A Sovereign Nation Reaches a Milestone Skip to content

A Sovereign Nation Reaches a Milestone

Words by
Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Photography by

On the 100-year anniversary of Iceland’s sovereignty, it’s worth our time to look back and appreciate the accomplishments of the people who’ve come before us. At the same time, it’s important to keep our eyes on the future and appreciate how Icelanders have and continue to progress and evolve. On this occasion, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, president of Iceland, graciously answered some of our questions about his views on Icelanders as a sovereign nation, their past, their present, and his hopes for the future.

The history most of us learned in school is heavily influenced by the national romanticism of the 19th century that shaped the fight for independence. In what way do you think that position addresses Icelanders today?

In recent decades, much has changed in the way we teach history. As late as the 1970s, history teachers would rely heavily on a textbook written by Jónas Jónsson from Hrifla. Jónas, an influential politician during the interwar years, was well aware of how the past could be exploited to boost the unity of the people, using patriotism and nationalism. He split the history of Iceland into roughly three parts, the first of which was a golden age when brave farmers and chieftains settled here, founded Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, and the Icelandic Commonwealth, even exploring new lands in the west, all the while filled with courage and vigour. The writers of the Sagas wrote their tales on vellum and created a unique cultural heritage.

Later on, our luck turned, power accumulated in the hands of a few and the nation’s independence was lost in the age of the Sturlungar family clan in the 13th century. What followed, it was argued, was foreign oppression, misery, poverty and misfortune until Icelanders were reminded of their golden age of freedom and progress and finally reclaimed their rights from the hands of the “evil Danes.” Jónas Hallgrímsson was at the forefront of poetry and literature, while Jón Sigurðsson was the unchallenged leader of a unified nation’s fight for independence. Sovereignty was gained in 1918 and independence in 1944. Rise, fall and rise, that was the trilogy of history at the time.

Jónas from Hrifla knew how to tell a good story. In his history of Iceland, the characters came alive, the tale was exciting and dramatic. But it also had the purpose of telling history in a certain, political way. Now, history textbooks are different. More people get their rightful place in the story – slaves, women, and the common people – not just the chieftains, bishops, and other powerful men. The challenge lies in making that history entertaining as well. Of course, that’s been repeatedly shown to be entirely possible. Next, we need to see it on our screens, in a quality television series!

One thing is important to remember and has been on my mind after a memorable summit in Paris, at which nearly one hundred heads of state and government leaders commemorated the fact that a hundred years have passed since the end of World War I: patriotism is positive, and so is pride in where you came from and cultural heritage that has been shaped through the ages. True patriotism is the opposite of jingoism, where people glorify their own nation and foster dislike and fear towards others.

“Self-aggrandisement and chauvinism have nothing to do with love for your country,” wrote Halldór Laxness. We should promote positive patriotism, the patriotism of pride and modesty as well, when we face the challenges of a new age, globalism, and interdependence.

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson outside the Bessastaðir Presidential Residence
Golli. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson outside the Bessastaðir Presidential Residence

When did Icelanders become a nation and when did that nation start to long for independence?

The question is complicated. How do we define a nation? Those who sailed across the ocean to settle here came from different places, and not everyone was here of their own free will. Celtic wives and slaves spoke their own language and, in that way, stood outside the Norse community. Little by little, the Celtic language disappeared, and the Icelandic language developed in another direction from the other Nordic languages. A few centuries after the settlement, it can be said that farmers and chieftains in Iceland called themselves Icelanders but at the same time, they considered themselves a part of the Norse community and the Christian world.

To make a long story short, the struggle for independence began here early in the 19th century, in the same spirit as in many other parts of Europe. Broadly speaking, prominent farmers and intellectuals led the way and touted the idea that nations should govern themselves; nations with a shared cultural heritage, language, and interests, both short- and longterm.

Later, workers and tenant farmers also started fighting for their rights, for independence within a community that had been marked by oppression by the few and powerful. Fortunately, the will for independence is still powerful in the minds of Icelanders today – the desire to realize one’s dreams in society and to show one’s worth, and the desire to maintain Iceland’s independence in an international context while fortifying it with cooperation, collaboration and friendship with other nations on our own terms.

This longing for independence by individuals and communities is something to bolster and support.

