Saturday, December 01, 2018

Iceland's centennial as a sovereign nation

The year Iceland achieved its sovereignty as a nation would have been memorable even without this milestone of independence. The early months of the year are remembered as the “Great Frost Winter” and the record low temperature that year has never been surpassed. The volcano Katla erupted on October 12, threatening the countryside with devastation for 24 days. Overseas, the Great War came to an end, leaving much of the European continent in ruins, even though the war had been good for the Icelandic economy owing to increased demand for exports from farms and fisheries. The Spanish flu that gripped the world arrived in Iceland by ship on October 19, infecting nearly two-thirds of the residents of Reykjavík over the span of six weeks and resulting in the deaths of nearly 500 people, mostly in the southern and western regions of the country. 

In the summer of 1918, a joint parliamentary committee of the Icelandic Alþingi and Danish Folketing met to work out the terms of an Act of Union. The resulting treaty opened with the declaration, “Denmark and Iceland are free and sovereign states in union under the same king.” The next four articles established the succession to the crown and other provisions regarding the royal family. Article 6 provided that, “Danish citizens shall enjoy in all respects the same rights in Iceland as Icelandic citizens born there, and vice-versa,” while exempting the citizens of each country from military service in the other, and the following article provided that Denmark would continue to administer foreign affairs on behalf of Iceland at the direction of the Icelandic government. The remaining articles of the 20-article treaty dealt with transitional matters regarding the protection of territorial waters, supreme court jurisdiction, financial arrangements, procedures for approving the treaty, the establishment of a parliamentary consultation committee, a dispute resolution process, and provisions for renewing or repealing the treaty. 

Fullveldisdagurinn in 1918, outside Stjórnarráðhúsið.
Following passage by the two parliaments and the overwhelming approval of Icelanders in a referendum on October 19, the very day the flu arrived in the country, the Act of Union came into force on Sunday, December 1, 1918, and Iceland became a sovereign nation. The ceremony declaring Iceland’s sovereignty was a modest affair, but it was a bright, sunny day when of officials gathered outside Stjórnarráðhúsið (Government House) to mark the occasion – and the significance of the day was observed in churches across the land, including the National Cathedral. 

“We can assume that most of those who gathered at Government House – a building which had been a Danish jail, then the residence of Danish governors – looked hopefully to the future,” suggests President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, an esteemed historian. “That cannot be proved, of course, but contemporary accounts and memoirs give that impression. And no doubt those people hoped above all to be able to make a better world for themselves and their children, in a sanctuary of security, happiness and autonomy.” 

What occurred in Iceland in 1918 is comparable to what Canada had earlier achieved on July 1, 1867. Speaking at the University of Manitoba in 1961, Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, who was President of Iceland at the time, said, “When the British North America Act came into force, in 1867, and Canada gained independence, we Icelanders cited this event as an argument in our struggle for independence and Iceland received its own constitution a few years later, in 1874, on the millennium of the settlement of the country. Since then the political history of Canada and Iceland have run a similar course. ... These developments have taken place without revolutions of bloodshed in either country.” 

“Gaining sovereignty boosted the Icelanders’ vitality and audacity, giving rise to advances which took us from poverty to prosperity with astounding speed,” says Einar K. Guðfinnsson, former Speaker of Alþingi and chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing the centennial. “Now, when we celebrate the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty, we should look back, bearing in mind the words of poet Einar Benediktsson about the need to ‘look to the past in order to build something new.’” 

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir observes that much has changed over the course of the past century and she questions whether modern Icelandic values are the same as they were a century ago – a reasonable question given the pace of change. Beliefs about national governance, cultural identity, language, the nature of society, and stewardship of both land and sea have evolved over time and anniversaries of noteworthy historical events offer opportunities for reflection and refinement. “We must seize the opportunity offered by this milestone, the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty,” says the prime minister, “to reevaluate and reinforce our shared values: to build on the strong foundation we have, and the ideal of a free and democratic society where human rights are honoured, equality of opportunity is ensured, and we safeguard the wellbeing of all the people of this country. Democracy, freedom, equality and justice are values that unite the sovereign nation of Iceland, which nurtures its land and its language, and also celebrates diversity and difference.” 

This post appears on the cover of the December 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

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