Published August 31, 2012
Aside from the bombing of the oil tanker El Grillo, whose hulk can still be found lying at the bottom of Seyðisfjörður, Iceland largely escaped the ravages of World War II. Even when a foreign army launched a large-scale invasion on May 10, 1940, there was limited material destruction. After advancing British troops damaged the door of the state telephone company, Prime Minister Hermann Jónsson exhorted the public to treat the foreign soldiers as guests, and the British agreed to pay for the broken door.
The streets of Reykjavík were not bombed and destroyed like those in capitals across Europe and many Icelanders in fact found themselves better off. They sold fish to the British and took advantage of the British job opportunities, known as ‘Bretavinna,’ (or “Brit work”). People moved to Reykjavík from all corners of the island to do this work, which included various construction projects for the army. World War II is generally seen as the beginning of modernity in Iceland, and for many years after, it was referred to as “Blessað stríðið, (roughly translated: “The Good Old War”). Memories were to be different here than on the continent.
Nevertheless the occupation left a different kind of scar. No sooner had the British landed than Morgunblaðið proclaimed that both locals and soldiers alike were horrified at how fiercely young Icelandic women turned their attentions to the charms of these foreigners. It was a serious worry for the men running Iceland that “the guests,” as they were called, would damage the morality of the nation’s youth.
Before the invasion, Reykjavík was a small town of no more than 40,000, almost half under the age of 20. Within two years, the Americans took over from the British, and the demographics of Reykjavík changed radically. Roughly that number of soldiers had come to be stationed here too: a standing army of young, fit, well-dressed, virile men. The prevalence of Icelandic women falling for these men became known as, and has passed into Icelandic history as, “ástandið,” or “the situation.” And this has been a staple in Icelandic writing from that first Morgunblaðið article to the present day.
The first considerable work of fiction written about the occupation emerged already in 1943 and was called ‘Verndarenglarnir’ (“The Guardian Angels”) written by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, best known for his children’s poetry. Jóhannes depicts the occupation itself in comic terms. When the troops arrive, town drunks procure brennivín to stiffen their resolve and then march down to the harbour to throw the invaders back into the sea, only to be arrested by local police before getting there.
He offers a panorama of Icelandic society through a single family: the old-school patriotic father, the older brother who becomes a fishery owner and one of the richest men on the island, the younger brother who is, like the author, a poet and a socialist, the sister unflatteringly known as “Miss Butterfly,” and the mother who tries to hold everything together. There is also another brother who moves to Canada, goes from there to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and returns home crazed and blind in one eye, believing himself to be Odin the All-Father.
Jóhannes records the impression that the occupying forces leave on all his protagonists. The communist poet protests the imperialist’s war, the capitalist quietly replaces his portraits of Hitler with pictures of good King George and does business with the British, while the aging father of both weeps for the fate of the nation. The two groups most enthusiastic about the occupation are pre-teen boys who have never seen soldiers before and suddenly see their toys coming to life, and girls who have arrived at puberty. The description of the latter is worth repeating:
It was also their wishing day. Finally they were here, the mysterious ships of adventure, which their mothers had awaited for 30 generations: “Sun-tanned and sea-weathered they stepped ashore, the long-desired lovers from afar…the young girls awoke to this sweet reality early in the morning…their life now depended on two things, to look as pretty as they could and to be there as soon as possible. Dressed up, they walked into the white sunlight of the day, wearing the smiles they had carefully hidden until the feast of their lives would begin, and now it had begun.” (All translations by Grapevine)
Iceland’s situation is complicated. It is part neutral, part allied, part occupied. In the summer of 1941, everything changes again. After negotiations, the Americans replace the British with local leaders, so it is hard to speak of occupiers any more. Meanwhile, Hitler invades the Soviet Union and the communists, who had initially opposed the foreign troops, now view them as allies in the fight against fascism.
