17. JÚNÍ - The Reykjavik Grapevine

17. JÚNÍ

17. JÚNÍ

Published June 13, 2003

On the 17th of June 1944 at Þingvellir, amid pouring rain and beating wind, Iceland was declared a Republic. The decision had been a hurried one. A symbol for the events was ordered, and designed, fittingly enough, in the USA. Flagpoles were shipped in and arrived just in time, but only about a third of the flags were ready, leading to quite a few flagpoles remaining unadorned. To maintain the respectability of the proceedings, liquor stores were closed without warning a few days before the event. A president was elected, and Sveinn Björnsson won, although the vote counters had problems counting the soaked votes as their desks were awash with rain. A very wet president signed the oath on a document that still bears evidence of the weather, and Iceland became an independent country for the first time since 1262.
At that time, it had come under the King of Norway, which in turn had become a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. When Norway was handed over to Sweden as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Iceland remained a part of Denmark. In the 19th Century, some people started clamouring for independence. The Danes resisted such efforts, not least because of the large German minority within the Kingdom, which might grow restless if they were given the precedent of greater rights for Iceland. Icelanders, undeterred, did not resort to violence, but instead those most passionate about independence went to Copenhagen to study law, and tried to wear the Danes down with legalism. The National Hero, Jón Sigurðsson, was one of these, and his statue still overlooks Austurvöllur facing the parliament building. What influence his stern gaze has upon modern day politicians as the exit the building is open to conjecture, perhaps they are more impressed by his portrait on the 500 krónur bill.
On the Denmarks southern border, events were less peaceful in the 19th Century, and in 1866 war broke out with Germany. Denmark’s southern provinces were incorporated into the Reich, including a large number of Danes. Denmark’s position had now reversed, from being a state trying to keep its own minorities compliant, to one trying to regain its nationals currently living as a minority in another country. Hence, it had to appear more benevolent towards different nationalities, to prove they were a better government to be living under than the German one. The effects were soon felt in Iceland, and in 1874 the Danish king Christian IX presented Iceland with its first constitution. 30 years later, Iceland received home rule and its first minister (statues of both of these can be seen outside Stjórnarráðið, the seat of government.) After World War I, according to the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, Iceland became and independent state within the Danish Kingdom, with the added stipulation that it could opt out of the Kingdom 25 years later. This event may once again have been connected with Denmark’s desire to get its southern provinces back, and in 1920 it duly did, after a referendum was held. However, it had problems with the Germans again in 1940 when they invaded the country on the 9th of April. The Icelanic government now declared that it would conduct its own foreign affairs while the situation lasted. The situation changed again a month later when the British invaded Iceland. Nevertheless, Iceland opened embassies in those surrounding countries that were still independent, and in 1944, after the agreement with Denmark had lapsed, a referendum was held and 97.4% of the population voted for independence. The day picked for the declaration was the 17th of June, Jón Sigurðssons birthday, and celebrations were held on that particularly rain soaked day. Tradition dictates that since it always rains on that day. Iceland became a republic under the unusual circumstances that Denmark was still under German occupation, and Iceland was now under American protection. In 1994, 50 years of independence were celebrated, and this reporter remembers one of the highlights being Björk dropping down in a parachute to sing The Anchor Song in Icelandic upon landing. This year, on the 59th Anniversary, we will probably have to make do with speechmaking and flag-waving. And if it rains, we’ll remember the sacrifices our forefathers made, so that we might be rained upon as a free and independent people.

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