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The Faith of a Hero

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UN Photo/FS/gf
Dag Hammarskjöld (right) and Martin Buber, Jerusalem, January 2, 1959

When Dag Hammarskjöld’s body was recovered from the crash site in Ndola, Zambia, where the Albertina, his chartered DC-6, went down on the night of September 18, 1961, he was lying on his back, propped up against an ant hill, immaculately dressed as always, in neatly pressed trousers and a white shirt with cuff links. His left hand was clutching some leaves and twigs, leaving rescuers to think he might have survived for a time after being thrown clear of the wreckage.

Searchers also retrieved his briefcase. Inside were a copy of the New Testament, a German edition of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, a novel by the French writer Jean Giono, and copies of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou in German and English. Folded into his wallet were some copies of American newspaper cartoons mocking him, together with a scrap of paper with the first verses of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps.

Searchers also recovered some sheets of yellow lined legal paper filled with his minute, neat—some called it Japanese—handwriting. This enabled investigators to conclude that in flight he had been working on a translation of Buber’s I and Thou. There is a photograph of the Jewish prophet and the spry Swede taken together in Jerusalem in 1958. Hammarskjöld liked quoting Buber’s apodictic remark: “The only reply to distrust is candor.” In a jolting aircraft traveling through the night sky over the African jungle, the secretary-general devoted his final moments alive to turning Buber’s difficult thoughts into English:

This is the exalted melancholy of our fate that every Thou in our world must become an It.

Any reckoning with Dag Hammarskjöld’s life has to begin in Ndola. Clues to his elusive inner life were strewn across the crash site and the crash itself has never been conclusively explained. His colleague and first biographer, Brian Urquhart, blamed the crash on pilot error and dismissed the conspiracy theories that had sprung up around his death, but the new biography by Roger Lipsey gives considerable attention to the possibility that he was murdered.

Zambian charcoal burners working in the forest near the airport that night, and interviewed by a succession of investigators in the years since, have always claimed they saw another plane fire at Hammarskjöld’s aircraft before it plunged to earth. In 2011, a British scholar, Susan Williams, reignited the debate over his death in a book entitled Who Killed Hammarskjöld?1 On the basis of extensive new forensic and archival research, she speculated that the mystery plane might have been a Belgian fighter aircraft working for the Katangese rebels. Hammarskjöld had plenty of enemies: white racist Rhodesians opposed to his support of African liberation; Belgian mining interests aligned with the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga that the UN was trying to bring to heel; the CIA and the KGB, each battling for control of Congolese factions and each opposed to Hammarskjöld’s overall goal of letting the Congolese decide their own future for themselves. Williams’s work establishes plausible motives for murder but does not actually prove that it was one or, if so, who was responsible.

In 2012, a panel of retired jurists, including Judge Richard Goldstone and Sir Stephen Sedley, was commissioned by a committee of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Sweden to review the evidence about his death once again. Apparently the foundation wants to keep its distance from the inquiry. The commission reported in September of this year, and after extensive review of previous investigations and on-site interviews with witnesses, including the now aged charcoal burners, it found that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a new UN investigation into whether Hammarskjöld’s plane was fired upon or forced down before it crashed.2

The truth may lie in the archives of the US government. The CIA and the National Security Agency maintained a listening center in Cyprus that, according to former employees, was tracking the plane’s approach to Ndola.Researchers have already filed freedom of information requests to gain access to these air-traffic intercepts, but it remains uncertain whether even they will resolve what happened that night at Ndola.

While the mystery of Hammarskjöld’s death awaits resolution, Roger Lipsey’s new biography makes an elegant and highly informed attempt to unravel the mystery of his life. He was at once a secular power-player and Christian philosopher, an earnest mystic and a Machiavellian man of action. The challenge is to find how these parts of a complex personality cohere. Lipsey does not try to compete with Brian Urquhart’s magisterial biography of the public man. Instead, he has provided us with a revealing map of the bleak but exalted landscape of Hammarskjöld’s inner life.

Throughout his career, the shy, understated Swede, who never married, who once showed a female journalist around his New York apartment with the wry words, “Monastic enough for you?” and kept everyone guessing about his sexual orientation, eluded easy definition or media capture. No one suspected, when he was chosen for the job in 1953, that he would turn out to be the secretary-general who more than any other came to incarnate in life and death the soul of the UN as an institution.

In the 1920s and 1930s, he struck his Swedish contemporaries simply as a reserved and ambitious young man seeking to measure up to a father who had been a principled and unpopular prime minister of Sweden between 1914 and 1917. His mother, on the other hand, gave him unstinting love and introduced him early in life to the Christian devotional literature that became his constant companion. The young Hammarskjöld was trained as an economist and during Sweden’s ambiguous neutrality during World War II held important posts in the central bank and finance ministry. After the war, he became a minister of state for foreign affairs in the Swedish Foreign Ministry. It was there that chance and fate found him in 1953 when the big powers were looking for a new head of the UN.