Inevitably, Miss Butterfly becomes pregnant, but swears off soldiers and becomes a convinced pacifist when she learns that her lover has a wife at home. Our hero, the poet Máni, punches a British officer who has cuckolded him out cold and is jailed by the British. The capitalist brother makes a pile of money. The father of the house initially rejects his half-British grandson, then learns to accept him, but the infant is strangled by the insane brother in retaliation for lack of British support in the Spanish Civil War. The poet is sent off in chains to Britain but is released after the Americans take over and leaves for Russia. Miss Butterfly, ostracised by her community and lamenting the loss of her child, kills herself.
He condemns not only the occupation and the war profiteers but also the prejudices of his countrymen. In fact, according to documents that later came to light, Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson demanded that there would be no African-Americans (although that was hardly the term used at the time) among the troops sent over before he agreed to their arrival. Jóhannes, however, describes the worries of his countrymen thusly:
A man came from the south and had something novel to add: black babies were being born in the hospitals of the capital and their dark fathers bore vicious social diseases. It followed that the Bolshies were advocating this mixing of colours because of their internationalism. Perhaps they also saw it as their duty, since most of the negroes were descendants of slaves. Upon receiving this information, every kind-hearted soul came to the inspired conclusion that the father of Butterfly’s child was a pitch black barbarian, on his last legs due to syphilis, and that the girls’ brother, the communist Máni Mýsingur, had arranged it all on orders from Moscow.
“OH, DARLING, JÚ ARE SÓ PEN!”
Another piece on ástandið, which appeared two years after the end of the war, is called, intriguingly, ‘Félagi kona’ (“Comrade Woman”). It was written by leading writer of the time Kristmann Guðmundsson, who is best known for his romances and sometimes called, “The D.H. Lawrence of the North.” Here, we have another young-ish poet cuckolded by “the guests.” Over a bottle of whisky, the two sides nevertheless manage to find common ground as the poet Eggert Hansson sits down with a philosopher-soldier:
And the philosopher said dreamily: “Oh, I have travelled the world and never seen such beautiful women. But they have no heart!”
“They are like the country,” Eggert said. “Ice on top, fire below.”
Eggert parties with American and Norwegian soldiers and learns the new pidgin pick-up lines: “Oh, darling, jú ar só pen!” And here comes the twist: he meets an American army nurse and finds they have much in common, not least their mutual frustration over American men’s predilection for local girls. No doubt hoping to turn the tables, Eggert is shocked when the nurse instead proposes to him before agreeing to anything else. She claims to be rich and offers to take him anywhere in the world he might wish to go, but Eggert chooses the high road, decides to stay at home and marry a lonely single mother instead. Before this can happen, he finds his bride to be in the arms of an Icelandic sailor. The sailor in turn is less than happy with her dalliance with the poet, but decides it is at least better than sleeping with Americans.
COLD WAR KIDS
In 1954, the first part of ‘Sóleyjarsaga’ (“The Story of Sóley”) appeared, written by Elías Mar (incidentally one of Iceland’s first openly gay artists). It was widely criticised for being too sympathetic to the women who succumbed to ástandið. More popular was the novel ‘79 af stöðinni’ (“Taxi 79 From Base”) which came out the following year, written by journalist and former taxi driver Indriði G. Þorsteinsson. The book tells the story of taxi 79’s driver, Ragnar, whose duties include driving drunk soldiers back to the Keflavík base and occasionally selling them overpriced alcohol. While not about “ástandið” per se, it remains perhaps the best-known work of fiction about Icelandic women and American soldiers.
Ragnar is a true Icelander who has just moved to the city, likes his meat and potatoes with a tall glass of milk, drinks brennivín and shoots birds on his days off, and beats up (or gets beaten up by) those who insult the honour of his paramour, a slightly older woman called Gógó. She is commonly called ‘hóran’ (“the whore”) by his coworkers, and by the end of the novel he learns why. While pretending to visit her mother on weekends, she has actually been entertaining an American officer. Poor innocent Ragnar leaves the big bad city in an excited state, heads back north in his trusty cab with a bottle in his lap, skids off the road and dies, yet another victim of foreign soldiers and feminine wiles.
