13.12.2011 - The UNESCO Courier

Dag Hammarskjöld: "A Man of the Next Generation"

© UNESCO - Dag Hammarskjöld meeting with UNESCO’s DG Vittorino Veronese, at the UN in New York on 16 April 1959.

On 15th December 2011, UNESCO celebrates the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), Secretary-General of the United Nations. On this occasion, The Courier and the UNESCO Archives pay tribute to this great visionary and intellectual in action.

“We shall no longer hear his voice, a soft voice restrained by a reserve which threw a veil of delicacy and kindness over the sharp-edged expression, not devoid of irony, of one the clearest minds and most incisive wills that ever was. But to the end of our days and in all we do we shall continue to hear the call which he tirelessly echoed (...) - the call of freedom, of human dignity and of understanding".

These were the words of the acting Director-General of UNESCO, René Maheu, at a short and moving ceremony held in UNESCO House in Paris on 19 September 1961. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, of Sweden, was killed the day before, 56 years old, in a plane crash on his way to cease-fire negotiations in the Congo-conflict. He died, along with 15 others, in the service of peace.

Dag Hammarskjöld was a person of vision and principle, and at the same time pragmatic and creative. He was a man of many qualities, even a genius according to Sir Brian Urquhart, British author and diplomat, one of the very first staff members of the United Nations, who knew him well and wrote a biography about him. But what really made Hammarskjöld exceptional was his capacity to embody a cause larger than himself or than any single individual, namely the United Nations and the ideas behind it, as expressed in the United Nations Charter. Not surprisingly a copy of the Charter was found in his briefcase next to his body after the crash.

During Hammarskjöld’s 8 years in office (1953-61) he faced a number of international crises, many of them related to the Cold War. One of his major achievements was the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force during the Suez-crisis. UNEF became a model for the UN’s peacekeeping efforts for many years to come - and to some extent still is.

The most famous quotation from Dag Hammarskjöld is probably that “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”. This statement is a good illustration of how he was able to combine vision and pragmatism. After all, saving the world from hell, in particular in the shape of a nuclear holocaust, was no small endeavour during the Cold War when this threat seemed to be ever-present…

Hammarskjöld understood that the relevance of the United Nations lay in its ability to constantly adapt to new challenges. He articulated a shift in its mission from dealing with the legacy of the Second World War to tackling the legacy of colonialism.

The legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld himself is manifold and includes his unshakeable belief in the independent and active role the Secretary-General should play. Barbara Ward, a British political economist of the London School of Economics, called Hammarskjöld: “a man of the next generation”. By this she meant that he had a vision of the future, based on humanistic values, culture and perceptive internationalism.

Dag Hammarskjöld succeeded in reaching out to people around the world and making them feel that what he and the United Nations were doing was important to them. He once expressed his approach in this way: “Everything will be all right – you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.”

Jens Boel, UNESCO Chief Archivist

Selected reading:
Manuel Fröhlich: “Political ethics and the United Nations: Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General”, New York, USA, Routledge, 2008
“The Adventure of peace: Dag Hammarskjöld and the future of the UN”, New York, USA, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005
Peter B. Heller: “The United Nations under Dag Hammarskjöld, 1953-1961”, Lanham, Md., USA, Scarecrow Press, 2001
Brian Urquhart : “Hammarskjold“, New York, USA, W.W.Norton, 1994
Dag Hammarskjöld: “Markings”, New York, Random House Publishing Group, 1983

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