Max van der Stoel was born on 3 August 1924 in the town of Voorschoten, the Netherlands. As the son of a doctor, young Max was taken along to see his father’s patients every now and then during the economic depression of the 1930s. In this period, he started to realise that health problems and poverty are inextricably interconnected. Thus, his awareness of social abuses and desire for fairness developed at a very early stage in life.
During World War II, Van der Stoel stayed at his mother’s residence in Leiden. While secretly listening to the BBC, he stayed informed not only on the course of the war, but also on domestic politics in the United Kingdom. Influenced by these broadcasts, Van der Stoel found he had an affinity with Labour, because the party combined social engagement with the strive towards personal liberty like no other. He signed up for the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) immediately after its foundation in 1946, which was the result of a merger of the Social Democratic Workers' Party and the Free-thinking Democratic League, because these parties represented this dual conviction. Van der Stoel would remain loyal to the party until his death in 2011.
After passing his exams at the Municipal Gymnasium in Leiden, he studied Law at Leiden University, where he also obtained his Master's degree in 1947. In 1953 he finished his studies with another Master’s degree, this time in Sociology. After this, Van der Stoel started his long and impressive career for the PvdA. From 1953 until 1958, he worked for the party's think tank, the Wiardi Beckman Foundation. After this, he became International Secretary of the party, which he remained until 1963. From 1960 onwards, Van der Stoel combined this function with his membership of the Dutch Senate.
His career in the Dutch Parliament started in 1965. He briefly served as State Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the Cals cabinet, until its fall in 1966. In 1971 he was Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Den Uyl shadow cabinet. After a long period of formation, Van der Stoel was reappointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Den Uyl Cabinet (1973-1977).
During his time as Minister, Van der Stoel resisted the leftist sentiments in his party. His aversion to dictatorships of any ideological colour, his support for the dissident movements behind the Iron Curtain (notably in Czechoslovakia), and his outspoken position in the oil crisis made his tenure striking and successful. On the other hand, his opinions made Van der Stoel an ongoing target for the New Left faction within the PvdA. His scathing report regarding the Greek colonels led to the exclusion of the regime from the Council of Europe, which, as former Prime Minister George Papandreou once said, not only gave courage to the resistance against the colonels, but also inflicted an eventually deadly blow to the regime.
Van der Stoel wouldn't return to the Dutch Parliament after his brief tenure in the second Van Agt cabinet. Disagreement with Labour Party leader Joop den Uyl on the disarmament of the country’s cruise missiles led to a rift between Van der Stoel and the leader who always defended him against the numerous attacks from the leftist factions of the party. Van der Stoel refused to succumb to the electorally attractive "no to the missiles" position for unilateral disarmament of the West. Due to the aggressive attitude of the Soviet Union, he considered such a measure highly irresponsible.
After this parting, Van der Stoel continued his international diplomatic career as Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United Nations. He worked in New York between 1983 and 1986. After this, he returned to his home country to become a member of the Council of State of the Netherlands, until 1992. Up to its abolition in the same year, Van der Stoel was the leader of the secret organisation O&I (Operations and Intelligence, better known as Gladio) which was to lead the resistance in the case of a possible new occupier of the Netherlands. Simultaneously, he was recruited as a secret agent of the Dienst Operatiën & Inlichtingen (Operations and Intelligence Agency), a stay-behind resistance movement in the hypothetical case that the Soviet Union would occupy the Netherlands. In May 1991, Van der Stoel was honourably distinguished as Minister of State.
Although Van der Stoel had reached retirement age over a year before, his appetite for international justice and respect for human rights continued. From 1991 until 1999, he worked as a UN Human Rights Observer in Iraq. From 1993 onwards, he combined this with the position of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities. From July 2001, he served as special advisor to Javier Solana, Secretary General and High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union.
Van der Stoel passed away on 23 July 2011, at the age of 86 after a short illness. Besides the countless awards which he received throughout his life, there is also a prestigious award named after him: the international Max van der Stoel Award was introduced by the Dutch government at his farewell. This award is handed out once every two years to people or organisations who distinguished themselves in support of the position of national minorities within the OSCE area, and includes €50,000 as prize money.