Hermit on the world stage

A life story of Dag Hammarskjöld

Hermit on the world stage

Rejoicing in success is different from appropriating its merits. To deny the first is for hypocrites and to those who deny life; to indulge in the second is a pleasure for children—a pleasure that will prevent them from becoming men.

People like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe and Schiller were real Europeans and citizens of the world. As long as you grow up only as a French or German, you are not yet a European. In a world parliament of cultures, we need select men and women. By virtue of their nature, their wisdom and their selflessness, they would be entrusted with the conceptual solution to certain problems. It should be people and artists in governing, like Dag Hammarskjöld, in whom the visionary has taken root,

wrote the most famous violinist of the last century, Yehudi Menuhin, in a biography of Dag Hammerskjöld.

Perhaps we should all learn from these artists, who know the way between the visions and reality, who walk this often arduous road day in and day out, who know the hurdles and can gauge real progress, using the victories over the problems they themselves work on, as well as the victories in themselves. Perhaps then, in people, the artistic will take precedence over the animal-political. Politics is still too often based on certain desires of people. The artistic, on the other hand, is intuitive, which seems to me to be a higher force,

says Menuhin.


Dag Hammarskjöld was a celebrity of my childhood in the late 1950s. I was ten or eleven years old and I listened to the radio news every day with red ears. His name was mentioned on just about every news broadcast; never negative, rather like a kind of dove of peace trying to hold the world on fire together. He seemed to me to be the chairman of some sort of world government. On Sundays, I typed out what I had heard that week. For example, from an early age, I tried to teach myself to write!

After Dag Hammarskjöld was increasingly mentioned in the news in the same breath as the struggles surrounding the independence of Congo and the diamond province of Katanga and was heard almost permanently in the company of exotic, almost impossible to write down names of African politicians, he disappeared suddenly off the radar. His plane had crashed en route to Ndola in present-day Zimbabwe and Dag had died. Without Dag, a gray veil suddenly hung over my fledgling existence as a self-proclaimed reporter. Then better find another hobby.

Years later, I suddenly ran into Dag again. In the bookshop, as the author of the book Markings. I was surprised. My feelings of friendship instantly revived, albeit in a much higher octave and in a tone that would never leave me. That formal, authoritative diplomat turned out to have led a double life. The understated bachelor had found his inspiration all these years in deep, quiet seclusion. He would never confirm it himself, but Dag turned out to have been a type of mystic à la John of the Cross, without a monastery and a cross, admittedly, but indisputably fully in the service of the world and humanity. He had written down his inner experiences with great style, dignity and sensitivity in this spiritual journal about which hardly anyone heard anything during their lifetime. Still, he anticipated a posthumous publication of it, as evidenced by the letter to Leif Belfrage — Secretary General of Foreign Affairs in Sweden — found with the manuscript in his New York apartment:

Dear Leif,

Perhaps you remember that I once told you that I was after all keeping a kind of journal, which I wanted you to take charge of at some time. Here it is. It was begun without the thought that anyone else would ever see it. But in view of what has since happened in my life, all that has been written about me, the situation has changed. These notations give the only correct “profile” that can be drawn. And therefore during recent years I have reckoned with the possibility of publication, though I have continued to write for myself and not for the public. If you find these notations worth publishing, you have my permission to do so – as a kind of “white book” concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.


The texts, fragments, loose fragments, poems, sighs or short speeches from Markings [1] cover Hammarskjöld’s student days and his entire working life. In the first texts he bids farewell to the ‘old creeds’, which are still based on principles and ideals from a distant time for us, far removed from the problems that may confront man in the twenty first century.

My path is not a break with these ideals. On the contrary, I have come to understand that they also have validity in our world today. I wanted to sincerely and frankly build a personal faith in the light of experience and of honest thinking. This effort has brought me back to my starting point. Now I unreservedly acknowledge and subscribe to the same beliefs that were once delivered to me. [2]

So Dag had renounced his ‘old’ faith that was inherited by birth and replaced it with a new faith, one that was completely tailored to current events of the twentieth century.

From the generations of soldiers and government officials on his father’s side, he inherited the belief that:

no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country—or humanity. [3]

On his mother’s side were scientists and clergy from whom he derived the belief that in the

very radical sense of the Gospel all men were equal as children of God and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God. [4] 

Dag sees faith as a state of the mind and of the soul. He often returns to the Spanish mystic John of the Cross, who defines faith as ‘the union of God with the soul’.

