Knut Hammarskjöld was the Swedish diplomat who served in Montreal for 18 years as the second executive director of the International Air Transport Association, which regulates the interests of most of the world’s commercial airlines. Hammarskjöld was the nephew of the United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was killed in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961. Knut Hammerskjold, who died at his home in Lidingo on Jan. 3, two weeks shy of his 90th birthday, considered his distinguished uncle as a second father.
“There was an intriguing aura of mystery and of things left unsaid in his conversations which added to his fascination,” said long-time friend Diana Thébaud-Nicholson. “He was a Renaissance man with many facets: diplomat, linguist, patron of the arts, perpetually curious about new things. He was at ease with people of all ages. Normally somewhat reserved, he could be engagingly impulsive.”
Knut Olaf Hjalmar Akesson Hammarskjold was born into a patrician family in Geneva, Switzerland on Jan 16, 1922. His grandfather, Hjalmar had been Sweden’s Prime Minister during the First World War. His father who was a court registrar and later a judge died in 1937 when Knut was only 11 years old and away at a boarding school in the Netherlands. After his father’s death he was mentored by his uncle, Dag.
“He was extraordinarly attached to Dag. He told me he cried for a month when Dag was killed. He had a life-long passion trying to find out exactly what happened to his uncle.” said McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville, a close friend from his days in Montreal. On the 50th anniversary of the plane crash in 2011 Knut accompanied U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to his uncle’s grave in Upsalla. New evidence had surfaced to suggest that Hammarskjold’s DC-6 was deliberately shot down while he was on a mission to Africa. Knut called for a new inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death. “Knut was positively charming and at the same time self-disciplined. He was fiercely intelligent, always capable of surprising those who knew him with the originality and depth of his insights,” said Somerville. For example, he once remarked that lawyers should consider themselves sherpas of the next generation, which engendered the the notion, that like Sherpas, lawyers “are trusted, tenancious, skilled guides who open up new terrain, work in a rarefied atmosphere, have great vistas from the peaks they conquer, and take others with them to greater heights to enable those others to achieve what has not been previously achieved.”
Hammarskjöld joined the foreign service, worked in Bulgaria, and in the early 1950s was sent as an envoy to the Moscow in an attempt to secure the release of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who mysteriously disappeared after being arrested by the Soviets during the Second World War. He developed an interest in civil aviation and became head of the department of foreign relations for the Swedish Civil Aeronautics Board, before being named deputy-secretary of the European Free Trade Association. He also became Chairman of the Board of Sydvenska Dagbladet Snalloposten, a Swedish newspaper. He jokingly referred to himself as “the mini Rupert Murdoch.” In 1966 he was named head of IATA, which had been started in Havana in 1945 to promote reliable and economical international air passenger service. During his tenure in Montreal key parts of the organization were restructured, an aviation training program for developing nations was inaugurated, and he was largely responsible for establishing the first international billing system to regulate and administrate fares, It has evolved into today’s Billing and Settlement Plan (BSP) and Cargo Accounts Settlement System (CASS) and remains the backbone of the modern $300-billion a year industry. “He led IATA through a period of profound change, a period of turbulence and transformation, during a period when jet aircraft replaced propeller driven aircraft,” said Perry Flint, IATA’s corporate communications director for the Americas told The Globe & Mail. “It was a period also marked by the beginning of hijackings, especially from the United States to Cuba. Hammarskjöld was personally involved in one such incident, and went to Cuba to negotiate the release of the aircraft and of those passengers involved who did not want to remain in Cuba.”
Hammarskjold continued to serve as a consultant to the airline industry after he left IATA and regularly attended the association’s annual general meetings. In 1987 he was appointed head of an independent commission that recommended ways to improve staff efficiency and management at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (UNESCO) “He had a gravitas about him, he was the quintessential diplomat, highly observant, extremely inquisitive, and he compartmentalised his life, making different parts of it open to various people at various times so no one person knew the whole truth about him,” said Norbert Gilmore who recently retired as a professor medicine at McGill University. He was the silent type, in a good way. You always had the impression that there was something inside him that he would never reveal, never tell people.”
During his almost 30 years in Montreal Hammarskjöld served as head of the Atwater Institute, a think tank which focussed on the implications of technological advances, and he was one of the panellists at the 1992 Couchiching conference.
He leaves two sons from his first marriage and two sons from a third marriage, and his fourth wife, Inga-Lill.