From Iceland — What If There Had Been a Revolution in Iceland?

What If There Had Been a Revolution in Iceland?

Published June 4, 2023

What If There Had Been a Revolution in Iceland?
Photo by
Eugène Delacroix
Art Bicnick

What if? It’s a pretty open-ended question and one friend of the Grapevine Valur Gunnarsson is applying to eight relevant-to-Iceland historical happenings over as many issues. Expand your mind, suspend your disbelief and consider: what if Iceland Had Joined The British Empire?

Keep up with with the What If series right here.


Iceland became a sovereign nation on December 1, 1918. Although still under the reign of King Christian X of Denmark and Iceland, Icelanders were now free to determine their own future. But what form of future would it be?

One model was to be found in the United States, which by the end of the First World War seemed to be overtaking Europe in most fields. Another source of inspiration was the Soviet Union, which at the time was in the process of shaping a very different future. But was anyone hoping for revolution?

Back from the USSR

Ólafur Friðriksson was editor of Alþýðublaðið newspaper, but was best known for leading a strike that guaranteed sailors six hours of sleep per calendar day, which improved both safety and living conditions aboard fishing vessels. In the autumn of 1921, he returned from Moscow where he had attended the 9th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He brought back books and pamphlets on the finer points of class struggle, as well as a boy named Nathan Friedmann, whom he intended to adopt. This came to a head when 15- year-old Nathan was diagnosed with glaucoma, an eye disease feared at the time to be contagious.

Meanwhile, an army was being raised. The government called upon those it deemed loyal and a force came into being consisting of firemen, shop owners, office clerks, the YMCA, sportsmen, boy scouts and the rifle association.

The authorities decision to deport him was seen as a political act by Ólafur and other socialists, who barricaded themselves in Ólafur’s home on Suðurgata and beat back the police. This took place on November 18 and for the next few days it seemed anything could happen.

The police were no longer in charge of the city and Ólafur’s men began to arm themselves with whatever they could find. A cache of weapons was discovered in different places, many probably having found their way to Iceland during the recent World War.

Ólafur sought prospective allies, but the most powerful union in Iceland declined to take his side out of fear that the confrontation could lead to bloodshed. Without their support, Ólafur’s prospects of outmanoeuvring the authorities diminished.

Meanwhile, an army was being raised. The government called upon those it deemed loyal and a force came into being consisting of firemen, shop owners, office clerks, the YMCA, sportsmen, boy scouts and the rifle association. Some were armed with Remington rifles. Had this newly-created army met with resistance it could very easily have led to loss of life, even unintentionally. That prospect was not lessened by the fact that some in the rifle association were already drunk.

A Hot War in Iceland

In the meantime, Ólafur had unilaterally decided to disarm. All the weapons collected were locked in the basement of one of his closest associates, Hendrik Ottósson, who lived on a neighbouring street. When the police arrived on November 21 with their newly armed, dangerous and not entirely sober deputies, Ólafur and his men had few means to defend themselves. The episode became known as the White War, referencing the war between reds and whites ongoing in Russia at the time. But what if the White War had turned hot?

A revolution proper in 1921 Iceland would have been unlikely, even when the police were temporarily out of action following the first fight. The authorities were willing and able to call on citizens to defend them. Had that failed, the Danes would have been called on for help — the Islands Falk naval vessel was conveniently in Reykjavík harbour at the time.

The Danes proved unwilling to assist but would have changed their tune if faced with an armed communist uprising in Reykjavík. Alternatively, the British would eventually have been summoned.

The Danes proved unwilling to assist but would have changed their tune if faced with an armed communist uprising in Reykjavík. Alternatively, the British would eventually have been summoned. The Colonial Secretary, who at this time was one Winston Churchill, would have been happy to oblige as his calls to intervene in the Russian revolution proper had gone unheeded. Everyone knew that Iceland was in the British sphere of influence and a revolution in the capitalist heartland was seen as a necessary preliminary to one taking place here. A Soviet Iceland would remain out of reach. Nevertheless, had shots been fired during those fateful November days, everything could have changed.

Even fisticuffs could have dire consequences, as was almost to be the case. Hendrik was hit in the back of the head with a baton during the second fight. The blow was severe and a man named Kristinn, described as “strong and agile,” later knocked on the door of the policeman responsible and wanted “to repay it with some interest.” Fortunately, the policeman was not at home and the matter was not pursued further.

If a baton blow could spur acts of revenge, what would happen if someone had died? Revenge killings?

Endless violence?

The Icelandic revolutionaries of 1921 were pardoned after brief stints in prison. This was a wiser course of action than that pursued by the English after the Easter Rising in Ireland, where summary executions led to large parts of a previously taciturn population siding with the rebels. As for Nathan, he was deported to Denmark and eventually sent to his uncle in Alsace in France, where he was reunited with his mother and two brothers.

During a protest against a motion to lower pay for public relief work during the Great Depression in 1932, the police were again beaten back. After this, they started arming themselves. Weapons were acquired from Spain in exchange for fish, lessening chances of the police being disabled by unarmed men, as happened in 1921 and 1932.

Perhaps more active resistance would have been offered to the British occupation in 1940 if men had become inundated to the use of weapons during the class struggle of the interwar years.

Perhaps more active resistance would have been offered to the British occupation in 1940 if men had become inundated to the use of weapons during the class struggle of the interwar years. This would primarily have been carried out by the communists who most fervently opposed the occupation. This was the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the British and the Germans were equally seen as waging a capitalist war that was no one else’s business. This window would have been open for just over a year – once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Icelandic communists took to seeing the British and Americans as allies in the global struggle against fascism.

War Against NATO

Iceland became a fully independent republic on June 17, 1944, and soon after embarked on a course that would take it from one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the richest in a matter of decades. But Cold War divisions would soon set in. The decision that previously neutral Iceland would join NATO in 1949 led to riots. Police and their conservative volunteers stormed protesters outside parliament, brandishing batons. The protestors responded by tearing up stones from the pavement outside parliament to use against them. Teargas was used for the first time in Icelandic history.

Iceland joined NATO in 1949 despite the protests and the Americans would return to their wartime base in Keflavík two years later. With a U.S. military presence, the possibility of any sort of revolutionary takeover by communists became impossible. Even had the interwar era in Iceland turned violent, we can assume that history would largely revert to its known course after the tumultuous years of 1921 to 1949.

The Cold War ended and the Americans eventually left in 2006. Just two years later, a massive economic collapse would lead to even larger protests than those of the depression era. Luckily, the violence of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s didn’t repeat itself, lest the “pots and pans revolution” would have been called something else entirely.


Are you enjoying Valur Gunnarsson’s reimagining of historical events? Then you’ll love his new book. What If Vikings Had Conquered the World? And Other Questions of Icelandic and Nordic History is out now through Salka Publishing. Get your copy at Shop.Grapevine.is.

And check out the Grapevine’s Alternative History Of Iceland podcast for more hypothetical hijinks.


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