Iceland wasn’t the only country to achieve its independence in 1918, but it is the only country to win its national sovereignty that year and succeed in maintaining both its independence and territorial integrity to the present day. Other countries that reckon milestones of independence in 1918 include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Yemen. Yet none of these other countries has been continuously self-governing over the century that followed. Although Iceland was occupied by Britain and then the United States during World War II, it remained sovereign and self- governing during those years and actually took the final step of independence by declaring the republic in 1944.
|Fullvedishátið 2018 (Marino Thorlacius / Ministry of Foreign Affairs)|
Noting that both Canada and Iceland achieved their independence “without revolutions of bloodshed in either country,” former President of Iceland Ásgeir Ásgeirsson said, “we may rejoice wholeheartedly in this good fortune. In Iceland the restoration of independence was made possible by the unbroken continuity of our history.” The peaceful birth of both countries, through evolution and negotiation, appealing to persuasive arguments rather than force of arms, were noteworthy achievements in the annals of human history. Northrop Frye referred to Canada as a “peaceable kingdom,” drawing upon an idea that had been popularized among theologians in the 19th century, and the same might be said about Iceland from the time of its independence in 1918 until it became a republic.
In 1974, Haraldur Kröyer, who was Iceland’s ambassador to the United States and Canada at the time, said, “The struggle for national independence did not end in 1918, nor in 1944. That struggle is still going on. A people’s fight for its right of existence as a nation, for its economic independence and political sovereignty is a never-ending struggle.” He went on to say, “We, who inherited Iceland from those who brought it beyond the threshold of political and economic independence, must ask ourselves today how we have guarded the heritage entrusted to us.”
The simple fact that Iceland is the only country to achieve sovereignty in 1918 and maintain it bears witness to Haraldur Kröyer’s insightful observation. Independence is not a once-and-for-all achievement, but an ongoing struggle. Political democracy demands the active participation of its citizens; we cannot abdicate the responsibilities of citizenship to the few, especially those who mistakenly believe they know better than the collective will of the people. Economic independence demands hard work and resourcefulness, combined with fair play and equity. National sovereignty demands a willingness to pay the price needed to sustain the institutions of government through taxation and sometimes even personal sacrifice.
Whatever shortcomings and disappointments there may have been along the way from sovereignty to the present day, when Icelanders ask themselves how they have guarded the heritage entrusted to them, they can honestly answer that they have done as well as any nation – arguably better. Iceland remains a robust democracy that prizes equality, tolerance, fairness, decency, freedom, and democracy. Icelanders have used their independence well.
This post appears as the editorial in the December 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.