As Iceland celebrates its centennial, it offers lessons in independence for Greenland and the Faroe Islands

Iceland celebrates a century of independence from Denmark this year. Can it prove to be a model for the two other Danish territories in the North Atlantic?

By Martin Breum - July 17, 2018
Downtown Reykjavik is seen from Hallgrimskirkja in May 2018. This year marks the centennial of Iceland’s independence from Danish rule. (Krestia DeGeorge / ArcticToday)

One hundred years ago, in 1918, the year of Iceland’s independence, the winter was so harsh and cold in the first months of the year that horses keeled over dead in the fields.

In one location the temperature dropped to minus 38 degrees Celsius — a record that still stands as I write this a century later and as the Icelanders celebrate their centennial.

In the last part of 1918, on October 12th, as if yet another shadow of gloom was needed in an already miserable year, Katla, the great volcano in the south of Iceland, erupted and spewed giant amounts of smoke and lava for almost a month.

And in the months leading up to Dec. 1 that year, when the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union was signed, Iceland was ravaged by a vicious influenza (part of a European pandemic), which killed more than 500 Icelanders — a brutally high number for a population that counted at the time not much more than 70,000 people. As independence inched closer, scores of corpses were hauled to burial sites outside Reykjavik, the capital, and many streets lay empty.

Finally, the weather changed for the better, and a spell of rainy days ended exactly on Dec. 1., in time for the celebrations. For the first time ever, the national banner was ceremoniously hoisted at Government House and Iceland was declared an independent nation, no longer just a backwater, salty part of the Danish Kingdom.

All was good. A Danish naval ship anchored outside Reykjavik blew friendly fire and saluted the new nation with 21 shots from her canons.

And how do I know these details? Well, for one because most them are handsomely related by Iceland’s present president, Guðni Th. Jóhanneson, in his centennial greetings to his fellow Icelanders on the official centennial website, which is also where the official centennial committee updates the list of more than 300 concerts, sports events, academic gatherings, political manifestations, exhibitions and other markings that will celebrate this moment in Iceland’s rugged history. (Also don’t miss the video in English that gives you the whole story in about 10 minutes!)

One turning point in this long series of events will be a political gathering on 18. July at Thingvellir, the historic site of the first Althing, where Viking settlers from around 980 passed laws and decrees and organized political deliberations, thereby forging the way for the present Althing, Iceland’s current parliament, which is often heralded as the world’s oldest of its kind.

Tourists and politics

For the rest of us there are several reasons to take careful note of events in Iceland, past as well as present. The current boom in tourism is tourism remarkable and could alter the course of the Arctic.

More than two million tourists are expected to visit this nation only 330,000 Icelanders this year. The revenue generated by this frenzy has already surpassed the income from Iceland’s fisheries; an astonishing development in a country that had gotten so accustomed to being bitterly dependent on the sea that few really envisaged any other way.

I vividly remember a conversation two years ago with a couple of young very trendy women from California, rock musicians on a detour on their way home after a job well done in a recording studio in Sweden. We were on the same plane to Reykjavik when they told me of a saying among their peers in Los Angeles: “You know you’re hip, if you on your way to Reykjavik”. Not bad at all for a tiny and often rainy dorf in the middle of the North Atlantic, and a spiel that would have elevated any hopeful tourism manager.

Today the tourists are so plentiful that many Icelanders worry about the flipside. Many locals simply flee Reykjavik in the summer as a good part of all private housing turn into AirBnB-roundabouts, sidewalks are swamped with monied guests of all hues and languages delighted to be far away in the Atlantic but still able to savor world-renowned Icelandic gastronomy, go whale-watching in remodeled fishing vessels, mudbathing in fancy surroundings at the Blue Lagoon, see the volcanos, dive in crystal clear lakes and shop for Icelandic top-of-the-pops designer clothes all within a few, sometimes also sunny days in a place that nobody outside of Iceland really talked much about just a handful of seasons ago.

Political role model

From an Arctic politics’ perspective, Iceland has become a well-known destination for decision makers due to the Arctic Circle, an annual arctic conference and a diplomats’ “I-better-be-there”-party, convened by the now former president of Iceland, the very statesman-like Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, frequented by political high-rollers, scientists, spies and business tycoons from China, the U.S., Russia and any other corner of the world where the Arctic has taken on significance.

Take a closer look, and you will find also that Iceland has grown into significant political importance in a denser North Atlantic context. At the Arctic Circle, the eloquent Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who fights for an independent Scotland, has twice made keynote speeches wooing new friends and potential allies in the North Atlantic ready to back her independence movement, first and foremost of course Iceland, which enjoys wide ranging historic relations with the British Isles.

DNA-studies indicate that most Icelandic men hail from Norway, from where they sailed to Iceland in a massive land grab back around 800-900. Not so surprisingly, however, many Icelandic women carry Gaelic DNA; perhaps the Norwegian Vikings simply stole wives on the British Isles on their way to the North Atlantic. Also, during World War II, Iceland was initially subject to friendly British occupation; there were fears of Nazi occupation and only later did U.S. troops take over responsibility for fencing off German advances.

