Who Killed Hammarskjöld? (book review)

Susan Williams book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, The Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa can be best summarized with ‘come for the title-but definitely stay for the subtitle!’

I am not sure that my review needs a ‘spoiler alert’, but after Susan Williams’ research was published in 2011 a new UN inquiry challenged the official verdict of pilot error that led to the crash of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane in 1961, killing him and all fifteen passengers on board.

Essentially, the careful and meticulous review of old and new archival material, expert and witness interviews and further analysis strongly suggest that a second aircraft was involved in the incident. Even if we are unlikely to get a full and final answer to the question, the evidence strongly suggests that there was a conspiracy to kill the UN Secretary General as his and the UN’s involvement in (post-)colonial politics in Congo stepped on a lot of interests’ toes:

But whatever the details, his death was almost certainly the result of sinister intervention. It is most unlikely that the Albertina crashed as a result of pilot error, as claimed by the Rhodesian public inquiry of 1961-62 and by a private inquiry for the Swedish government in 1993. The UN inquiry report of 1962, which reached an open verdict and found that sabotage or a bomb could not be excluded, has been vindicated (p.234).
So this is not a case of using a ‘clickbaiting’ headline to draw you into a web of conspiracy theories around a historical event that happened almost 60 years ago. Through her research, Williams manages to convey a vivid picture of African history at the sunset of colonial desires. Rather than asking ‘who killed Hammarskjöld?’ the book is a detailed and unsparing analysis of ‘how is it possible that we still do not know the definitive truth?’.

The UN, decolonization and its discontents

The first part of Williams’ book is a lively overview of a key chapter of post-war development history-and an equally vivid reminder about primarily Belgium and British colonial power; at the intersection of imperial dreams, very real economic interests and a mushrooming cold war, the UN and its Secretary-General quickly became ‘non grata’ elements in the Congo.

It has been argued that the Congo initiative (UN intervening in the struggle around Katanga’s secession) constituted a turning point in the history of the United Nations. For by mobilizing the UN’s resources to intervene in the Congo, Hammarskjöld was engaging the organization in the process of decolonization. This was a new situation for the UN-in the general spirit of the Charter, but without the benefit of experience from the past (p.35).
Williams cites the biographer of Roy Welensky, the prime minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland who wrote in 1961:
As the great convex slab of continent lurches away from the sun towards the night of Communist-exploited racialism, this man Welensky is engaged in a valiant endeavor to prevent the remaining light from the guttering candle of Western democratic civilization in Africa from being extinguished (p.231).
This is probably one of the most poetic accounts of defending the white minority rule I have read so far…

But one of the many strengths of Who killed Hammarskjöld is that Williams manages to link those overarching discourses and geopolitical developments to the plane crash and subsequent attempts in shedding light on the it. Racialized, imperial history and attitudes determined how the initial inquiry was framed and how actual actions were (not) taken and evidence dismissed.

White men in shorts and long socks looking at things
Going through treasure troves of archival material, Williams discovers photographs from the initial inquiry, finding ‘explicit racial divisions’ in them:

White men in shorts and long socks, which was the customary outfit of white Rhodesian men, standing around with hands on hips, giving orders to teams of African workers dressed in rags, sifting the residue of the aircraft wreckage. In photographs of African policemen, whites are still in charge. This racial hierarchy even extended to the classification of the crash victims. All the bodies were listed according to their nationalities-but not Serge Barrau, who was from Haiti. His body was simply labelled: ‘Coloured’ (p.92).
These insights are really important from a development communication perspective. As local African witness statements get dismissed during the public inquiry, valuable insights and evidence are lost and I am left wondering about the many, many more instances, not as well documented and researched as the plane crash, where local knowledge, insights and voices were dismissed and silenced.
The clash between the forward-looking, post-colonial and liberal UN Secretary-General and white supremacy in Africa is important to keep in mind when reviewing the plane crash as more than an accident:

‘Hammarskjöld may not have realized the depths of emotion behind the white Rhodesians’ commitment to minority rule’ (p.232).
Lumumba and Hammarskjöld as playthings of an emerging cold war world order
Williams final piece of her research puzzle involves the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), most likely a front for mercenary engagements and covert actions throughout Africa:

There were strong links between SAIMR and MI5, MI6, the CIA and Mossad, as well as with mining giants and international conglomerates working in Africa (p.215).
This brings the investigation full circle as Western power, anti-communist sentiments and multinational economic interests merge in an unholy alliance that most likely killed the UN Secretary-General.
Hammarskjöld’s untimely death was different in many ways from that of Lumumba, but there was a shared context: the decolonization of central Africa and the self-interest of the Western powers and the multinationals operating in the region. (…) Most importantly, Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjöld were both killed because they sought to protect the integrity of the Congo and the self-determination of its people-free from the greed and interference of foreign powers (p.239).
I can highly recommend the book-particularly as additional reading on course reading lists on African decolonization, history of the UN or how ‘global governance’ has (not) been working ‘on the ground’.

The fact that Susan Williams’ account is such a readable historical discovery that probably teaches readers more about ‘African history’ than most academic textbooks, underlines the unique position that Hurst and its team have in publishing great books about development history.

Williams, Susan: Who Killed Hammarskjöld-The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. ISBN 978-1-84904-802-6, 320pp, GBP 14.99, London: Hurst, 2016. 

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