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According to the documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld , which premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival, the plane of the former UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld was shot down by Belgian-British mercenary pilot Jan van Risseghem. Up to 2019, no culprit was known as the latter had always referred to his plane’s log book which indicated that he was not in Katanga at the time. However, pilot Roger Bracco told the Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger and his team that the log was falsified while Pierre Coppens, who also knew van Risseghem, testified that in 1965 the latter had told him that he was the one who shot down the plane but did not know who was on board at the time.

As a four-year-old boy, I remember (if but vaguely) sporadic references to the Suez crisis. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that I first become aware of ‘world affairs’ courtesy of the family radio with the so-called ‘Congo crisis’ dominating the airwaves. The details of the crisis can be read elsewhere. However, it is necessary to provide a modicum of background.

According to Wikipedia:

“Amid continuing unrest and violence, the United Nations deployed peacekeepers but UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld refused to use these troops to help the central government in Léopoldville fight the secessionists. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic leader of the largest nationalist faction, reacted by calling for assistance from the Soviet Union, which promptly sent military advisors and other support. The involvement of the Soviets split the Congolese government and led to an impasse between Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. Mobutu, in command of the army, broke this deadlock with a coup d'état, expelled the Soviet advisors and established a new government effectively under his own control. Lumumba was taken captive and subsequently executed in 1961.

“Hammarskjöld made four trips to Congo, but his efforts toward the decolonisation of Africa were considered insufficient by the Soviet Union; in September 1960, the Soviet government denounced his decision to send a UN emergency force to keep the peace. They demanded his resignation and the replacement of the office of Secretary-General by a three-man directorate with a built-in veto, the “troika”...In September 1961, Hammarskjöld learned about fighting between UN forces and Moise Tshombe's Katangese troops. Hammarskjöld was en route to negotiate a cease-fire on 18 September when his Douglas DC-6 airliner SE-BDY crashed with no survivors near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia.”

It would not be fanciful to describe Dag Hammarskjöld as one of the most outstanding figures of the twentieth century. The late Kofi Annan described him in these terms, “His wisdom and his modesty, his unimpeachable integrity and his single-minded devotion to duty, have set a standard for all servants of the international community - and especially, of course for his successors - which is simply impossible to live up to. There can be no better rule of thumb for a Secretary-General, as he approaches each new challenge or crisis, than to ask himself, “how would Hammarskjöld have handled this?” (‘Dag Hammarskjöld and the 21st Century’, 2001)

However, Hammarskjöld was not just a servant of the international community, he was also a man with a profound moral and spiritual hinterland. This may have been apparent to his UN colleagues and even some of the politicians who called upon his diplomatic skills. However, it was only after his death, that this extraordinary hinterland became more widely known.
Vägmärken (in the English Markings or Waymarks ) was published in 1963 with a Foreword by the poet W.H. Auden. Effectively a diary, found in his New York house shortly after his death, Vägmärken covers the years between 1925 and 1961. However, this is not a diary in any conventional sense, but rather a series of jottings about selfhood, vocation and duty as they relate to a greater reality that transcends them.

I remember ordering a copy from a bookshop in Leeds in 1972 and quickly discovering that this was a work of extraordinary insight and profundity. Yes there are references
Vägmärken to Jewish, Christian, Vedic and Sufi texts, as well as from secular sources, but this is not in any sense a well-meaning ‘spiritual anthology’ or some naïve plea for a ‘perennial philosophy’; instead we are given unusual insight into a man who struggled to make sense of the real world just as he struggled at the same time to make sense of both the opportunities and the limitations of his bourgeois background and privileged education. Rigorously analytical, Hammarskjöld eschews narcissism for a humane understanding of duty as acted out not only on the political stage but in less public arenas.

It would be wrong to highlight various quotations from
Vägmärken (as many have) as the diary possesses an essential, chronological integrity. However, here is one quote that many have seized upon and admired:

“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.”


Book of the Month

Dag Hammarskjöld