Published September 8, 2017
In June 1945, large crowds of Danes and Icelanders celebrated as Esjan, the first ship to arrive from Iceland since WWII ended docked in Denmark. Finally, the numerous Icelanders who had been marooned under the iron heel of the Nazi war machine could return home. Among the returnees was the 27-year-old Ólafur Pétursson. He had lived in Denmark and Norway during the war and now wanted to return to Iceland. As it happened, the ship’s departure was delayed, and before it could leave port, the British troops in the area received a message from Norway—Ólafur was to be arrested and extradited; he had been a spy for the Germans under the Norwegian resistance.
“Villainous and revolting”
The prosecutor in Ólafur’s case demanded the death penalty and in 1947 his trial began. He had been responsible for getting dozens of resistance fighters and sympathisers sent to concentration camps, where many died. He escaped the death penalty and was instead sentenced to 20 years of forced labour. The court verdict wrote that not only had he broken the law, but that he had acted in a manner that was “villainous and revolting,” and that his crime had been the “worst of its kind.” Several instances of arrests made due to information Ólafur had provided to the Gestapo were mentioned, including the arrest of 22 Norwegians who had in 1942 attempted to flee to England. Of the 22, 19 had been executed.
The fight to get him released
But while the Norwegian courts were trying a man they believed to be among the worst Nazi informants in the war, the full force of the Icelandic diplomatic machine, under the auspices of Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, (grandfather to the current Prime Minister by the same name) was fighting for his release. In the end, following numerous letters to Oslo and London, Ólafur was released. Following his release to Iceland, Ólafur was a free man, and he had served just 72 days of his 20 year sentence. In the Norwegian media and parliament there was shock and confusion over the determined Icelandic effort to get the man called the Icelandic executioner released.
A history of violence
But Ólafur’s career of political violence didn’t end with him returning to Iceland. He joined Heimdallur, the youth arm of the Independence Party, where he supposedly surrounded himself with young acolytes with whom he discussed “terminating” political enemies. In 1949, the biggest riots in Icelandic history took place. On March 30th a large number of protesters had gathered in front of parliament to protest against the country joining NATO. When it was announced that parliament had passed the resolution, fighting broke out and a number of pro-NATO civilians armed with batons stormed the crowd, inflicting beatings on the protestors. There, among those who behaved with utmost severity, was Ólafur. In connection to his actions that day, the newspapers recounted his past as a Nazi collaborator and criminal, which was, according to Foreign Minister Bjarni, “inhumane” and “hurtful” to Ólafur.
Helping executioners, forgetting the victims
Ólafur’s most high profile victim was the Icelander Leifur Muller, who due to information relayed to the Gestapo by Ólafur was in 1943 sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he remained until the end of the war. In Leifur’s memoirs he wrote about his shock over how fiercely authorities had tried to save the executioner while not a single letter was sent to plead with German authorities to get Leifur released from the merciless hell he suffered in the Nazi camp.