Fifty years after the death of Dag Hammarskjöld
A Christian's duty
On Sunday 19 September, Sweden and the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations 1953-1961, in a plane crash at Ndola, in today’s Zambia.
During his time in office, Hammarskjöld became known as a courageous defender of the United Nations Charter in the interest of world peace and in the interest of small nations’ right not to be trodden on by the great powers. Hammarskjöld interpreted the Charter creatively, in order to give the Secretary-General freedom to act and to invent new ways to prevent conflicts and to restore peace. The blue UN helmets, first used in a peace-keeping operation on the Suez in 1956, have since been seen in many parts of the globe. Nowhere in the Charter are peace-keeping operations mentioned. They are an example of Hammarskjöld’s creative interpretation of the UN’s mission. “Silent diplomacy”, today almost a cliché in international relations, is a term coined by Dag Hammarskjöld in contrast to the prevailing “conference diplomacy” of the time. He believed strongly in the confidential, personal encounter at the highest level as a way to overcome deadlocks. His trip to Beijing to see the Chinese Premier Chou en-Lai became famous. It was on his way to sound out Moïse Tshombe, leader of the break-away republic of Katanga, on possible ways to reconcile a Congo torn by civil war, that Hammarskjöld met his death in a darkened, silent plane in 1961.
In an interview, Hammarskjöld once described the UN as a secular “church” (the quotation marks, and their placing, are important). What he meant was that, essentially, the world organization was the expression of a universal idea – the idea of the equality of human beings and of nations and of the longing for peace. He is said to have spent his first three weeks in office visiting and shaking hands with every single one of the 3000 women and men in the UN Secretariat.
But Dag Hammarskjöld would not have been a success as Secretary-General had he been a utopian idealist. Rather, his success was based on a realistic assessment of the state of the world and of il campo di possibilità, the “field of the possible”, to quote the Italian politician Antonio Gramsci. He was an eminently practical visionary. He stood for the supremacy of international law over raw power, but he did not want the veto right of the five permanent Security Council members removed from the Charter, since the veto mirrored the real division of power in the world. “When we can remove the veto, it will be a sign that it no longer matters”, he said, quoting the Indian politician Krishna Menon. In her book on the UN Declaration of Human Rights, A World Made New, Mary Ann Glendon, lawyer and ex-US Ambassador to the Holy See, quotes Hammarskjöld as having instructed the Head of the Human Rights Department in the Secretariat to “not give the plane more gas than is needed to keep it flying” (a remark with an oddly prophetic touch, given the circumstances of Hammarskjöld’s own death). Most likely, Hammarskjöld realized the “blast potential” of the notion of universal human rights, the potential which, twenty years later during a period of superpower détente, would be inscribed in the Helsinki Agreement and give a boost to freedom movements like Poland’s Solidarnosc and Czechoslovakia’s Charta 77. But this was the 1950’s. The world held its breath before the threat of nuclear war.
What made Hammarskjöld withstand the enormous pressures of his office and kept him together as a person was his deep spirituality and devotion to God. To the attentive listener, this spiritual dimension is audible even in his official speeches and interviews. And it is no coincidence, that the most frequently read text by Hammarskjöld is Markings, his spiritual autobiography, sketchy, aphoristic notes that have a pregnancy which speaks directly to the soul and which reveals the inner strife of a person who was constantly “negotiating with God” (his own words). “Spiritual maturity” was in Dag Hammarskjöld’s eyes the most important quality in world leaders, civil servants and diplomats. Freedom for him did not equal unrestrained individualism, but the courage and humility to follow a vocation and live according to your conscience. One is struck by the similarity between this definition of freedom and the one expressed by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, in this interviews with Peter Seewald. To listen to a conversation between the two would have been fascinating. They would not necessarily have agreed on everything. Dag Hammarskjöld’s own road to God was definitely a Christian one. “Jesus is present on every page of Markings”, says KG Hammar, Archbishop emeritus of the Church of Sweden. But it was the mystical, unifying power of man’s unending, honest search for God along many paths that was central to him.
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