The Dag Hammarskjöld interview with biographer Roger Lipsey

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Dag Hammarskjold's Legacy

Dag Hammarskjöld’s Nobel prize ranks him among the world’s greatest peacemakers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urges prayerful reflection on his life in the church’s annual list of saint’s days—calling him a “Renewer of Society.” Retired Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes that Hammarskjöld “almost single-handedly shaped the vision for international co-operation and crisis management that we struggle to realize” to this day.

Henry P. Van Dusen—a former head of Union Theological Seminary in New York who often was called “a Christian statesman” himself—described the publication of Hammarskjöld’s Markings as “the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph, perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written in the heat of professional life and amidst the most exacting responsibilities for world peace and order.”

So why don’t more Americans recognize Dag Hammarskjöld’s name today?

Dag Hammarskjöld:
Mystery Behind his Plane Crash Resurfaces

His memory has faded partly because he died more than 50 years ago. However, later this year, the mystery behind his death is likely to resurface. After leading the United Nations as Secretary-General through a series of world crises since 1953, Hammarskjöld was attempting dangerous diplomacy in war-torn Africa in 1961. That’s when his plane crashed and suspicion, even then, fell on U.S.-and-European-backed forces in Africa who wanted his “meddling” to end. Unfortunately, that was the iciest era in the Cold War and the investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death was put on hold by the UN. The evidence seemed to be too remote; the potential issues behind his death too explosive.

However, later this year, a volunteer team of top international jurists is likely to reopen the case. Rowan Williams himself writes in the Cambridge Humanities Review that there “is an overwhelming case for a reopening of the investigation.”

This news alone is a solid reason to purchase a copy of Roger Lipsey’s inspiring new biography: Hammarskjold: A Life. Later this year, his name likely will be in headlines once again. You’ll be able to draw fresh interest in organizing a discussion group around Hammarskjöld’s life and spiritual legacy.

Dag Hammarskjöld: Markings, the Spiritual Classic

What transformed Hammarskjöld from an internationally mourned diplomat into a widely revered saint was the discovery of his private journal in his sparsely decorated, sanctuary-like bedroom. This collection of private jottings—the American title calls this collection Markings—became an instant best-seller in Swedish and then in English translation in 1964.

In Hammarskjöld, we have a world-class peacemaker who proved effective in the most potentially explosive conflicts in the Cold War—and a world-class saint with a spiritual wisdom captured in his own words over many years. ReadTheSpirit highly recommends Roger Lipsey’s biography of Hammarskjöld, and we are not alone in this view. Rowan Williams writes that “Lipsey is brilliant at reading the life in tandem with the meditations, so that we can see something of what was in Hammarskjöld’s mind at points of crisis—not his thoughts about the details of a crisis but what was nourishing him internally.”

ABOUT DAG Hammarskjöld

DAVID: Once upon a time, the world knew two Dag Hammarskjölds. There is the author of Markings, a spiritual classic made up of his short meditations and poems about the meaning of life. Then, there is the diplomat who ran the United Nations from 1953 to 1961 at the height of the Cold War. As you point out in your book, however, he is no longer a household name. So, let’s start by introducing him to readers. He became a world leader almost by accident, you tell us in your biography.

ROGER: The people who selected him did not understand who they were choosing. Hammarskjöld was plucked from obscurity in 1953 by leaders in the United Nations Security Council who considered him a safe bureaucrat who had shown a lot of integrity in international meetings on finance and economics. They thought he would be a good and quiet administrator. They were wrong about that, but it was on that basis that the United States and the Soviet Union, the two main combatants on this choice, agreed to ask him to take office.

Hammarskjöld began to reveal himself in his first public words when he arrived to take office. Anyone with good ears could recognize right away that this was no dull bureaucrat. He was at Idlewild Airport in New York, now known as JFK airport. He was standing there facing reporters and one of them asked if he liked mountain climbing. He explained that his experience in mountaineering was limited to Scandinavia, so he had not climbed any famous heights. Then, he said:

“However, this much I know of the sport, that the qualities it requires are just those which I feel we all need today: perseverance and patience, a firm grip on realities, careful but imaginative planning, a clear awareness of the dangers but also of the fact that fate is what we make it and that the safest climber is he who never questions his ability to overcome all difficulties.”

