cultural interests were wide-ranging. He was highly knowledgeable in the history, literature and culture of more than six nations. He was “an ardent and highly literate connoisseur of drama and music, painting and sculpture, both classical and contemporary, himself a poet and translator of poetry, a lover and interpreter of Nature, a mountaineer, withal ‘the best of comrades’, all his life surrounded by admiring companions of the most diverse types and outlooks and cosmopolitan interests – in sum, a Renaissance man at mid-twentieth century.”(3)

Hammarskjold had an intellect that was razor sharp, a mind that was ferocious & courageous and his political judgment was acute. With these grand qualities of the mind Hammarskjold, even though highly successful, was not content as a Swedish civil servant. So the opportunity to serve as the Secretary-General at the United Nations came to him as a blessing and at the same time he realized it was a heavy burden (for there were moments when he asked himself does he have to accept this responsibility). Nevertheless he accepted his new responsibility cheerfully. In the year of his death he wrote in his diary ‘Markings’ regarding the moment he accepted his responsibility at the United Nations – “From that moment stems the certainty that existence is meaningful and that therefore my life, in submission, has a goal. From that moment I have known what it means ‘not to look back’, to ‘take no thought for the morrow.’”(4)

When he was at the UN, Hammarskjold became a deeply admired public figure. He had “lightning-like” capacity to understanding difficult and complex situations and also had the foresight to see how these situations would evolve. “He was passionate about the search for peace and justice, passionate about creating dialogue among adversaries, passionate about crafting durable solutions to prevent what the UN Charter calls “the scourge of war.” But he spoke and wrote with deliberately dispassionate intelligence in his public role as chief servant of the Charter and the UN member nations.”(5)

In his book on Hammarskjold, Roger Lipsey writes, “..Hammarskjold was, for me, a model of virtue. I was inspired by his attack on life, his attack on himself, his need to clarify and ready himself to serve without self-serving. His example decisively confirmed values that had touched me from other sources as well. If there was to be some whole, and something like a whole view, he was part of it. After reading ‘Markings’, I could not forget him.”(6)

1) Hammarskjold A Life, Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan 2013, Pg. 3
2) HAMMARSKJOLD, Brian Urquhart, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1972, Pg. 22
3) DAG HAMMARSKJOLD The Statesman and His Faith, Henry P. Van Dusen, Harper & Row, 1967, Pg. 4
4) HAMMARSKJOLD, Brian Urquhart, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1972, Pg. 23
5) Hammarskjold A Life, Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan 2013, Pg. 9
6) Hammarskjold A Life, Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan 2013, Pg. xiii
7) Hammarskjold A Life, Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan 2013, Pg. xiii


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