Published September 10, 2018
Hey there. I’m Hannah. I’m an American museum professional and Fulbright Fellow living in Reykjavík, and I’m the host of a podcast dedicated to exploring Iceland’s museums. Why? Because Iceland has a staggering 165 museums (that’s way more museums per person than most places in the world), and most of them are fantastic places run by fascinating people who are passionate about their institutions and communities.
I launched the Museums in Strange Places podcast for anyone who loves Iceland, museums, stories, culture, and exploring the world. In each episode, I visit a different Icelandic museum to discover what stories they hold and how they reflect and shape Iceland’s unique cultural identity. If you’ve got suggestions for which museum I should visit next, send me a tweet @hannah_rfh.
Museums in Strange Places #20: Iceland in Wartime: A Visit to the War and Peace Museum
The War and Peace Museum’s exterior is not much to look at it–just an off-white community center sitting on the hillside above Hvalfjörður, the large fjord a short drive north of Reykjavík. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if it was open when I stopped by on a mild April morning. But as soon as I walked through the door, the sound of Etta James’ “Trust in Me” wafted out, and I instantly felt like I’d stepped through a time machine back to occupied Iceland during World World two.
The community-center-turned-museum’s big rooms are covered in vintage furniture, artefacts, and memorabilia from the 1940s. The Hernámssetrið, as it’s called in Icelandic, is the work of Guðjón Sigmundsson, who has spent years collecting thousands of objects, documents, and stories from Iceland’s wartime occupation. Guðjón has a background in theatre and cinema, which explains why the place looks like the meticulously assembled stage for a wartime production.
Iceland doesn’t usually come to mind when you think about WWII history, but in fact, the island’s strategic location in the North Atlantic sea-lanes made it a valuable location for sea and air bases during the war. Nazis started visiting Iceland in the 1930s in a preliminary effort to curry favor. One of the most interesting objects they left behind is actually housed at the Icelandic Aviation Museum in Akureyri: a wooden glider with a swastika-emblazoned metal frame that hurled its “pilot” into the air using a giant rubber band.
German interest grew steadily over the next decade to a level that worried British intelligence officers. Records exist describing Operation Ikarus, a Nazi assessment on the benefits of invading Iceland, but the Germans weren’t the only big powers eager to secure Iceland, and before they could decide whether or not to take Iceland, the Allies made their move.
The British invaded Iceland on May 10, 1940. Yes, invaded. Bet you hadn’t heard that before? Although there was no fighting (because Icelanders didn’t have any armed forces), the British occupation wasn’t voluntary on the part of Iceland, which was still officially under the Danish King. Denmark didn’t have much to say about this at the time because they were in their fifth month of occupation by Nazi troops.
The Brits stayed for about a year, and then the Americans took over. At the time, the Icelandic population was about 120,000, and it’s estimated that the occupying forces had about 60,000 soldiers stationed in Iceland. In Hvalfjörður, there were around 30,000 foreign troops and about 130 locals. It’s pretty hard to imagine, but the fjord itself had as many as 80-100 ships at anchor at any one time. As Guðjón put it during our conversation, “It was a situation.”
Guðjón told me some incredible stories about life in Iceland at that time and the impact of secretive convoys that sailed from Iceland to Russia to bolster the Soviet resistance against the Germans. He also told me about the many veterans of the war that have come to see him over the years: Americans, Brits, and even a Russian captain who claims to have been in Iceland during the war despite all official records. The Russian captain left Guðjón his uniform.
Speaking of uniforms, Guðjón’s collection includes a pristine SS uniform designed by Hugo Boss. Did you know Hugo Boss designed Nazi uniforms? I didn’t know this until I visited the museum.
I think you’ll be hard pressed to find another museum that combines quirky charm and deadly serious history like this one. And unlike many war museums, Guðjón’s museum is not just about showing off guns and glorifying war. It’s the War and Peace museum, and he hopes it will serve to educated folks about the cost of war and the need for peace. Oh and he’d also like you to know there’s a cafe, so please take the short detour to see his collection if you are heading north towards Snæfellsnes.
You can listen to this episode of the Museums in Strange Places podcast on the following platforms or on the player below: Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Radio Public, Libsyn, Overcast.fm, Stitcher, Castbox.
Learn more about the podcast and see other episodes here.