In This Review

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations, and the Decolonisation of Africa
Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations, and the Decolonisation of Africa
By Henning Melber
Hurst, 2019, 184 pp

The second UN secretary-general remains a controversial figure in the history of the Cold War. In some accounts, Dag Hammarskjold appears as a Machiavellian agent of the West; in others, he comes across as a noble idealist who tried to defend the interests of the less developed countries and facilitate decolonization. Melber, director emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, clearly agrees with the latter portrait and has produced a nuanced defense of Hammarskjold’s tenure at the UN. The core of the book is concerned with the 1960 UN intervention in the Republic of the Congo, launched to defend the new postcolonial government against Belgian-backed secessionists, and Hammarskjold’s death in a mysterious plane crash in 1961 in what is today Zambia. On the former, Melber argues that the secretary-general struggled to fulfill his ambition of carving out greater operational autonomy for both his office and the UN in general; by 1961, Hammarskjold’s prickly independence and sometimes sanctimonious eloquence made him useful to virtually none of the main actors in the process of decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa. Regarding the plane crash—about which there are many conspiracy theories—Melber’s summary of the multiple, inconclusive investigations breaks little new ground, but he suggests convincingly that forces hostile to decolonization, including southern African white settlers, caused the crash.