Reviews of Hammarskjöld: A Life by Prof. Michael Ignatieff and Dr. Rowan Williams brilliantly exemplify the range of possible responses to the public life and private concerns of Dag Hammarskjöld. Prof. Ignatieff looks from the perspective of a political scientist and participant in Canadian politics who is not uncomfortable with Hammarskjöld's spirituality; he understands how to honor and include it although it is not his first concern. Dr. Williams, recently returned to university life from years of service as Archbishop of Canterbury, is an exceptionally insightful interpreter of spirituality whose experience in public life underlies his understanding of Hammarskjöld's integration of public service and private spirituality.
Why the Silence around Dag Hammarskjöld Has Ended
by Mats Svegfors
Interest in Dag Hammarskjöld is increasing, both in Sweden and internationally. Why? Mats Svegfors seeks the answer in two new books about Sweden’s first Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was also an engaged humanist and a member of the Swedish Academy.
On Saturday, November 26, 1960, Dag Hammarskjöld is in the house he rented in Brewster, north of New York. Kasavubu, the President of the Congo, had been in New York and at the United Nations since the beginning of the month. During those weeks, Hammarskjöld has been reminded every minute that he and the United Nations are in conflict with more or less everyone that has interests, political and economic, to protect in the Congo. Kasavubu is now on his way back to Leopoldville. And Hammarskjöld can grant himself a few days of retreat in Brewster. He has had sent to him the latest book by Eyvind Johnson, The Days of His Grace. Hammarskjöld writes a letter to this colleague in the Swedish Academy. “With really good books it’s good to be forced to read slowly; the old technique—one chapter a day, read aloud by the ‘evening lamp’—wasn’t so bad, it created the right forum for the joy of storytelling.” In his book Hammarskjöld: A Life, Roger Lipsey tells us about the event and the letter. It becomes very clear that Dag Hammarskjöld, also as secretary-general, remained an engaged humanist. He was an international civil servant. But he was also a member of the Academy and a translator. Two sides of the same person, but very much one and the same person.
Interestingly enough, Lipsey’s book has been published only a few months after the appearance of the very valuable book by Hans Landberg, On His Way: Dag Hammarskjöld as a Swedish Civil Servant. Lipsey’s narrative starts seriously in 1953. Landberg’s book ends in 1953. Whoever may happen to be interested in reading a total of 1,300 pages will still be unable to enjoy a coherent biographical narrative. Two very different temperaments have presented one and the same person.
It is 51 years since Dag Hammarskjöld died. During most of that half-century, it has been quite silent around the Swedish secretary-general of the United Nations. But some years back, the silence broke. Interest here in Sweden is increasing. Lipsey’s book shows that the same is true internationally.
There are, of course, several reasons.
A first reason can probably be found just in the double-sidedness of the Hammarskjöld legacy. The portraits by Landberg and Lipsey are both true: the cool civil servant and the searching humanist. Complexity is attractive. It existed in Hammarskjöld. Many people will see it in themselves a half-century after his death.
A second reason can be summed up simply in the expression the return of religion. When Hammarskjöld’s journal Markings was published [in Swedish] in 1963, it was a sort of heresy in the secular Sweden of the ‘60s. The worldly Swedish saint admitted posthumously his Christian faith. At that time, there was no talk of Hammarskjöld because of Markings. Today, there is interest in Hammarskjöld because he left behind Markings. Without the existential diary, few would now speak of him.
A third reason may possibly be found in a basic transformation of secular society. It is as much the worldview as the attitude toward spirituality that has changed.
Dag Hammarskjöld became secretary-general of the UN because the Soviet Union was not ready to cooperate with a UN led by Trygve Lie. The first UN secretary-general had taken sides in the Korean War. At the global level, the dominant conflict was between East and West, between the USSR and the USA. That was the Soviet-Marxist view of the world. And such was in reality also the Western view. There was no third position.
With some exaggeration, one could say that today there is only a third position. Ideologically, the Western world is dominated by middle-of-the-road liberalism. The left is dead. And the right is working hard at eliminating itself, particularly in the United States. Put somewhat bombastically: where the world finds itself today, Dag Hammarskjöld was already at the beginning of the 1950s.
If the world no longer presents itself in simple East/West terms, we face the question of how it should be understood. A well-known expression at the UN formulated a few years into Dag Hammarskjöld’s first term was: “Leave it to Dag.” A version for our time would be: “Get it from Dag.” In a period when simple dichotomies no longer tell us what is right or wrong, there is interest in other explanations. Much can be found in Dag Hammarskjöld.
For all time, Brian Urquhart’s Hammarskjöld biography of 1972 will remain the biography. It accounts, with authority, for all of the external events during Hammarskjöld’s years as secretary-general. To this, Roger Lipsey adds a great deal of the internal. Much has been said before. But not all.
