Published May 10, 2012
For many centuries Iceland was a colony of Denmark. Due to its isolation, it was largely neglected until the nineteenth century when Danish cultural influence became overwhelming. Icelandic towns were essentially turning Danish; the merchant class was Danish and well off Icelanders started speaking their language. The cuisine became Danish, with heavy sauces and cabbage—to this day bakeries still sell Danish pastries. Icelanders read Danish magazines and knew all about the Danish Royal Family. Donald Duck even came to Iceland via Denmark; he is still called Andrés Önd (meaning Anders the Duck) in Icelandic.
WHY WE LEARN DANISH
Iceland became independent from Denmark in 1944, but the Danish influence persisted. By now the bonds between the two nations have mostly disappeared; we are no longer familiar with Danish celebrities and Danish words have ceased infiltrating our language. Still, Danish is taught in school. It is a very unpopular subject, but the idea is that we should be able to communicate with people in the Nordic countries in a dialect close to our own. Of course there are also historical reasons.
Copenhagen used to be the second capital of Iceland. Up to World War II, almost every Icelander who sought a higher education studied there. Some kinship remains in this area, and Copenhagen is still the most popular destination for Icelanders who travel abroad.
However, much of Danish culture is derived from Germany, so one could also say that Iceland was heavily influenced by Germany during the period of Danish rule. It is worth noting that Germans have for a long time been quite interested in Iceland—more so than the British, for example. The Germans were keen on the Sagas and the image of this savage Nordic country—and Germany is still by far the largest foreign market for Icelandic literature.
In many ways Iceland is also a very Americanized country. The island straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with Europe on one side and America on the other. The greatest single revolution in Icelandic history happened when British and then American soldiers occupied the country during World War II. Occupied, yes—for no one asked them to come. Even so, Iceland was quite happy being under American dominion rather than the German yoke.
But this was quite decisive for our culture. Iceland at the beginning of the war was a poor, backward society. The Americans brought cars, films, music, Coca Cola—and lots of money. Suddenly there was ample employment and Icelanders became wealthy almost overnight. Some say that it was at this time that work ethics deteriorated with Icelandic workers learning to cheat their foreign employers. Unlike Scandinavians, Icelanders don’t especially like playing by the rules.
The Americans stayed on after the war and founded a large military base in Keflavík, which was considered very strategically important during the Cold War. This was for decades the most divisive issue in Icelandic politics. Nationalists and socialists wanted to drive the Americans out and they went on long marches, singing songs and reciting poems about this affront to the newly founded republic. But the right wing was delighted—Iceland did its part in the fight against global Communism.
THE CULTURAL WARS
During this time cultural influence from the States pervaded. Icelanders aspired to drive American cars, the only television station in the country was run by the US military, their radio stations pumped out Elvis Presley to rock hungry Icelandic youth. By comparison, the only Icelandic radio station allowed to operate at the time, which was state-run, only seemed to feature symphonies, folklore and long weather reports.
Guardians of Icelandic culture, mostly men who would nowadays be called patriarchs, were worried about this. They talked disparagingly about the impact of chewing gum, vulgar music and TV shows. Icelandic television finally saw the light of day in 1966, and soon after it was decided that the broadcasts from the US television station be limited to the Keflavík base. Thus ended this cultural war—maybe it is symbolic that one of those active in it, Kristján Eldjárn, the curator of the National Museum, was elected president at this time.
The US presence had an economic and political impact in many ways. Revenues from the US base were divided evenly between political groups—there was a lot of corruption involved. When Icelanders couldn’t sell their fish, the Americans were forced to buy it. Iceland had quite a lot of international leverage—more than ever since—which became evident during the Cod Wars when they threatened to kick out the Americans if the British kept on fishing in the newly expanded economic zone. Henry Kissinger once referred to Iceland as the most arrogant little country he had ever encountered.
ALSO SOME SOVIET INFLUENCE
Paradoxically, Iceland had quite good relations with the Soviet Union at this time. This was due to the relative strength of the communist movement in Iceland and its surprisingly good relationship with the conservatives (both wanted to keep down the Social Democrats, the strongest political force in the other Nordic Countries). The Icelandic government made large trade agreements with Moscow, selling herring and wool products to the Soviets, and getting oil and cars instead. The Icelandic oil retailers, Shell, Esso and BP, all sold Soviet oil. So in the period between 1950 and 1980 you could have an alternative lifestyle in Iceland, driving around in Moskwitsch or Volga automobiles and viewing Soviet films exclusively.
At this time Icelanders gazed enviously at the Keflavík base where soldiers had access to various consumer goods and beer, which was not allowed in Iceland until 1989. In the eighties, the first shopping malls rose in Reykjavík, and Iceland finally became a fully fledged consumer society. Soon you had soldiers on leave coming to Reykjavík, eyeing things in shops they couldn’t afford to buy. The allure of the base was gone, and when the Cold War finally ended, it didn’t really arouse any passion. The Americans left in 2006—that was the end of an area.
Many old friends of America were very hurt by them leaving—and some members of the conservative Independence Party, notably ex-Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson, tried hard to get them to stay. Their ultimate reaction was a mixture of anger and dismay, which became clear during the collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008. Davíð, who had become governor of the Central Bank, announced that the Russian government had offered a huge loan to rescue the economy. This loan would have made Iceland very beholden to the Russians—and many were reminded of famous words spoken by one of writer Halldór Laxness’s heroines who was betrayed by her lover and marries a famous drunkard: “Rather the worst then the second best!”
LONDON BECOMES A SECOND CAPITAL
The second half of the 1990s ushered in what could be called ‘the British age.’ Well, Icelanders have long been keen on British music and football, but during this period London really started seeming like it was Iceland’s second capital. Icelandic businessmen started flocking to the UK, picking up all the tricks of casino capitalism, takeovers and leveraging. Many of them settled in London and started buying companies like there was no tomorrow. For a while it was said that Icelanders were buying up the high streets of the UK. These high flyers started living like no Icelandic businessmen had done before, traveling in private jets and keeping yachts in the Caribbean. Before it had always been considered bad form in Iceland to flaunt your wealth.
But times had changed, the new business Vikings were actually admired. A 2004 poll showed that the person most Icelanders wanted resemble was the billionaire Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson. He still lives in London and does most of his business in Eastern Europe, but now he is almost universally despised in Iceland for he is seen as one of the men who bankrupted the country in the crash of 2008.