During Dag Hammarskjöld’s first visit to the newly independent Republic of the Congo, in late July and early August 1960, he spoke at a dinner given by the Vice-Premier in what was then known as Léopoldville, now Kinshasa. The UN peacekeeping and administrative support operation in the Congo wasn’t even a month old. The grave instability and violence that had overwhelmed the country within days after independence was barely under control. Hammarskjöld chose this moment to encourage the Congolese to look to the future rather than dwell on bitter events and attitudes of the past. He took up the theme in words that remain provocative—and uncomfortable.
I have found at the United Nations that history is important to explain attitudes, but history can enchain us, and what is important is to work for the future of peoples; and men are happiest when they have the strength and courage to rid themselves, not of their great national memories but of their resentments and unhappy memories. That gives them new strength, makes then more productive, makes them better workers, not only for the progress of their country, but for world peace.
It is for that reason that, as Secretary-General, I have a certain tendency to be anti-historical, to be as far as possible—I and my associates—creators. Creation—that is, to succeed in building something new, something built on human values which exist everywhere and which can always be saved if we have the courage to do so and to rid ourselves of our bonds.
(Public Papers 5, 51, translated by the UN from Hammarskjöld’s French, with slight revisions here)
It’s a good question, how much can be forgotten or overlooked. We have heard Hammarskjöld say, "Fight for your team, but remember that your adversaries of today were your friends of yesterday and will have to be your friends of tomorrow" (Public Papers 2
, 464–65). Who could doubt that this is generally good advice? But some wounds go so deep that "ridding oneself" of "resentments and unhappy memories", as he puts it, is hardly a trivial national or individual exercise. At the present time many old wounds, and wounds both old and unhealed, command public debate in various parts of the world. How will it be possible to forget or set aside THAT—whatever THAT may be for a given nation or ethnic group—for the sake of "creation…building something new" on the basis of instinctively recognized, universal human values?
This much can be said: Hammarskjöld practiced what he preached. It was a serious disappointment for him in winter 1961 when a close and trusted foreign minister, yielding to political pressure, acted with others in a way that temporarily weakened his hand in the Congo Crisis. Hammarskjöld wrote him a letter, saying among other things that it would take time to get over his disappointment. And later wrote again, expressing sorrow at the turn of events but adding: "I promise you to remember the good things achieved and forget the wounds" (DH letter to Mahmoud Fawzi, 1 March 1961, Hammarskjöld Collection, Swedish National Library). On occasion he used the metaphor of wounds to clarify situations—for example, in the spring of 1957, when he was attempting to restore adherence to the armistice between Israel and its neighbors, he commented that "while all the wounds remain, they are no longer infected" (Public Papers 3
, 578). A brilliantly insightful assessment of circumstance.
If "anti-historical" means turning toward the new and needed, toward peaceful and cooperative development, then the attitude makes sense. But the counsel to forget historic wrongs and wounds is difficult to accept. Isn’t there a way to remember—and a necessity to remember—that doesn’t sour present relations and possibilities, that knows what occurred yet doesn’t prevent "building on human values that exist everywhere"? Some hard memories can be shed or outlived; others are part of identity, constituent of what we are as nations or individuals. What intelligence and sensitivity are needed to remember the past without assigning blame for past deeds to present generations, and to act on the certainty that together we can build a worthwhile future? Though from differing perspectives, can former adversaries remember with common sorrow? Remembering then becomes a purifying exercise that reaffirms and deepens identities without spoiling anything at all.
Reading the paragraphs just above, a friend commented: "I’m sure Dag would agree with what you’re saying. But he was in a different context, trying to go forward and unable until folks 'forgot' the old stuff and began themselves to move forward. It isn't intellectual or moral ... it's about movement—isn't it?" Her words recall the hard circumstances of that time and place, with hatreds crisscrossing and dividing the new nation.
It’s about movement—isn’t it?