The Faith of a Hero

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…

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