That wasn’t the voice of a faceless bureaucrat! In one sentence, he pulled together a whole series of values, he showed his intellectual abilities and showed confidence without pride. This was someone with profound abilities for the challenges that lay ahead.

DAVID: World leaders continued to underestimate him for a while. He also started by quietly but firmly building his base. Give us a couple of examples.

LIPSEY: There are still living witnesses who remember that in his first weeks at the UN, he went to every floor and every office to shake hands and say hello to 4,000 employees. That’s still legendary at the UN.

Dag Hammarskjöld: Freeing Prisoners in ‘Red’ China

LIPSEY: I’ll skip over some of the earliest challenges he faced—but after his first year, he hit one of the biggest challenges of his career. The People’s Republic of China was a new regime and the United States, under the flag of the United Nations, had been at war with North Korea as well as thousands of Chinese troops. There was very bad blood between the U.S. and China. But some American pilots had been captured in China and they were facing a miserable future in Chinese prisons. President Eisenhower of course was upset, as were many American leaders, but they had no line of communication open to the Chinese leadership. So, it was handed to the United Nations to try to solve this problem. The General Assembly voted to dispatch Hammarskjöld to solve the problem. The truth is that American leaders did not expect much.

DAVID: You explain in your book that, even as Hammarskjöld started his negotiations, American leaders said particularly damning things about him. He was widely considered a failure—at first. Then, people realized that he had, indeed, been effective, right?

ROGER: Yes, this was Hammarskjöld’s first big international test and it worked out that these pilots were freed some months later. When they finally came home, this was justly considered a major victory for Hammarskjöld personally. He had shown what he was worth. After that, he was regarded as a big figure on the world scene. The major world powers knew that he could face intricate challenges and carry out highly effective diplomatic work. Hammarskjöld clearly was someone to reckon with.

Dag Hammarskjöld: Spiritual Strength in Peacemaking

DAVID: So, as readers enjoy your book, they’ve got these gripping stories of international conflict. And, as you retell them, you also show us what Hammarskjöld was writing in his secret spiritual journal that one day would become Markings. In the most difficult days of the Chinese conflict, he jotted some lines from Psalm 139. He wrote Markings in Swedish, and you’ve rendered that text in English translation. I like the wording you have in your book.

ROGER: On the day of his departure for Beijing, he wrote: “If I take the wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there also shall thy hand lead me.” He wasn’t talking about this publicly, but we now know this is what he was praying as he headed to China. Hammarskjöld was a man with a very strong spiritual life. He was a man on the world stage who—after the success with the Chinese—was highly honored and was being given one difficult challenge after another until the end of his life in 1961. Yet, we now can see that, although he never made a show of this, he was exercising an approach to living that was deeply Christian. This wasn’t in the way most of us may think of Christian practice. He did not attend a church, for example. But Markings shows us the depth of his reflections. He drew on Christian mystics, especially Meister Eckhart. Of course, this was not known during Hammarskjöld’s life.

Dag Hammarskjöld:
Broadcasting Faith with Edward R. Murrow

DAVID: Or, perhaps, people in the 1950s weren’t listening clearly, as you point out in your biography. Hammarskjöld did not exactly hide his spiritual side. He appeared on the popular Edward R. Murrow CBS radio series This I Believe.

ROGER: Yes, and in the 5 minutes provided in those short broadcasts, he provided a considerable credo. The United Nations even issued a press release about the Murrow broadcast, but the public didn’t realize what they were hearing. I have included the entire text of his broadcast in the book so you can read the whole thing.

DAVID: Now, so many years later, this is the broadcast where Hammarskjöld gave the famous description of his family providing two different streams of insight. Readers can get your book to read the whole thing, but he said in part: “From generations of soldiers and government officials on my father’s side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country—or to humanity. This service required a sacrifice of all personal interests, but likewise the courage to stand up unflinchingly for your convictions concerning what was right and good for the community, whatever were the views in fashion.

“From scholars and clergymen on my mother’s side I inherited a belief that, in the very radical sense of the Gospels, all men were equals as children of God, and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God. Faith is a state of the mind and the soul.” And he went on to quote another mystic: St. John of the Cross. An amazing broadcast!