A MORALITY PLAY SET TO MUSIC
By the eighties, the war had developed into a common theme across literature, art and popular culture. Kjartan Ragnarsson’s ‘Land míns föður’ (Land of My Father) was a musical portraying the invasion as a farce; at the same time, Guðrún Helgadóttir’s wartime children’s series Sitji guðs englar (God’s Angels Sit Down) was becoming a popular hit. Einar Kárason’s acclaimed Devil’s Island trilogy meanwhile delved into the plight of Reykjavík’s poor as they were moved into abandoned army barracks after the war.
“Ástandið” remained at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, but the writing was markedly lighter, as a new generation of writers tackled the subject. In 1989, for instance, Hrafn Jökulsson and Bjarni Guðmundsson’s book ‘Ástandið’ detailed the history of ‘The Situation,’ albeit written with a light touch. In fact, the last novel to disparage ástandið is Andrés Indriðason’s teen-romance ‘Manndómur’ from 1990, about an innocent Icelandic boy who loves a girl who prefers the company of foreign soldiers. By no means as dramatic as Indriði Þorsteinsson’s depiction 30 years earlier, Andrés’ account shows the profound shift in attitudes as “the situation” became more distant.
WOMEN’S VOICES, FINALLY
A decade later, a slew of new books and articles would appear about ástandið, and this time the writers tended to be women. The view now was rather different. In the early 2000s, books and articles appeared with titles such as ‘Kynlegt stríð’ (“Sexual Warfare,”) by Bára Baldursdóttir and ‘Úr fjötrunum’ (“Out Of The Chains”) by Herdís Helgadóttir, as well as the first textbook on World War II in Iceland written by female scholars, Jenný Björk Olsen and Unnur Hrefna Jóhannsdóttir. Ástandið now tended to be seen as an important step in female emancipation.
Where academia led the way, the arts soon followed. In 2011, a radio play called “Ástand” by Ásdís Thoroddsen was aired, portraying the foreign troops wooing local women not with gifts of silk stockings or alcohol as before but rather with their readings of English poetry. Enter the local patriarchs, who quickly dispatch female poetry enthusiasts off to re-education camps in the countryside.
More recently, a play called ‘Tengdó’ (“Mother-in-Law”) debuted this spring at the City Theatre, which tells the true story of a woman who spent 50 years searching for her father. The missing parent was not only an American soldier but also the only black man in Iceland, who somehow slipped through the cracks of Iceland’s “whites only” policy. Adding further intrigue is the fact that the mother was 42-years-old at the time while the soldier was 26, belying previous accounts that it was only helpless young girls who succumbed to foreign charms.
Sadly, despite the impressions made by both Americans and British during the war years, almost none of these works have been translated into English. But no doubt they will continue to appear here, on stage, in print, on iPads and iPods, in new forms and in new interpretations, for though Iceland escaped the worst of World War II, it had never been so profoundly and permanently altered as it was during those tumultuous war years.
PRISONERS OF LOVE
Icelandic men did not take the attention local women lavished on foreigners lying down. In 1941, the Minister of the Judiciary set up a special committee to investigate what had by now become known as ‘ástandið’ (“the situation”). The committee asked the police what they knew, and were duly presented with a list of more than 500 women between the ages 12 and 61 who were suspected of having dealings with the troops. The chief of police added in the report, “this number can probably be multiplied fivefold.” Not only that, but 255 children were found to have been born as a result of these liaisons. While the committee admitted that some of these relationships were legitimate engagements, it noted that many of the women were of “surprisingly low moral character.”
Why police decided to investigate something that was not against the law didn’t seem to have troubled anyone very much, but the laws were soon provided. The remedy would be to sentence straying adolescents to be locked up in institutions. Following the publishing of the report, two such institutions were opened in 1942, one in Reykjavík and the other one in Borgarfjörður. Another law mandated everyone over the age of 12 to carry a passport to be presented to the police when asked.
Many disputed the findings of the report. It was pointed out that the committee consisted of three men and no women, and that little distinction was made between war brides and prostitutes. The US Army set up its own commission whose findings were less severe. A suggestion made by local authorities that the Army import its own prostitutes was turned down by the Americans.
