Dag Hammarskjöld - I am the vessel

Dag Hammarskjöld (July 29, 1905 - September 18, 1961) was descended from a family line of Swedish knights. The youngest son of the Prime Minister of Sweden, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, a member of the Hague Tribunal and the Nobel Foundation, he was raised in an atmosphere steeped in an ethic of public service.

An outstanding student, he excelled in his studies, particularly in the Humanities and linguistics. He became known as a talented poet and translator of poetry, particularly the poems of Emily Dickinson; an art and music historian; and in his later years, as a theologian. He was also an athlete: a gymnast, a skier, and a mountaineer. But his main interest was political economy. He earned a law degree and a doctorate in economics from Uppsala University and taught economics, then entered public service. Working for Sweden’s financial health in the years of the Great Depression, and for Swedish foreign policy, he helped to preserve Sweden’s neutrality as so much of Europe fell under the Nazi regime, and gained expertise in international affairs.

In 1949, he began to represent Sweden as a delegate to the brand-new United Nations. In 1953, he was elected Secretary General, receiving 57 votes out of 60; and he was re-elected to this post in 1957.
Hammarskjöld was widely regarded for helping to shape the United Nations into an independent international organization, patiently working to confirm the United Nations for the people who worked there, as a place set apart from narrowly conceived national interests. As Secretary General, one of his first diplomatic achievements was to negotiate the release of American prisoners of war held by China during the Korean War.

Practicing what he called “preventive diplomacy” he worked to ease the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and address the situation in Palestine,
and to negotiate the post-colonial politics of Southeast Asia in the years after the Japanese invasions of WWII and before the U.S. interventions in Viet Nam. But Africa was to draw his attention most intensely. Many parts of Africa were coming out of colonial rule to national independence, with widely varying degrees of effectiveness and benefit to their citizens. While the old colonial systems were receding, the idea of Africa as a source of natural resources to be despoiled and exploited by powers on other continents, without much regard for the well-being of the local citizens, had not gone away. Africa, especially the Congo region, became the pawn of a post-colonial ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the old colonial interests of Belgium and England added to the competition.

Dag Hammarskjöld was resolved to work for the benefit and development of Africa. He was convinced that the emerging countries there have an important mission to fulfill in the community of nations, and strove who help them develop their future. As he expressly said, he believed that the next decades must belong to Africa or to the atom bomb.

His advocacy for the United Nations as an independent entity, and for the development and self-determination of small nations, angered many of the world’s most powerful countries. At one point, the Soviet Union insisted that Hammarskjold resign as Secretary General. And while he was supported by President Kennedy, he made many elements of the U.S. Government furious when he refused to allow a McCarthy-era FBI raid inside the United Nations.

In 1961, the political situation in the Congo rose to a boiling point after the election of the nationalist, Patrice Lumumba, as President of the new Republic of the Congo. The Belgian colonial regime had been brutal, spawning the first modern human rights campaign to oppose its abuses. It left the newly-independent Congo ill-prepared for self-government. The province of Katanga, with the backing of Belgian colonial interests, declared independence from the Congo. Lumumba threatened to appeal to the Soviet Union for assistance.

On September 14 a coup d’etat headed by Colonel Joseph Mobutu, who would later become infamous as the dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, arrested and imprisoned Lumumba. In January of 1961, he was assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

In 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld traveled to the Congo repeatedly in order to help negotiate some settlement of their conflict over national self-determination. (In the photo at left he is shown inspecting UN troops in the Congo on one of those visits). He was determined to help the people of the Congo decide what they wanted for themselves, without the manipulation of the great powers; and sent in one of the first major UN peace-keeping operations to prevent one side in the conflict from trying to obliterate the other, as happened three decades later in Rwanda.

On his way to broker a cease-fire agreement between the Republic of the Congo and Katanga State, in the early morning of September 18, 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash at the border of the Congo and Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia. When he died, many speculated that Hammarskjöld had been assassinated, in order to keep the U.N. from bringing the central government of the Congo and the mineral-rich Katanga Province from coming back together.

