Without Iceland’s bittersweet history in World War Two, the island would be a very different place today.
When you think of the Second World War, Iceland is unlikely to spring to mind. In fact, when you think of Iceland, you are unlikely to think of war full stop – except perhaps with visions of longships and Norse gods in days of old. Without Iceland’s bittersweet history in World War Two, however, the island would be a very different place today.
Previously ruled by the Danish crown, Iceland has the war to thank for its independence. When Nazi-Germany invaded Denmark on 9 April 1940, all communication between the two countries was instantly severed. Iceland took back sovereignty that day, electing a provisional governor, Sveinn Björnsson. Björnsson went on to become Iceland’s first president when it formally severed ties with Denmark and declared independence on 17 June 1944.
On 10 May 1940, British military took the neutral Iceland, which did not resist – having only 70 armed police to defend it – Canada sent in troops soon after. Initially protesting its occupation, Iceland reached an agreement with the Allies, and foreign servicemen were welcomed as “guests” in the words of Prime Minister Hermann Jónsson. British and Canadian troops left Iceland in July 1941 and America (still officially neutral) moved forces in, by agreement with Iceland, to take over its defence. The US Navy remained at a base in Keflavík until 2006.
Iceland’s occupation brought an incredible boost to the economy, which had been crippled by the Great Depression. To many Icelanders, WW2 is actually known as blessað stríðið – “the blessed war”. The foreign military’s presence created significant employment opportunities and dramatically upscaled Iceland’s infrastructure and technology. Finding only dirt roads and no airports, Allied troops built tarmacked roads and airports, including Iceland’s biggest and most important today – Keflavík International Airport. Iceland also sold large quantities of fish to Britain, in spite of Nazi-Germany’s embargo and the risk of U-boat attacks. With Allied soldiers flooding Reykjavík’s restaurants and cafes, occupation had a huge social and cultural impact on Iceland’s then 120,000 population.
In a familiar pattern, not everyone was happy about this. At the height of occupation, military personnel outnumbered Iceland’s entire male population. There was particular concern over romances between Icelandic women and foreign soldiers. The phenomenon had its own name – ástandið, meaning “the condition” or “the situation” – and the women involved were often labelled prostitutes or traitors. The Minister of the Judiciary actually appointed a committee to address the matter (apparently with little success). In 1942, two institutions opened to house “corrupted” women but both closed in the following year, as it became clear most relationships were between consenting adults.
Though the occupation remained peaceful, Iceland’s powerlessness in the face of invasion made it nevertheless a troubling experience. Over 200 Icelandic seamen were killed in Nazi German submarine attacks during the war. When, in May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sank British vessel, Hood, off Westfjords’ coast, gunfire could be heard 200 miles away in Reykjavík.
The Reykjavík Fossvogur Cemetery has two war graves plots containing a total of 199 commonwealth burials, including German soldiers, Norwegians, and one Russian soldier. The war provides a setting for award-winning Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason’s latest novel, The Shadow District. In this, the first novel of a new crime series, Konrad, a retired detective, investigates a possible link between a modern day murder and one committed in wartime Reykjavík.