In the early years (1925-1930) the texts, often quite cryptic, often requiring rereading, testify to a gradually germinating spiritual wealth. Initially, the seclusion seemed stronger than the need for contact:

Every deed and every relationship is surrounded by an atmosphere of silence. Friendship needs no words—it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness. [5]

But a little later the realization dawns that one should

treat others as ends and never as means

and that

my whole being may become an instrument for that which is greater than I. [6]

The main character comes ‘to the limit’ (1951) and he puts it this way:

When you have reached the point where you no longer expect a response, you will at last be able to give in such a way that the other is able to receive, and be grateful. When Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover. [7]

At first sight, this is not easy, but it becomes clear in any case that the main character has reached a limit – a tipping point.

That tipping point – may we call it rebirth? – may well be reflected in a beautiful fragment written during Pentecost 1961:

I don’t know Who—or what—put the question, I “don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone —or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. From that moment I have known what it means “not to look back,” and “to take no thought for the morrow. [8]

Here opens the way borne by the paradox of Christianity:

Led by the Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of Life, I came to a time and place where I realized that the Way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe, and to a catastrophe which is a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and that the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation. [9]

The author then expresses his inner rise to the Light in a very expressive manner.

As I continued along the Way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying in the Gospels stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross. [10]


He finds the first important source of his thinking in the ethics of Albert Schweizer, the passionate missionary doctor of the hospital he has made famous in remote Lambaréné in Gabon [11].

In this ethic, the ideal of service is underpinned by a fundamental human orientation as proclaimed by the Gospel – while also supporting that orientation. In this work I also found a key that opens access for modern people to the world of the Gospel.

He was also enriched by the philosopher Martin Buber, whom he visited a few times in Jerusalem and Albert Einstein. In the last weeks of his life he was busy with the translation of Buber’s main work I and Thou [12].

A second source is the writings of the great medieval mystics, notably Meister Eckhart. In them, Dag Hammarskjöld found an answer to the question of how a person can reconcile a life of active social service with a harmonious, inner life ‘as a member of the community of the spirit’.

The mystics,

says the author,

have found, in simplicity of mind and inward orientation, the strength to say yes to every appeal that the needs of their neighbors made upon them, and to say yes also to everything life brought for them if they followed the call of their sense of duty. [13]

Love, for the mystics, simply meant “an overflowing of the power” which they felt filled with when living in true self-forgetfulness. This love found its natural expression in an unconditional devotion to duty and in an unreserved acceptance of life – whatever this personally brought for them in tension, suffering or happiness.”


How can we color the life of this Dag Hammarskjöld now? Can we get closer to the mystic and ethicist Hammarskjöld?

When he was eleven years old, he wrote on a notepad:

One day, when you were born, everyone was happy – only you cried. Live so that in your last hour all others cry and you are the only one who has no tears to shed. Then you will meet death peacefully when it comes.

This text rested for a lifetime in the Bible that his mother had given him. After his violent death in Africa, in which he was killed in a Secret Service staged operation with the bizarre name Celeste (the celestial, the divine) it was found in his apartment next to his manuscript for Markings.

He would always be called Dag, an Old Germanic word meaning “the time of light.” A name as a life program: in the most oppressive political situations, he would come up with enlightening, liberating insights time and again. At twenty-one, he wrote to a faithful childhood friend:

I have not the slightest ambition in the ordinary sense; exam assessments and such don’t interest me, but still I’m in a desperate rush. Why? Just because I want to do something for humanity, want to do something.

Nevertheless, four years later he graduated cum laude in law, philosophy and economics!

At the beginning of his working life, he worked for a long time as a highly regarded collaborator in the Swedish Unemployment Committee of the SIGTUNA foundation – Greek for ‘life in exile’… He held various high positions in politics, but he never became a member of any political side. When it came down to it, he always inwardly sided with Christ. On March 31, 1953, he was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations with an unprecedented majority: 57 out of 60 votes!


Girl’s clothes

Until the early seventeenth century, the family name was Michaelsson. In 1610 the family was ennobled with its own family coat of arms: a shield (skjöld) with the royal crown and two intersecting hammers (hammar).