He was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961.

In the mid-1970’s, the United States Senate convened the “Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect To Intelligence Activities,” also known as the “Church Committee” because it was led by Senator Frank Church. Investigating the misuse of United States intelligence resources over three decades, part of the findings of the Church Committee included a 1975 report titled: “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.” One of its conclusions was that there was some CIA knowledge, and activity, in the deaths of both Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjöld.

It was not till the 1963 publication of his personal journal, titled “Markings,” that the depth of his Christian faith and how much of a relationship he lived out between this faith and his active spirituality within the diplomatic world became understood. Dag Hammarskjöld himself called this journal: “a sort of ‘White Book’ (a diplomatic briefing) concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God.”

In the acceptance speech for the posthumous awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, Rolf Edberg, the Swedish Ambassador to Norway, shared some reflections about Dag Hammarskjöld. He spoke of how: “Time and again, Hammarskjöld referred to the indissoluble connection between peace and human rights. Tolerance, protection by law, equal political rights, and equal economic opportunities for all citizens were prerequisites for a harmonious life within a nation. They also became requirements for such a life among nations.”

The Swedish Ambassador continued, speaking of the intensity “that grew stronger each year,” with which Hammarskjöld stressed that:

“The United Nations had to be shaped into a dynamic instrument in the service of development. In his last report, in a tone of voice penetrating because of its very restraint, he confronted those member states which were clinging to ‘the time-honored philosophy of sovereign national states in armed competition, of which the most that may be expected is that they achieve a peaceful coexistence.’ This philosophy did not meet the needs of a world of ever increasing interdependence, where nations have at their disposal armaments of hitherto unknown destructive strength. The United Nations must open up ways to more developed forms of international cooperation... This report...now stands as a last testament.” Ambassador Edberg concluded: “Dag Hammarskjöld found the words of the U.N. Charter concerning equal rights for all nations, large and small, filled with life and significance. Above all, it was the small nations, and especially the developing countries, which needed the United Nations for their protection and their future.”

This address, delivered in December, 1961, still contains timely and urgent words.

In describing his character, Ambassador Edberg said that Hammarskjöld demonstrated how: “Such a conviction must be based on a determined philosophy of life. No one who met him could help noticing that he had a room of quiet within himself.”

This might have been a reference to the U.N. Meditation Room, which is located off the public lobby of the General Assembly Hall in New York, that Hammarskjöld designed. This place, set aside intentionally as a place to listen for the “still, small voice” of God includes an inscription on a black marble plaque, which Hammarskjöld wrote:

“This Is A Room Devoted To Peace And Those Who Are Giving Their Lives For Peace. It Is A Room Of Quiet Where Only Thoughts Should Speak.” He also wrote the text of the leaflet given to visitors to the Meditation Room. It begins: “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.”

The last translation work that Hammarskjöld engaged in was to put the works of twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, into Swedish. I and Thou (Ich und Du), the great book written by Martin Buber, speaks of his belief that all real living is in relationship. Pages from I and Thou were found in the wreckage of the plane in which Hammarskjöld was killed.

Ambassador Edberg described the likeness of Buber’s writing to Hammarskjöld’s own convictions, that: “There were invisible bridges on which people could meet as human beings above the confines of ideologies, races, and nations.”

Just before his plane took off on its fatal flight, Hammarskjöld left behind with a friend a copy of the book Imitation of Christ. by Thomas à Kempis. Tucked inside its pages was the oath of office of the United Nations Secretary-General.

This week we pray for the World Summit at the United Nations, and in thanksgiving for the ongoing work of the United Nations during this year’s observance of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. We also pray for the work of the Lutheran World Federation, and for all groups and individuals who dream about, and pray and work, for human rights and world peace.

I believe that we should die with decency
so that at least decency will survive.”

Dag Hammarskjöld

The full address by Rolf Edberg, the Swedish Ambassador to Norway, is at the website of the Nobel Prize Committee.

Reverend Lisa Bellan-Boyer
Parish Iconographer
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church
Written on September 18, 2005



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