The institutions in Borgarfjörður and Reykjavík were both closed in 1943. The ástandið hysteria seems mostly to have abated by then or at least no longer deemed to be an issue for officers of the law and, in any case, the number of soldiers in the country was declining. By the end of the war, 332 Icelandic women had had married foreign soldiers according to Hrafn Jökulsson and Bjarni Guðmarsson’s book, ‘Ástandið.’
A MORALITY PLAY SET TO MUSIC
In 1977, the group Mannakorn released their classic album ‘Í gegnum tíðina’ (“Through the ages”), which often pops up on “Best Icelandic Albums Ever” lists. One of the standout tracks is “Braggablús,” (“Barrack Blues”) about an Icelandic woman living in one of the abandoned army barracks that littered the city in the post-war era. The lyrics are well-written and sympathetic to her plight, but still one cannot help but detect a certain sort of glee when the character descends from dancing with generous soldiers in her pink dress to having to peddle favours in exchange for oil to warm her shack.
The Megas track “Ég á mig sjálf” (“I Own Myself”), which came out two years prior on the album ‘Millilending,’ also seems to be a morality play of sorts. A spoof on a ‘60s ditty, the song is about a girl who is so independent that she turns to prostitution since no man can own her. Of course many foreign soldiers are amongst her clients, as she joyfully proclaims: “Then came war/And then came soldiers/And then came peace/And even more soldiers.” The latter is a reference to the return of the Americans in 1951. Things end after the whole army and the town too have had their way with her and the girl contently counts her money while the listener is invited to feel either pity or scorn.
TIMELINE: ICELAND VS. THE ARMY
Germany invades Poland on September 1. Britain and France declare war two days later. World War II begins. The Soviet Union attacks Finland in late November.
On April 9, Germany occupies Denmark and invades Norway. That same night, Iceland’s Parliament votes in favour of all royal authority as well as control over foreign affairs and territorial waters to be transferred to Iceland. Debate ensues over declaration of formal independence. Britain occupies the Faroe Islands three days later and offers protection to Iceland. This is refused.
On May 10, the same day as Germany’s invasion of France and the Low Countries begins, British troops land in Reykjavík. The Icelandic government formally protests, but in a radio address that evening, Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson asks the population to treat them as guests.
The British troops eventually number 25,000. The unemployment of the depression era disappears as people move to the city to work for the army.
One of the construction projects is the Reykjavík airfield, still in use today for domestic flights.
In April, three Icelandic socialists, including MP Einar Olgeirsson, are deported to prison in Britain for suggesting to British soldiers that they go on strike. This is the most serious clash between occupying and local authorities yet.
In May, the German battleship Bismarck sinks the British ship Hood off coast of the Westfjords. The thunder of guns can be heard all the way to Reykjavík.
After tripartite negotiations, American troops take over from the British on July 7 despite being neutral in the war. Einar Olgeirsson and the other prisoners are returned home and Hitler’s invasion of Russia brings an end to the socialist’s protests against the Allies. On December 7, Pearl Harbour is bombed by the Japanese and the United States formally enters the war.
Iceland forms its first foreign ministry and Sveinn Björnsson is elected
Regent of Iceland in place of the King of Denmark. The government ignores planned elections, citing the uncertain situation.
A committee is set up by the Minister of the Judiciary to investigate relations between Icelandic women and foreign soldiers.
In early autumn, the number of American soldiers reaches its peak at 60,000.
Two institutions meant to house women who have been “corrupted” are opened.
The government collapses and Sveinn Björnsson sets up an out-of-Parliament administration. The new government wants to declare independence, but is talked out of this by US authorities.
The institutions for “corrupted” women are closed.
The Allies start winning the Battle of the Atlantic, and also in North Africa and on the Eastern Front. Troop numbers in Iceland decline and worries about ástandið lessen.
Keflavík airport, constructed by the Americans and still in use, is opened.
Allies invade Normandy on June 6. Eleven days later, Iceland declares its independence after an almost unanimous vote by national referendum. A new government is formed of both left and right parties, and Sveinn Björnsson becomes the nation’s first president.