Unlike Urquhart, who was already involved at the creation of the UN in 1945 and who worked closely with Hammarskjöld, Lipsey has no personal connection to the United Nations or to Hammarskjöld. He is basically an art historian and has earlier written about Thomas Merton and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. He is active in the Gurdjieff Foundation, an interreligious movement with activity mainly in the United States. These references do not make it self-evident to attach decisive weight to Lipsey’s book when it comes to information about Hammarskjöld. But Lipsey sets his aims high. Not least, he has knitted together personal, often private, letters and the world events in which Hammarskjöld was a central actor. By adding to this his own perspective, not least from aesthetics and religion, he completes the portrait of Hammarskjöld. He opens the door to a deeper understanding of Dag Hammarskjöld as a possible guide for those who live and work in a society beyond left and right.
Roger Lipsey provides many of the keys to an understanding of Hammarskjöld.
A first key lies in the richness and breadth of his intelligence. Dag Hammarskjöld was receptive and at the same time creative. He had a nearly unequalled faculty of memory. At the same time, he was distinctly analytical. Many have one or the other of these gifts. Very few have Hammarskjöld’s nearly extreme combination of intellectual gifts.
A second key consists of the many-sidedness of his knowledge. Lipsey describes how Hammarskjöld mastered politics, law, history, religion, and psychology. His knowledge was also active; he constantly used it analytically and as a basis for operational decisions. Lipsey points out that for this reason he was well suited, without any military experience, to be commander in chief of the military forces of the UN.
A third key is the multiplicity of reference points. It is no accident that Hammarskjöld celebrates moments of reading in the quoted letter to Eyvind Johnson. Dag Hammarskjöld never allowed his frame of reference to be limited by his professional activities. All of his life he read. Fiction remained part of his daily life. This helped him keep an outside, alternative perspective on his daily work. In an interview with a French journalist in 1960—that is, a year before Hammarskjöld died—he described his ordinary day: “You see, apart from the past two or three months, I have always managed to devote one or two hours each day to what I call serious matters, and I intend to continue doing so. . . . Yes, serious matters that count in a man’s personal life, in any case in mine. I read, and translation is a kind of reading. A poet hasn’t only absolute value, he also has value relative to others. How could I fully appreciate Saint-John Perse if I didn’t also know Aragon, Supervielle, or Henri Michaux?”
A fourth key is the insight of a realist into the limits of reason. Dag Hammarskjöld was very demanding with regard to his own and others’ knowledge. With reference to Lao Tse—that is to say, to a 2,500-year-old philosophy—he remarked in a speech in 1953 to American political scientists that the interaction among different forces is so complex that it is never possible to predict the result of individual actions.
The fifth key that Lipsey highlights is the broad cultural comprehension. Already as a student, Hammarskjöld had come across Asiatic religion and philosophy through the lectures of Axel Hägerström. On one hand, Hammarskjöld was a very European humanist. On the other, he understood in conversations with Chinese and Indian leaders that he was encountering a cultural tradition that could compete in age and wisdom with that of the West.
A sixth key, and perhaps the most important, is his fidelity to values. From first page to last, Markings bears witness to Hammarskjöld’s critical self-scrutiny, not least concerning the values by which he actually let his life be guided. In the course of Hammarskjöld’s life, self-reflection matured into a very personal, but also a very personally colored Christian faith. But if we go back to Hägerström, who was his teacher in philosophy, we realize that faith was not necessarily a precondition for the values to which he was committed throughout his life. It is speculative, nonetheless justified to ask whether it was his values that led him to his faith rather than the faith that led him to the values. Hägerström represented a philosophical nihilism, but certainly not any sort of value relativism. The clergyman’s son Hägerström, who in his youth was fully committed to becoming a minister, outlined a materialistic basis for the values he himself embraced.
Criticism can be directed against Roger Lipsey’s book for idealizing. At the same time the interesting thing with Hammarskjöld is actually that it is possible to create an ideal based on his work, his personality, and his constant reflection. The decisive issue is not if he possessed all the properties attributed to him. What is interesting is to understand, and to articulate, the demands placed on individuals who seek great responsibility in a world ruled by people and not by ideologies.
(translated by Thord Palmlund)
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Mats Svegfors was editor in chief (1991–2000) of a major Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, governor of Västmanland County (2000–2009), and chief executive of Swedish Radio (2009–2012). In 2005 he published a widely read study, Dag Hammarskjöld: Den Förste Moderne Svensken (Dag Hammarskjöld: The First Modern Swede). The translation of his review is published with the permission of Mr. Svegfors and Dagens Nyheter. The review in Swedish will be found at www.dn.se.