Dag Hammarskjold was one of the most prominent public figures of his time, shaping the world stage at a critical moment in history at the height of the cold war. Today many don’t recognise his name. As a new enquiry into his tragic death more than 50 years ago is being considered, Sarah Fordham looks at the remarkable record he left us in his only book Markings of his singular struggle for world peace
I first came across Dag Hammarskjold's name outside the meditation room at the UN in New York. It was signed at the bottom of the text explaining the room and the enigmatic symbol within set by the cave-like entrance. My visit to the UN was a last minute decision on my last day in NYC. I was flying out that evening so didn't have time for a tour, only a quick look around the foyer, the basement and the grounds. The foyer was dominated by an End Poverty/Millennium Development Goals exhibition. The meditation room is in a corner, and I wouldn't have seen it but for two torn blood-stained UN flags - a memorial to those working for the UN killed in the course of duty.
Hammarskjold's words about the meditation room are directly opposite that memorial. 'This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense ...' I took a photo of the not-so-easy to memorise name, with the intention of looking up this man I'd never heard of who had written so lucidly about stillness and silence.
At the centre of the meditation room was a large block of iron ore, the black surface illuminated by a shaft of light. During the time I was in there, a few people may have put their heads round the door, but I was alone in the semi-darkness for quite a while. Crowds were milling around outside. I found myself thinking about the End Poverty exhibition outside, the grand promises of the MDGs and how humankind's best intentions, in many ways symbolised by the monolith of the UN (‘This House’ Hammarskjold called it), had not brought about world peace, or anything approaching it. But then perhaps things would be worse without it? '
I emerged from the meditation room feeing that there was something important to discover about Hammarskjold's life. I was intrigued to know more about the person who had penned the words at the entrance. I didn’t have to wait long to discover that it was Dag Hammarskjold, the UN's second Secretary General, as the bookshop was selling copies of his only book Markings - billed, no less, as ‘the enduring spiritual classic’. A manuscript entitled Markings was found after his untimely death in a plane crash whilst on a mission to Congo in 1961. Although the manuscript was not meant for anyone else to read during his lifetime, there was a letter with it, written by Hammarskjold, giving permission to publish it after his death. It has never been out of print and in its time achieved a kind of cult-like following. And I had very nearly missed it.
I read it on the plane on the way home. It was one of those books you need to put down after every page and look out the window or close your eyes. There's a mix of poetry (Hammarskjold's and others), quotes from the Bible, Christian mystics and philosophers, all weaving in and out of Hammarskjold's own thoughts. The man that came through to me from the pages was one who had accepted his isolation (he remained single) in order to serve a lofty ideal, and someone who must have, despite having one of the most difficult and demanding jobs in the world, daily fed his inner life.
Hammarskjold was very much of the mind that fate is what we make. He put it well when he said, 'The UN is not just a product of do-gooders. It is harshly real. The day will come when men will see the UN and what it means clearly. 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.' (Quoted in The Times, London, 27 June 1955).
He says of the symbol that dominates the meditation room: 'The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it?'
Hammarskjold represents a desperately needed different kind of role model for the politicians and public servants of our troubled days. Out of all the Secretary Generals that came after Hammarskjold, none is considered to have done more to shape the institution at such a crucial period in modern history, at the height of the cold war. Historian Paul Kennedy hailed Hammarskjold in his book The Parliament of Man as perhaps the greatest Secretary-General because of his ability to shape events in contrast to his successors.
I have found it illuminating to read what people have said about Markings. A nameless customer review on Amazon titled Mediations for the Modern World said, 'It was a strange and haunting book and left me deeply affected. Hammarskjold … wrote this journal of spiritual search and despair in apparent recognition of his failure to achieve the high goals he aspired to …There is much that all of us modern, media drugged folks can learn from the insights he penned in his dark moments.'
Matthew on the goodreads website said, ‘My favourite part of Hammarskjold is his deep and never-ending wrestling with the problem of ego, addressing it from various angles through his life. The thoughts are all the more remarkable for having come from a man embedded in the international politics of his day; I cannot imagine any prominent personality today writing such.’
Philip on same website echoes that sentiment, ‘I wish that men of his ilk would become world leaders again, it has been a long time since his death and we have forgotten him.’
It is a rare thing to get such a view into the spiritual life of such a notable public servant. As W.H. Auden said in his preface to Markings in reading the words you feel you have had 'the privilege of being in contact with a great, good, and lovable man,' and that his book is so unique because it is 'the attempt by a professional man of action to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa.' Surely Hammarskjold was right to perceive the task of peace building not as first of all an objective one, to be accomplished outside oneself, but one that begins within?
In a broadcast over United Nations Radio on 31 December 1953, Dag Hammarskjold said, 'Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we are not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice if we are not ready to do so?... Only in true surrender to the interest of all can we reach that strength and independence, that unity of purpose, that equity of judgement which are necessary if we are to measure up to our duty to the future, as men of a generation to whom the chance was given to build in time a world of peace.'
The NY Times said of Markings that it was ‘perhaps the greatest testament of personal devotion published in this century.’ In internalising the struggle for peace in the way Hammarskjold suggests, then perhaps ‘This House’ can become ‘Our House’ and the gift of another chance is given to our generation.
It would be a good thing indeed if an enquiry into Hammarskjold’s death uncovers the truth – and that in turn brings to light the remarkable life he chose to lead, balancing the contemplative and active life. The lines that I find the most moving and sobering in Markings show a rare foresight and clear-mindedness, and how striking it is that his words in some haunting prophetic sense were absolutely fulfilled – ‘Tomorrow we shall meet / Death and I- / And he shall thrust his sword / Into one who is wide awake’.
© Sarah Fordham
This House was published in Sublime Magazine 2009
This version modified and updated July 2012.