From Iceland — Great Moments In Icelandic History: The 1949 NATO Riots

Great Moments In Icelandic History: The 1949 NATO Riots

Great Moments In Icelandic History: The 1949 NATO Riots

Published October 7, 2022

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Valgerður Tryggvadóttir -Arnaldur Grétarsson & Family/Wikimedia Commons

Iceland has been a part of NATO for as long as most generations can remember, and will likely stay there for some time to come. Even the sole existing political party that used to call for Iceland’s withdrawal from the organisation–the Left-Greens–have more or less abandoned this platform point. We might not have our own military, but we regularly welcome other NATO countries to conduct air and sea surveillance and combat drills here. It would seem we’re more or less OK with NATO.

But it wasn’t always this way. It used to be a very divisive issue, and once even led to an all-out riot breaking out in front of Parliament.

Fear of a red planet

Iceland had been occupied by the British military, and then warmly visited by US forces through most of the SecondWorld War. Icelanders had always prided themselves on their political neutrality and their lack of an army, so when that conflict drew to a close, a lot of people expected things to go back to normal.

That would not be the case as far as one man was concerned: then-Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson—not to be confused with the current Finance Minister of the same name, who is also the great—nephew of this previous Foreign Minister, although both are members of the Independence Party. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions on political nepotism.

A staunch anti-communist, this Bjarni Benediktsson believed Iceland would need NATO’s help in defending itself against the Red Menace, and began the push within Iceland’s government to join NATO.

The kettle boils over

The matter was brought to a Parliamentary vote on March 30th of 1949. Several hundred protestors convened on the parliamentary building, which was already surrounded by many pro-NATO (and pro-Independence Party) counter-protestors.

At first, things were relatively peaceful. But then, a leading member of the People’s Unity Party began telling the crowd that their chair was being “held hostage” within Parliament. And that’s when things got crazy.

Rocks and eggs were thrown at Parliament. Windows were being broken. It looked like the leftists were going to storm the building. And they might have, were it not for members of the Independence Party joining forces with the police to beat back these protestors violently. Tear gas was deployed for the first time, and would not be used again until 2009.

Things cool down

Since then, while there has always been an anti-NATO movement of some kind or another in Iceland, it has never enjoyed a great deal of popular support, and likely never will.

The US military base in Keflavík, once the seat of NATO’s power in Iceland, was decommissioned in 2006. However, it never fully went away, and the US military has been slowly building it back up. And we still have to tolerate fighter jets buzzing over our rooftops, and warships parked in our harbours, at least a few times a year.

For what it’s worth, Russia has yet to make any sort of move to annex Iceland. Whether or not NATO is to thank for that is impossible to tell.

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