Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Kristján Eldjárn – From Archaeologist to President

The third President of Iceland was no conventional political figure. Indeed, he wasn’t really a politician at all, although he proved to be a great statesperson as the country’s head of state for twelve years. An archaeologist by profession, he came to office on a wave of public support after hosting a television program on one of Icelanders’ favourite topics – their own rich heritage.

Dr. Kristján Eldjárn
President of Iceland
Dr. Kristján Eldjárn was born 100 years ago today – on December 6, 1916 – at Tjörn in Svarfaðardal, near Dalvík in the north of Iceland. After attending school in his home parish, he attended the Junior College in nearby Akureyri, where, according to Haraldur Bessason, “he drew immediate attention because of his great talent.” After graduation, he studied archaeology at the University of Copenhagen and completed his graduate education at the University of Iceland.

In 1945, he became assistant to the director of the National Museum of Iceland, then a two-man operation, and, two years later, he became director, a position he held until he was elected President of Iceland in 1968. He published four books and several major essays on cultural and historical topics.

From 1966 to 1968, he hosted a series of television programs on Iceland’s cultural heritage for RÚV, the country’s public broadcaster, in which he showed artifacts from the museum while setting them in their larger cultural and historical context. The show became an unlikely hit with television audiences and catapulted him to public attention.

With the retirement of Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, Iceland’s second president, Kristján was encouraged to enter the 1968 presidential race. He faced Gunnar Thoroddsen, a conservative with a lengthy political resumé. It was an uphill battle, but Kristján was elected with 65.6% of the vote. His victory was seen as an indication of Icelanders’ desire to have a president who stood above the fray of everyday politics. He was re-elected without opposition in 1972 and 1976.

The President of Iceland occupies a largely ceremonial role, akin to the Governor General of Canada, and Kristján ran a non-partisan campaign, although he was seen as the candidate on the left. However, he enjoyed support from across the political spectrum. Before being elected, he questioned Iceland’s participation in NATO and opposed the United States military base at Keflavík, primarily out of concern for Icelandic sovereignty and culture.

Like presidents before and since, Kristján was a source of continuity and stability. During his twelve years in office, there were six different prime ministers and seven different governing coalitions. The diplomacy required to ensure the continuity of government sometimes demanded the wisdom of Solomon. Less than half a year before the end of his final term, during a tumultuous period in Alþingi, the president summoned the man he had defeated in 1968, Gunnar Thoroddsen, and gave him a mandate to form a government with a minority faction from his own party in partnership with two other parties.

Following his retirement from the presidency, Kristján Eldjarn was named professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Iceland. Although he would serve without salary, this special research position was designed to honour him for his scholarly achievements and international reputation as an archaeologist, while giving him a platform for resuming his scholarly interests. Sadly, the retired president had little time to enjoy this new position, since he died unexpectedly in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 14, 1982, following heart surgery. He was 65.

Ironically, just five years after his death, the presidential residence at Bessastaðir proved to be a treasure trove of archaeological artifacts. While the mansion was being restored, the ground underneath it was excavated and objects that had lain undisturbed for centuries were discovered.

Kristján Eldjárn’s personal bearing was described as “akin to the Svarfdalur mountains, which nowhere move if the wind is blowing” He inspired confidence in Icelandic culture and trust in the nation’s institutions. As president, he was widely respected at home and abroad for his statesmanlike and dignified leadership.

A more detailed version of this biographical sketch appears
in the December 15, 2016, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

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