Model for Greenland

In the North Atlantic context, Iceland is often also hailed as a model nation to follow by politicians in the Faroe Islands and, in particular, Greenland.

Where the Faroe Islands and Greenland are still integrated, if largely autonomous, parts of the Danish Kingdom, Iceland now celebrates a century of independence.

The three North Atlantic nations are in some respects very, very different — Iceland has more than six times as many inhabitants than the other two. But in other aspects it makes sense to compare.

Like the Faroes and Greenland, Iceland long lived off the sea and its riches — and fisheries are still hugely important. Like Greenland and the Faroes, the Iceland is keenly aware of its own cultural heritage; like the Faores and Greenland, it does whatever it takes to preserve its own language, painfully conscious of their extreme smallness and linguistic vulnerability.

And as Greenland and the Faroes still are, of course, Iceland was for more than 500 years subject to kings in Copenhagen. Iceland began as an independent free-state, rising from nothing much really as the first Vikings settled on the otherwise uninhabited island. The strong in Iceland subjected themselves to the King of Norway only in 1262, and then in 1387 Norway (and Sweden) merged with Denmark to form a union under the Danish royals. As Norway and Denmark separated in 1814, Iceland (like Greenland and the Faroe Islands) remained part of the Danish Kingdom.

But then in the next hundred years until independence Iceland moved differently than the two other North Atlantic nations. The story is complex as nation building is, but let us cut to 1903, when negotiations with the government in Copenhagen culminated in home rule — and let us observe how Iceland never adopted the Danish constitution.

More Icelandic demands let to further concessions and finally, as World War I came to a close, the rulers in Copenhagen and the spirited leaders of Iceland’s move towards independence, led by Jón Sigurðsson, a scientist exceedingly well versed in Iceland’s history, reached an agreement. (Siguðrssons birthday June 17 is celebrated as Iceland’s national day).

Iceland would become immediately independent. The Danish king, however, would still be monarch for a period of 25 years with possible extension, and Denmark would still handle Iceland’s foreign affairs and defend the sovereignty of Iceland’s shores and waters (including all the fish which Danish fishermen would still be allowed to catch). A law to this effect was passed and backed by a referendum in Iceland — and in 1918 the national flag was flown over Government House.

In 1940 time had come for a renewal, rewrite, update or termination of this complex deal, know as Forbundsloven. As Denmark had by then been occupied by Nazi military power, the government in Copenhagen was in no position to negotiate, and by 1943, as the deadline expired, Iceland announced that the deal from 1918 would not be extended. In 1944 the Republic of Iceland was declared. Iceland was — to the bitter chagrin of many Danes — no longer officially tied to the Danish Kingdom.

A path to follow?

Some now think that the Icelandic path towards independence ought to be regarded as a clever recipe for a future re-arrangement of relations between Denmark and Greenland and possibly between Denmark and the Faroe Islands. In Greenland, the independence movement is strong, although currently pragmatic and in no rush, and a large, shifting minority in the Faroe Islands continue to also argue for secession. The internal power sharing arrangements within the Danish Kingdom have been changing regularly since the Second World War, and if you ask the political scientist, professor Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen at the University in Tromsø, northern Norway, they will continue to do so due to pressure from Nuuk and Torshavn, the Faroe capital. Bertelsen is Danish, but grew up in Iceland and is constantly reviewing North Atlantic politics.

In a yet-to-be published article written for a collection of texts to celebrate the Icelandic centennial, Bertelsen calls the Iceland-Denmark accord of 1918 a “relevant model for the future relations between Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Greenland.” He reprimands decision makers in Copenhagen and Nuuk for not paying more attention to the Icelandic model in their ongoing discussions. Politicians in Greenland have been preoccupied, he charges, with a vision of “free association,” a political design that allows a series of islands in the Pacific to be independent, yet still draw on assistance from larger nations – New Zealand and the U.S. Bertelsen argues that it would be wiser to look back at the Icelandic experience rather than to try to draw lessons from locations at the other end of the world.

The politicians in Nuuk, however, are not blind to the Icelandic experience. When a constitutional committee was established in Nuuk in 2017, one of its first moves was to travel to Reykjavik to study and learn. Meanwhile, the Icelandic consulate in Nuuk is still the only official foreign representation in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. The Icelandic flag is hoisted in front of the diminutive consulate every day, reminding everyone of the good neighborly relations and a Greenlandic representation in Reykjavik is currently being established. And Royal Arctic Line, Greenland’s publicly owned shipping company, in a thought-provoking move, is replacing its age-old patterns of shipping only via Denmark with an alliance with Eimskip, Iceland’s main shipping agency. Eimskip is rapidly expanding its network of cargo-routes to include all major ports in the North Atlantic and Royal Arctic Line is eager to join the club. Eimskip was an integral part of Iceland’s move towards independence back in 1918. The leaders of the independence movement felt that they would never solidify Iceland’s economic integrity if they did not control the movements of goods to and from the island. It might be that this part of the story is also a reason for the new cargo-alliance between Greenland and Iceland.

In any case: There are 300-plus ways of celebrating Iceland’s centennial and plenty of reasons to learn and enjoy — just look at the website. And remember, you know you’re hip if you are on your way to Reykjavik! Perhaps we’ll meet there.