Tributes were pouring in on Friday afternoon for veteran diplomat and top Labour Party politician Thorvald Stoltenberg. The former foreign- and defense minister, ambassador and affable father of Norway’s former prime minister and now NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, died at his home in Oslo after what his family called a short illness.
Stoltenberg’s kitchen table in that home in Oslo’s Frogner district was nearly as important as the man himself. It served as a gathering point not only for a powerful family but also was referred to as the senior Stoltenberg’s “personal weapon” when he gathered other leaders around it, most notably Nelson Mandela. The South African leader was among the many invited home to eat breakfast with Thorvald Stoltenberg, and admitted he wasn’t particularly fond of Stoltenberg’s breakfast staple of mackerel in tomato sauce.
It was also where Jens would sit and confer with his experienced father, or simply chat while preparing the family’s annual Christmas herring. The man Jens himself simply called “Thorvald” died, at an age of 87, just a day after his son concluded one of the most dramatic NATO Summits in years. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Jens Stoltenberg managed to rush from Brussels to Oslo right after the NATO Summit to join his family at his father’s bedside. The elder Stoltenberg’s death also came less than a week after his birthday on July 8.
He was the partriarch of a family that included his wife, the late Karin Stoltenberg (also a top Norwegian politician and champion of women’s rights), his daughter Camilla (a doctor and head of Norway’s public health institute), Jens, who became one of Norway’s most popular and respected prime ministers ever, and daughter Nini, who had a TV career before declining into drug addiction that resulted in her father pushing through various reforms of narcotics policy. She died just two years after her mother, in 2014.
Stoltenberg, born in Oslo in 1931, was also, however, a dedicated public servant who started out in the diplomatic corps, working at Norwegian embassies and consulates from Belgrade to San Francisco and moving his family along with him. He became a just-as-dedicated member of the Labour Party, which quickly saw potential that led to long political career. He was first appointed as defense minister in 1979, serving until 1981 in the Odvar Nordli government. He later became foreign minister twice in Gro Harlem Brundtland’s government, from 1987 to 1989 and from 1990 to 1993.
Then he went on to become the UN’s peace broker in the former Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1995, at a time when the Balkan War was raging and his won was serving as Brundtland’s oil and energy minister. He also served as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and was president of the Norwegian Chapter of The Red Cross from 1999 to 2008, during periods when his son became prime minister.
The tributes to Thorvald Stoltenberg on Friday spanned the political spectrum in Norway. “We will remember him as a foreign minister and peace broker, but first and foremost as a warm person,” wrote Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party. “Through a long life, he made a large and important contribution to Norway.”
One of Solberg’s predecessors and another veteran politician in Norway, Kåre Willoch of the Conservatives, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Thorvald Stoltenberg was “a unique combination of an extremely knowledgeable politicians with energy and his own ability to come in contact with people and contribute to extracting useful results. I valued him highly.” Even the former leader of the Progress Party, Carl I Hagen, noted that while they didn’t agree in politics, he considered Stoltenberg a highly valued builder of Norwegian society.
His colleagues in the embattled Labour Party were in sorrow. “The good man Thorvald Stoltenberg is no longer amongst us,” Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre told NRK. “We have received news of his death with deep sorrow, and will remember Thorvald with huge gratitude.”
Anniken Huitfeldt, a longtime Member of Parliament for Labour, called Stoltenberg hele Norges bestefar (the entire nation’s grandpa). “Warmth, generosity and wisdom,” Huitfeld wrote in her tribute. “Thorvald had what the world needs more of. Thank you.”
Former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of the Labour Party, who called Stoltenberg home from a top post at the UN to serve in her government, said she was also grieving. “At the same time,” she said, “I have seldom experienced such a warm feeling of gratitude and joy over such a positive and richly lived life.”
He remained active to the end, working on book projects, advising party fellows and speaking before various groups including, just last spring, authors who’ve written book for large publishing firm Gydendal. He was supposed to be among 140 guests at the 80th birthday party on Friday of Yngve Hågensen, former head of Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO. “We’ve lost a great statesman,” Hågensen told NRK, adding that Stoltenberg had called him earlier this week to say he wasn’t in good enough shape to attend.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
(This story will be updated.)