It was the British, in fact, who picked him out of the list of compromise candidates to replace Trygve Lie as secretary-general, when it became apparent that the Soviets would block Lester B. Pearson of Canada, the most visible candidate. Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, had met Hammarskjöld at meetings on European postwar reconstruction and suggested his name, assuming that the quiet Swede would give Her Majesty’s government no trouble.

He inherited an organization poisoned by the acrimony of the cold war. The FBI was roaming through the UN building, investigating Senator Joseph McCarthy’s wild allegations that American Communists had infiltrated it. For more than three years, the Soviet Union had boycotted the UN, because of Trygve Lie’s robust support for US-led intervention in Korea. Hammarskjöld’s first task was to get the FBI out, get the Russians back in, and restore the organization’s shattered morale.

He accomplished all three tasks within the first year, but this period of his life was shadowed by malicious rumor. Trygve Lie, angry at being denied a second term and jealous of Hammarskjöld’s sudden ascent, lent himself to a nasty campaign of insinuation about Hammarskjöld’s sexuality. This was a time when such whispers could ruin a life. Homosexual conduct was still a crime and only a year later Alan Turing, the British pioneer of computer science, would commit suicide after being convicted for a homosexual act and being forced to submit to chemical castration. Hammarskjöld maintained a dignified silence during the whispering campaign about his own sexuality and managed eventually to put the rumors to rest without abandoning his solitary bachelor existence or surrendering his privacy. The whispering campaign could only have deepened his isolation and loneliness. He came through the ordeal with what Margaret Anstee, who worked with him in those years, called “iron single-minded will” and a “unique kind of dignity.”3

His first years were blessed with geostrategic luck. Stalin died weeks before his selection, Senator McCarthy and his threat to the UN went into eclipse, and between 1953 and 1956 there was a lull in the cold war that enabled Hammarskjöld to revive and rebuild the institution.

In his seven years as secretary- general, he astonished those who predicted he would be nothing more than a genial Nordic cypher. He transformed the role of the secretary-general from the Security Council’s executive director into an independent international problem solver, with immense if fluctuating moral authority. He professionalized the UN civil service, giving it an esprit de corps and an independence from national governments. He pioneered UN peacekeeping and did more than any secretary-general, before or since, to articulate what the UN should stand for.

Lipsey portrays Hammarskjöld as a saint, mystic, and visionary but underplays his intensely political side. He had a far-seeing geostrategic imagination and he was nobody’s fool. In a fascinating letter to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion written in 1956, he said bluntly:

Please do not believe that I permit myself to be taken in by anybody, but realize, on the other hand, that I cannot work on the general assumption of people trying to double-cross me even when this runs counter to their own interest.

In the same secret exchange, he took issue with Ben-Gurion’s conviction that blunt force was the only way to secure Arab respect:

You believe that this way of creating respect for Israel will pave the way for sound coexistence with the Arab peoples. I believe that the policy may postpone indefinitely the time for such coexistence.

This was about as moralizing as he ever got. He was too shrewd a politician to believe that lectures would have leverage over politicians’ ambitions or states’ vital interests. He was especially realistic when it came to the permanent five on the Security Council. Wherever their vital interests were at stake—Hungary and Poland in 1956 for the Soviet Union, Tibet for China in 1959, and the Latin-American backyard for the Americans—he kept silent and accepted that the UN would be sidelined.

As soon as he saw an opportunity, however, he knew how to throw the UN into the thick of the action. The best example was the Suez Crisis of 1956. The abortive Anglo-French attack on Suez, followed by the Israeli seizure of Sinai, created a situation in which everyone—the British, the French, the Israelis, the Americans—needed a way out. Hammarskjöld seized on Lester B. Pearson’s idea of deploying a UN force to keep the parties apart and drove the UN Secretariat to organize and deploy the force with amazing speed and success. Ably assisted by Ralph Bunche, who had negotiated the end of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, and by Brian Urquhart, who had seen active service with the British military and could provide expert advice on planning and development, Hammarskjöld led the UN into the new era of peacekeeping.

The biographer’s challenge is to figure out how Hammarskjöld’s secret inner life made possible his complex public achievement. The key to that inner life is a small diary, found after Hammarskjöld’s death on the bedside table of his apartment on East 73rd Street in New York, neatly typed out and apparently ready for publication. When the diary appeared posthumously in 1963 with the title Markings, it caused a sensation, some Swedish journalists sneering that it revealed Hammarskjöld’s Christ complex, others his closet homosexuality. Actually, it did neither. As Lipsey shows, Markings is a classic work of devotional mysticism in a tradition going back to Blaise Pascal’s Pensées et Opuscules and Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi. Markings takes the form of a series of dated diary entries that run from the 1920s right up to the eve of his death, written in gnomic, elusive, haiku-like forms that strive for effect yet escape pretentiousness because of their devastating candor. Markings reads like the self-scourging reflections of a desert mystic:

  1. 1

    Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa (London: Hurst, 2011). 

  2. 2

    See “New Inquiry into the Death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld,” Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, August 6, 2012. The commission’s report can be read at www.dag-hammarskjold.com. 

  3. 3

    Quoted in Stephanie Hegarty, “Dag Hammarskjöld: Was His Death a Crash or a Conspiracy?,” BBC News Magazine, September 17, 2011. 

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