Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa

Henning Melber

A new investigation into Hammarskjöld’s role in the decolonisation of Africa during the Cold War offers startling conclusions.

Bibliographic Details
Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa Hardback
May 2019£30.00

Request Press Review Copy
Request Inspection Copy

In 1953 Dag Hammarskjöld became the second Secretary-General of the United Nations—the highest international civil servant. Before his mission was cut short by a 1961 plane crash in then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), he used his office to act on the basis of anti-hegemonic values, including solidarity and recognition of otherness. The dubious circumstances of Hammarskjöld’s death have received much attention, including a new official investigation, but have perhaps overshadowed his diplomatic legacy—one that has often been hotly contested.

Henning Melber explores the years of African decolonisation during which Hammarskjöld was in office, investigating the scope and limits of his influence within the context of global governance. He paints a picture of a man with strong guiding principles, but limited room for manoeuvre, colliding with the essential interests of the big powers as the ‘wind of change’ blew over the African continent. His book is a critical contribution to the study of international politics and the role of the UN in the Cold War. It is also a tribute to the achievements of a cosmopolitan Swede.


Henning Melber is Director Emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is also President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Political Sciences and at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Africa Studies.


‘This books offers a succinct and informative overview of the influences that shaped Hammarskjold, his work in relation to Africa, and the legacies he bequeathed to the UN. Long after his untimely death, Hammarskjold continues to illuminate much of the UN’s history, and its complicated relationship with Africa.’ — New Books Network

‘This brilliantly judicious and moving account places Hammarskjöld within the heady context of African decolonisation, UN governance and the Cold War. Melber sensitively portrays a man of integrity and individualism, who dared stand up to the most powerful political forces of his time, and paid for it with his life.’ — Joanna Lewis, Associate Professor of International History, LSE, and author of Empire of Sentiment

‘A carefully researched re-evaluation of Hammarskjöld, whose life and mysterious death still excite bitter controversy. Melber’s emphasis upon his struggles to reconcile personal values with the brutality of realpolitik throws new light on his exercise of huge geopolitical authority.’— Richard Rathbone, Professor of the Modern History of Africa, SOAS University of London

‘An intelligent and thoughtful exploration of a complex man and his special kind of anti-colonialism, working to underpin the UN as a creative space for counternarratives promoting change and reform. This welcome reassessment of a pragmatic visionary carefully examines his involvement in the UN’s Cold War, and his untimely death.’ — Sue Onslow, Deputy Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

‘Written with personal engagement as well as scholarly acumen, this book offers a nuanced analysis of Hammarskjöld’s motivations and his impact on African decolonisation. Henning Melber’s examination of the Congo crisis and the investigations into Hammarskjöld’s death are especially compelling.’ — Poppy Cullen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Exeter & Arts and Humanities Research Council, and author of Kenya and Britain After Independence