Dag Hammarskjöld

Dag Hammarskjöld Biography

Swedish statesman Dag Hammarskjöld served as secretary-general of the United Nations for eight years, from 1953 until his death on September 18, 1961.


A statesman and son of the former prime minister of Sweden, Dag Hammarskjöld was born in Jönköping, Sweden, on July 29, 1905. With a doctorate in economics, Hammarskjöld served 31 years in Swedish national affairs and international relations. On April 7, 1953, he was appointed the third Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was killed in a controversial plane crash on September 18, 1961.

Early Years

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld was born on July 29, 1905, in Jönköping, Sweden. The youngest of four boys, Hammarskjöld largely grew up in the east coast province of Uppland, where his father, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, served as governor.

Dag was close to his parents, and their approach to life greatly influenced him. This was especially true of his father, who among other positions, served as chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, as prime minister of Sweden, and as a member of the Hague Tribunal. "I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country—or humanity," Dag Hammarskjöld later recalled.

In 1925 Hammarskjöld earned a degree in humanities from Uppsala University, and then returned for a second degree in economics, which he completed three years later. He earned his law degree in 1930 and his doctorate in economics in 1934.

Shortly after wrapping up his doctorate degree, Hammarskjöld was appointed secretary of the Bank of Sweden, a position he held for one year before moving on to a nine-year post as undersecretary in the Ministry of Finance. In 1941 he was named head of the Bank of Sweden. By the late 1940s Hammarskjöld's head for finance and his diplomatic demeanor earned him the position of what effectively could be considered deputy foreign minister, a job that thrust him into the center of Sweden's role in the world economy.

Shaping the UN

In the wake of World War II and the reshaping of the world order, Hammarskjöld came to play a pivotal role not just in giving Sweden a key voice, but in staking out a steady diplomacy as global politics reacted to the advent of the Cold War.

After serving a variety of roles on behalf of his country, including delegate to the Paris Conference in 1947, which helped push forward the Marshall Plan, he served as vice-chairman of the Swedish delegation to the Sixth Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1951 and 1952. He followed that up by becoming acting chairman of the Seventh General Assembly in New York.

On April 7, 1953, Dag Hammarskjöld was named secretary-general of the United Nations, just the organization's third head, and the first to be elected unanimously. Given the uncertain times, Hammarskjöld's tenure was both triumphant and disappointing. He was viewed by the Soviets as simply an agent of the West and had trouble earning the country's confidence. At the same time, in 1955 he secured a major victory when he got the release of 15 American pilots being held hostage by the Chinese. He was elected to a second term as secretary-general in 1957.

Controversial Death

In his effort to prevent war, Hammarskjöld dispatched a variety of UN missions to bring peace. One of the conflicts Hammarskjöld found urgent came in 1960 in the Congo, whose new government found itself staring down a number of key tests, including a possible mutiny in its army as well as white Belgian mining interests who worried they'd lose control of the country's natural resources.

Hammarskjöld took a hands-on approach to trying to solve the issues facing the republic. On September 18, 1961, just after midnight, Hammarskjöld was on his way to negotiate a cease-fire when his plane went down near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He was killed in the crash. A mystery has always surrounded the tragedy. In September 2011, the events surrounding Hammarskjöld's death were again brought into question following the release of a provocative new book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld, by Susan Williams, a senior research fellow at the University of London, who speculates that enemies of the Congolese government had murdered the secretary-general.

Hammarskjöld was later honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, the first recipient ever to receive the award posthumously.

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