While Europe was gripped in the bloodiest war in history, WWII, the Icelandic nation was being redefined through its recent independence from Denmark. On June 17, 1944, Sveinn Björnsson took office as the first President of the newly established republic of Iceland during a festive gathering of some thirty thousand people at Þingvellir National Monument. Sveinn had been a popular Member of Parliament and would remain a popular President until his death in office eight years later. At the same time that he took office though, his eldest son, Björn Sv. Björnsson, was serving diligently in the Nazi Party’s horrific organisation, the SS. In fact, Björn was heading up the Nazi propaganda machine in Denmark, the country from which his father was declaring Iceland’s independence.
Björn first joined the SS in October 1941 and enjoyed a successful career with the organisation, reaching the rank of SS Untersturmführer, or second lieutenant. Before taking up the position of Propaganda Chief, Björn had served on the Eastern Front as a war correspondent. From the horrors of the front lines, Björn regularly broadcasted updates on the war to Iceland. Only one recording has survived to this day, a 1942 broadcast from the Caucasus, in which he interviews two supposed cossack farmers about the evils of the Soviet Union. It was played for Icelandic audiences in order to portray Nazi Germany not as an aggressor, but as a saviour of people from the evil Bolsheviks.
The Murder Symphony
The best source for tracking Björn’s SS career is the book ‘Íslenskir Nasistar,’ by the brothers Illugi and Hrafn Jökulsson, which documents the many Icelanders who joined the fight for Nazi Germany. In the chapter about Björn they recount the time when he served as director of the Danish radio, where he produced a simple programme of propaganda news and culture segments. One of these was the ‘Murder Symphony,’ which is described in the book as expressing “evil and sadism” beyond anything else played during those years.
The first week of May 1945, Danish partisans took control of Denmark and arrested or killed all remaining SS troops in the country. Björn was taken captive, and that was when Icelandic authorities stepped in. Until then, his career had been a public secret in Iceland that wasn’t spoken of openly, but now a telegram arrived in Denmark from Iceland, marked “Secret.” It stated that the first lady Georgía Hoff-Hansen, Björn’s mother, would be coming to Denmark for a completely “private visit to her children and family.”
During the winter of 1946, Björn was suddenly and unexpectedly released from custody. The news angered the Danish public, still furious that Iceland seceded from their nation during such harsh times of war. It is unclear why Björn was released, but it is known that his mother Georgía had been pleading with both the royal couple and authorities in Denmark to release her son. It could, therefore, be said that his mom had bailed him out of trouble. Björn left Denmark for Sweden where he kept a low profile, fearing that the Swedish authorities were after him, and later he was smuggled back to Iceland on an incognito fishing vessel.
Björn first joined the SS in October 1941 and enjoyed a successful career with the organisation, reaching the rank of SS Untersturmführer, or second lieutenant.
The rift between Denmark and Iceland
Björn’s position of power within the SS in Denmark and his subsequent release without trial, caused great consternation within the Danish public and press, which felt that Iceland had abandoned them during their weakest point, when they were occupied by Germany. In 1946, the Icelandic newspaper Þjóðviljinn published a translation from the Danish paper Information, in which the bad feeling towards Icelanders in Denmark was explained. Among the most important reasons was Björn’s case, and the paper quite erroneously and absurdly, but tellingly, recounted how a mob of flower waving people greeted Björn upon his return to Iceland. Despite this, very little was written about Björn in the Icelandic press. There was, however, one man who didn’t shy away from the topic—the Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, who in 1946 wrote:
“The Danish papers never tire of mentioning one of the worst Icelandic men who ever existed. A man who allowed German fascists to drive him into all sorts of vile acts against the Danish people, while wearing a uniform only worn by members of a specific murder club … When the papers mention his father they can’t help but bring his son into the picture, usually in a nasty way, often adding the suffix: ‘ham med S.S. sönnen’ (he with the SS son).”.
Until his dying day, Björn maintained that he had applied for the German military, but had been assigned to the SS. However, following his death his application form was dug up from German archives. He had indeed sought to join the SS, even writing, “I certify that I am of pure Aryan stock. Heil Hitler!” Following many of his Nazi compatriots, Björn later left Iceland for Argentina where he unsuccessfully went into manufacturing and producing washing lines. He later returned to Iceland where he worked as a tourguide, often for German visitors.