Dag Hammarskjöld: Creating the Room of Quiet

ROGER: There was another declaration of his spirituality that was noticed by the public—although no one seemed to draw conclusions about Hammarskjöld’s spiritual life. This was the creation of the Room of Quiet, which still exists to this day.

DAVID: You describe this inspiring project in your book and I think this is a good choice to excerpt a bit more of Hammarskjöld’s writing. So, we’re going to publish a second story with this interview about the Room of Quiet.

In relation to the Room of Quiet, let me point out to readers of our interview that Hammarskjöld was both Christian and deeply Asian in his mystical path, as well. I say “Asian” in general, because he clearly was immersed in Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese-Confucian traditions. He was eclectic in his mysticism. Toward the end of your book, you describe the rather startling appearance of his bedroom, after his death. This is where the text of Markings was found. And, I have to say, his sanctuary-like bedroom sounds fascinating. He kept it spare—we might say very Scandinavian—and yet he included a dazzling Buddhist wall hanging, a sketch of a man before a cross and so on.

Dag Hammarskjöld: Drawing from Asia

ROGER: He did read classics of Chinese and Indian spiritual literature. He knew the Gita cold! He also really appreciated Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucian literature, particularly Confucius’ The Unwobbling Pivot as translated by Pound. He especially appreciated Chinese works that synthesized political and community insights with personal spiritual insights. That’s one of the main characteristics of the Confucian literature.

Hammarskjöld read very broadly. He felt a kinship with Asian cultures in general. When he traveled to Laos, Burma, Cambodia and other countries in Asia, he was impressed in many cases by the quality of the culture and the people he met.

DAVID: I see an Asian approach to the subtlety of discernment even in the opening quote in your book from Hammarskjöld. He wrote: “You see, even a very small dent may lead to a rift, and a rift may lead to an opening and you may break in through the wall. The interesting thing is—is this a dent which may lead to a rift?” Is it fair to see an Eastern influence in his comments like this?

ROGER: Yes, I think that is fair to say. What we detect in Hammarskjöld’s expressions—including many that people thought of as diplomatic statements at the time—was an extraordinarily fine awareness of the need to subtly examine the texture of experience to find ways forward in peace. Hammarskjöld was a close student of the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, and you will find in Eckhart writings about a kind of emptiness and a kind of openness to God that is similar to some of the discourses in Buddhism and Vedanta. Really, Hammarskjöld regarded these as paths that led to the same summit.

DAVID: Was he a saint? Because he wasn’t Catholic, he isn’t in the running to be canonized as an official saint at the Vatican. But many American Lutherans regard him as a saint—he’s already on the annual prayer list of saints in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. How do you regard his spiritual legacy overall? I gather from your biography that even his closest friends were hesitant to talk about his spiritual power—other than recommending Markings itself to readers.

ROGER: The best way to answer this is from the beautiful letter toward the end of the book from Hammarskjöld’s friend Greta Belfrage. It’s a long letter and you can read it in the book, but at one point, Greta writes that Markings is “shattering reading of his struggle with himself, of the strong belief he has in himself as having been ‘chosen,’ of his never-faltering will to be led in his life and his work only by this God, who once spoke to him and called him.”

Then, at the very end of her letter, Greta explains that she and others are remaining quiet in public about the way they describe Hammarskjöld. She concludes: “Of course we know—even if we will never say so to anybody else—that he was a saint.”

Care to Read More about Peacemakers?

ReadTheSpirit publishes three books by global peacemaker Daniel Buttry: Interfaith Heroes, Volume 1, with profiles including Gandhi, St. Francis and Rumi; Interfaith Heroes, Volume 2, with profiles including Pope John Paul II, Hans Kung and Thich Nhat Hanh; and Blessed Are the Peacemakers, with profiles including Dorothy Day, Pete Seeger, Diane Nash and Ken Sehested.

And speaking of Ken Sehested: You may also enjoy reading Ken’s remembrance of the late civil-rights activist the Rev. Will D. Campbell.

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Mary Liepold says

    I quoted a line from Markings at my mother’s memorial service and it’s still one of my daily prayers: “For all that has been, thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”

  2. Duncan Newcomer says

    My father gave me a copy of “Markngs” as I began Union Seminary in 1965. How wonderful and inspiring to revisit this spiritual man again! What a scoop and a find is RTS!!