Norway’s most highly decorated hero, resistance fighter Gunnar Sønsteby, was hailed with the gratitude of an entire nation when King Harald, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and a long list of dignitaries paid their final respects at his state funeral on Friday. Two of Sønsteby’s grandsons remembered him simply as “bestefar,” adding that “we are all eternally grateful.”
Sønsteby, who died May 10 at the age of 94, was honoured with a full state funeral in the Oslo Cathedral that also was carried out in formal military style. Sønsteby’s casket was draped with the Norwegian flag, royal guards stood at attention both around the casket and outside the cathedral, and it all ended with fighter jets flying over the cathedral in the “missing man” formation. Inside the cathedral were no less than seven former Norwegian defense ministers, including the current prime minister’s father, Thorvald Stoltenberg.
The president of the Norwegian Parliament, Dag Terje Andersen, called Sønsteby “en ekte helt,” (a real hero) in the first of three official eulogies at the funeral. “His legacy is rich,” Andersen said. thanking Sønsteby “for all you did for Norway.”
Sønsteby is best-known for his bravery as a resistance fighter during the occupation of Norway during World War II, his many sabotage operations and liquidations that frustrated Hitler’s Nazi forces for years. From humble beginnings and even after being deemed unfit for military service in the late 1930s, Sønsteby immediately joined the resistance effort after Norway was invaded on April 9, 1940. His success in thwarting the German forces in Oslo attracted the attention of British allies and Norway’s government in exile in London, he was formally recruited and led the so-called “Oslo gang” that carried out ongoing attacks against the occupiers. When Norway was liberated in the spring of 1945, Sønsteby was an official escort for the royal family when they made their jubilant return from exile in the UK and the US.
“This all became part of our national heritage,” said the cathedral’s pastor at the funeral, which Norwegian Broadlcasting (NRK) carried live on national TV. As Stoltenberg said later, Sønsteby “fought for peace, with weapons in hand.”
Sønsteby was also hailed for playing an important role in the economic development of Norway after the war, not least through his work in the early years of Norway’s offshore oil industry. It was Sønsteby’s ongoing work long after the war ended, however, that’s perhaps best remembered by current generations. Sønsteby held endless speeches, at schools and for various organizations, in an effort to make sure Norwegians never forget what happened in the 1940s, and that they would cherish their democracy and freedom. He was also a major promoter of recognition for Norwegian veterans of military service, and a respected adviser to generations of Norwegian politicians.
“He saw himself as a completely ordinary man,” Stoltenberg said in his eulogy, noting at the outset, however, that “we promise each other that his life’s work will continue.”
Both Andersen and Stoltenberg thanked Sønsteby’s widow Anne-Karin and their family “for sharing him with us.” Stoltenberg noted that the Sønstebys were married nearly 60 years, that they said “jeg elsker deg” (“I love you”) to each other every day, and that she moved into his nursing home room before he died because, said Stoltenberg, “you wanted to be by his side. No better sign of love can be found.”
General Harald Sunde, head of Norway’s defense forces, noted in his eulogy that Sønsteby “always impressed everyone around him,” and that the contribution he made during World War II “can’t be overestimated.” He was “the best of them all,” agreed foreign military officers when the war ended, according to Sunde. “We have lost one of our most entrusted men,” he said.
The funeral ceremony also included moving joint remarks by two of Sønsteby’s grandchildren, Jonas and Magnus, who said that Sønsteby was first and foremost “our bestefar,” who made a point of eating breakfast porridge with them and organized activities and chores at the family’s summer home along the sea. They said Sønsteby’s “sixth sense” was difficult to copy, but they promised him that “the grass has been mowed” and the boat is ready for the upcoming summer season. “We promise to take care of each other,” they said, adding that the family was “evig takknemlig” (eternally grateful).”
King Harald didn’t speak but sat in the front row of the cathedral with one of his older sisters, Princess Astrid fru Ferner, his daughter Princess Martha Louise and their husbands. Queen Sonja did not attend, nor did Crown Prince Haakon or Crown Princess Mette-Marit, who are on an official visit to the county of Møre og Romsdal this week. But King Harald said earlier that Sønsteby had long been very important to the royal family.
The funeral, paid for by the state, featured musical interludes performed by top Norwegian musicians including violinist Arve Tellefsen, and all of Sønsteby’s medals and royal decorations were displayed alongside his casket. While the cathedral was full of family, friends, colleagues and government officials, large crowds of Norwegians gathered outside the cathedral and quietly watched as Sønsteby’s casket, the flag replaced with flowers, was carried out and escorted away by mounted police in full dress uniform after a royal salute.
Foreign tributes, too
Norwegians haven’t been the only ones paying tribute to Sønsteby since his death. The US Ambassador to Norway, Barry B White, issued a statement calling Sønsteby’s wartime role “legendary” and noting that Sønsteby also was widely respected in the US where he received the Medal of Freedom and the US Special Operations Command Medal, the first non-American to receive the award. “Although we mourn his loss, we draw solace from the extraordinary achievements of his life,” White wrote.
Another poignant tribute from a reader of Views and News perhaps said it best: “Born in ’75, I’ve never known a day’s real hunger, never really feared for my life and take so much for granted. Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for guys like this (Sønsteby), we’d all be in a less pleasant place.
“If not for Mr Sønsteby and his ilk, I scarcely reckon I’d have permission to write this. Rest in peace.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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