Golli. President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson at the Opening Sitting of Alþingi

When we were fighting for independence, a strong sense of national identity was vital, especially since the battle wasn’t fought on the battleground but through letters, articles, and poetry. How has national identity evolved with the nation and what are the values Icelanders consider important today?

Fortunately, Icelanders are as different as they are many, but we also benefit from the common ties that bind us. Broadly speaking, it can be said that contemporary Icelanders appreciate the freedom of the individual, they’re not in awe of people in power and prefer not to be under the direct control of anyone, be they Icelanders or foreigners. But we also appreciate the value of empathy and cooperation: we would never have survived here for more than a millennium if each had only tended to their own. We joke that the phrase þetta reddast (roughly translated as “things will work out somehow”) explains a lot about Icelandic society, that it can be helpful not to worry too much about upcoming tasks but tackle them head on. On the other hand, we can’t forget the old saying “haste makes waste.”

But what are the values that we want young people to espouse? I’ve often thought about that. I think we should, to the best of our abilities, work on building the confidence of children and youth, let them feel that they can grow on their own merits and show us who they are, for the benefit of themselves and others. Open-mindedness and tolerance must lead the way, especially in the school system. A positive discipline will inspire the youth of the country. If we manage to build healthy confidence in our young people, it’s less likely that they will fall into the pit of prejudice and evil towards others but will help others when needed and feel good in their souls and minds.

On the other hand, when I became president, I promised myself to try to avoid generalisations about Icelanders being this way or that. I repeat that we are as different as we are many and that’s the way it should be.

Icelanders have been a sovereign nation for a hundred years. In this century, more has changed, and faster, than in most of the centuries before it. In what way is the Icelandic nation the same as it was on Dec 1, 1918, and in what ways is it different?

Today, we are more fortunate in almost every way, from the cradle to the grave. In 1918, birth could be very dangerous for both mother and baby; infant mortality rates were high. Now no nation does better than Icelanders in ensuring the safety and health of its infants and babies. In 1918, people suffered from diseases that now can be cured or at least managed.

In 1918, the average life expectancy was significantly shorter than it is now. On average, we in Iceland live longer than almost any other nation. The people in the country are a lot more diverse. Icelanders of foreign origin have increased greatly over the past few decades. Several languages are spoken in workplaces, schools, and wherever people gather. The culture is more international and more intricate. Homogeneity has disappeared and the people in power don’t have the same absolute power as they used to. Everything seems to happen faster than it used to, and the solidarity in the community has decreased.

It has to remain the common and worthy goal of the Icelandic nation to guard what unites us. We have been more or less united in our effort to build a welfare system for everyone, we want to exploit the natural resources of the land in a way that won’t irreparably damage the  environment and nature, and we have to ensure that the Icelandic language will grow and prosper in our days and the days to come. We also must be able to use Icelandic to communicate with smartphones, televisions, and other gadgets. We need to appreciate Icelandic culture and we need to keep speaking Icelandic and helping the people who settle here master the language.

In 1918, there was more affluence here than in most corners of the world. We had a higher standard of living than people in Southern and Eastern Europe, even though we had less than our neighbours here in the north. In the hundred years since we gained sovereignty, we’ve become one of the richest states in the world. No longer does the majority of people have to suffer from hardship, deprivation, and the cold, as would happen a century ago. Education is no longer a luxury of the rich. Surveys show that Icelanders are generally happier than most other nations and enjoy more equality and social justice, as well as more safety and individual freedom.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy here, or that we don’t have any complaints. The challenges of the future include becoming better at helping those who need help. Too many people feel bad, suffering from anxiety and other mental conditions. Too many people have difficulties finding their footing in a community of stiff competition and constant comparison. We still have work to do even if we take some time to celebrate the things we’ve accomplished over the past century. We must allow ourselves to be optimistic and hopeful, despite everything.

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was recently awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize for her novel Ör (Hotel Silence). The protagonist Jónas had lost the will to live and was going to say goodbye to this valley of sorrows. He regains hope and the wind in his sails and at one point in the story, he speaks this truth: “I’ve met enough good people to believe in mankind.” I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Golli. Candidate Guðni Th. Jóhannesson campaigning for the Presidency

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