Little Dag grew up in the castle of the city of Uppsala (meaning: the “upper room”). He had a distant but respectful relationship with his father. His mother took care of the warm homeliness. Perhaps longing for a girl, she dressed little Dag in girl’s clothes. But more likely, the sensitive mother’s heart realized that in this being boy and girl were already united and that she sensed what great spiritual task awaited this child. He would never marry, never have children, or have known love affairs with any woman or man. Hammarskjöld lived in the service of a ‘suprapersonal purpose in the service of the world and humanity, inspired by medieval mystics for whom self-surrender was the way to self-realization’. He could best walk that path through life alone and through permanent inner focus, as he said in a radio interview with a Canadian station.

He later clarified his self-chosen path in writing:

Life has value only through the content it has – for others. My life without value to others is worse than death. Therefore – in this great solitude – all serve. Therefore, how incomprehensibly great is all that has been given to me, how insignificant that which I offer. This fire of the body purifies it to purity. To the creative act of sacrifice, I lead myself, instead of to the creative act of corporeal union — in a thunderbolt of the same blinding power. [14]


The combination of feminine clothing for a boy, a self-sacrificing life for a suprapersonal purpose, and the choice of a life-alone are reminiscent of what Carl Gustav Jung writes about

the individual man who has reached an equilibrium in his inner and outer world with a fruitful interaction between the two, and also between the masculine and feminine aspects of his psyche.

It is also reminiscent of logion 22 from the Gospel of Thomas:

If you make the masculine and the feminine one and the same

So that the man is no longer a man and the woman no more a woman

…then you shall enter into the kingdom.

I am silent as I imagine what the personal life of this tireless peacemaker must have been like. Always on the road to try in all kinds of places in the world to connect the apparently incompatible, to be honored but also often reviled and then ‘home’ again. Coming home to that chilly New York apartment, never a warm welcome, no warm embrace… Or maybe, in the stillness of his heart, the warming realization immediately breaks through upon entering that there is the Light and that nothing stands between him and the Light, especially not in this place.


Just then it must be balm for the soul to write out some Markings again, texts for which there was often no opportunity during the travels: deeply felt soul signals that he leaves behind for the world and humanity. Markings are cairns who build travelers in inhospitable regions in order to find the path they have traveled… If we review and bundle all these data, an image of Dag Hammarskjöld unfolds here as a contemporary, itinerant Cathar parfait disguised like a top diplomat.

The world will hardly notice or long remember what we said but it can never be forgotten what we did,

said Hammarskjöld in his inaugural address (1953) as Secretary General. In a world beset by need, there is a crying need for personalities of his caliber, people with great irenic unifying leadership, people who can draw from an inner visionary power and who are uniting moral authority and awe in themselves.

The most sublime prayer of man is not dedicated to victory but to peace,

was the central message at his inception.

That sentence was extended in the sculpture garden around the United Nations building in New York. Every country could and can contribute to this. Since 1959, an imposing sculpture by the Dnipro (Ukraine) born sculptor Yevgeny Victorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974) has been in that garden, donated by the then Soviet Union. The image of this Russian contribution shows a well-known text from the Holy Language (Isaiah 2:4):

Let us beat swords into plowshares.

The explanation makes clear how to explain this:

In the work of art the desire of the man portrayed to end all wars, by converting weapons of death and destruction into productive tools for the greater good of mankind.



[1] Dag Hammerskjöld, Markings, 1963

erling_one_sided.indd (daghammarskjold.se)

[2]Old creeds in a new world – a statement of belief.’ In: W. Foote (ed.), The servant of peace. Dag Hammarskjöld speeches, Stockholm 1962

[3] Ibid

[4] Dag Hammarskjöld, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, In Servant, p. 63

[5] Markings 25 (1925-1930)

[6] Markings 49 (1950)

[7] Markings 61 (1951)

[8] Markings 148 (Pentecost 1961)

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a globally respected, widely published German physician, Lutheran theologian, philosopher and musician. He and his wife Helen set up a hospital around a mission in Lambarene, where he was the sole specialist for many years, treating thousands of people. This form of practical charity and development aid avant la date appealed to the imagination of the Christian world. He wrote probing pamphlets against the nuclear race that increasingly gripped West and East in the 1950s and 1960s.

[12] M. Buber, I and Thou, 1923

[13] Canadian radio in 1954

[14] Markings 150

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Date: October 9, 2022
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Shlomaster on Pixabay CCO

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