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 the Nordic countries had united?
Scandinavianism became fashionable in the 1840s among students in Copenhagen and Uppsala. At the time, the Nordics were divided into two kingdoms: Sweden-Norway on one side and Denmark on the other, which also included Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Finland was dominated by the Russian Empire.
The revolutionary year 1848 has sometimes been referred to as “The Spring of Nations.” It would eventually lead to the unification of Germany and Italy, but its effects in the Nordic Countries were primarily felt through the end of absolutism in Denmark in 1849. The revolution reached Iceland in a miniscule way in 1850, when a group of Reykjavík college students protested their headmaster’s insistence that they join a sobriety society. The students went from house to house shouting “pereat,” Latin for “down with him.” The event, known as “The Pereat,” resulted in no one graduating that spring and very little social life in Reykjavík College for the next decade and a half.
Could the Spring of Nations have led to a common Nordic identity?
The Kalmar Union Survives
The Nordic Countries had previously been united in the Kalmar Union in 1397 under Queen Margaret I of Denmark. This was ruled from Copenhagen until 1523 when Sweden, which then also included Finland, broke away, resulting in intermittent warfare for the next 300 years. That culminated during the Napoleonic Wars when suzerainty over Norway was handed from Denmark to Sweden.
Norwegians might complain about sharing their oil fund, the Danes about not joining the EU and everyone would complain about the Swedes.
Had the Kalmar Union survived, a common national identity would likely have sprung up. During Viking times, the Nordic peoples conversed in old Norse, which is similar to modern day Icelandic. By around 1300, the Scandinavian languages had changed enough to be no longer mutually intelligible with Icelandic, though they remained similar to each other. The Norwegian and Danish written languages would have largely converged during the 400-year union, especially in the Oslo area where Danish influence was strongest. The Scandinavians might have retained dialects, but surely their language would have melted into one over the span of half a millennium of political union.
Pan-Scandinavianism breaks through
The Pan-Scandinavian movement was first put to the test in the years 1848 to 1851. The German-speaking population of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein revolted against their duke, the newly enthroned King Frederick VII of Denmark. The rebels were supported by the German confederation, including Prussia, which sent troops to their aid. Denmark was supported by Sweden and Norway, which promptly sent an army to the Danish island of Funen, but peace had been secured before it saw combat. The Danes had triumphed over Prussia, not least because of the diplomatic support of Britain and Russia, which didn’t want Germany encroaching on the Baltics. The Three Year War, as it is known in Denmark, was seen as a victory for Scandinavian brotherhood and commemorated in painting and song.
But it was to be a high-water mark. When the Crimean War broke out two years later, some Swedes wanted to use the opportunity to reclaim Finland from Russia. This seemed a good idea to some Scandinavianists who saw another opportunity for the Nordics to work together. The Åland Islands were conquered by a Franco-British fleet and offered to Sweden, which declined. The islands were eventually handed back to the Russians on the understanding that they would be demilitarised.
The Swedes opted to stay out of wars but the Danes were more militant. Flush from victory a decade earlier, they decided in 1863 to annex Schleswig outright. This went against the previous peace settlement that had stipulated the two provinces were to be considered separate from Denmark despite being ruled by the Danish king.
The Krona Union
The response was swift. Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck dispatched an army and was soon joined by Austria. This time, there would be no support for the Danes from any quarter. In 1864 after brief but intense fighting, Denmark surrendered Schleswig to Prussia and Holstein to Austria, thereby losing half of its industry and a third of its population.
The question over how to divide the spoils would lead to a war between Prussia and Austria in 1866, which Bismarck won. Germany was to be unified not by constitution-loving liberals, as had been attempted in 1848, but by Prussian military might. France was defeated in 1871 and a German Empire proclaimed, with the Prussian king now also German Emperor.
The whole affair was not only a disaster for Denmark but for Scandinavianism in general. Sweden and Norway had stood by while the Danes fought alone. Scandinavianism fizzled out and the final meetings held under the moniker took place five years later, in 1869.
The ideology had never gained much ground in Finland or Iceland. Those countries did not speak languages easily understood by the others.
The Three Year War, as it is known in Denmark, was seen as a victory for Scandinavian brotherhood and commemorated in painting and song.
Independence movements were gathering pace, emphasising distinct national identities rather than a larger Nordic one. The only Icelandic Scandinavianist in Copenhagen was ostracised from the society of Icelandic students there. In Norway, the situation was similar, as most were more interested in independence from Sweden rather than another merger. The movement was mostly confined to those two countries that were already independent.
The only concrete thing to emerge from the unification proposals of the 19th century was a monetary union of Denmark and Sweden, later joined by Norway. This lasted from 1873 until the First World War. But what if the Nordic countries had unified fully?
A Nordic great power?
A Nordic alliance defeating the Germans in 1864 could have had major consequences. Germany might not have unified, or at least not in the way it did in our timeline. Perhaps there would have been something of a role reversal, with a more militaristic Nordic Union and a more peaceful Germany, their unification coming about democratically rather than through war. Without disaster in 1864, Denmark might not have experienced the cultural renaissance they did later in the century, which was partially a reaction against external defeat.
But if we assume the rest of history would have unfolded much as it did, the Nordic Countries would have stayed neutral in World War I. Finland might have opted to join after independence was achieved in 1917. Perhaps the Baltic States would have, too, precluding annexation by Stalin. In any case, a Nordic Union would have been strong enough to deter German, Soviet and British intervention, staying out of World War II. This would probably also lead them to stay out of NATO and the European Union.
The population of a Nordic Union would be 28 million and it would be among the largest economies in the world. For the individual, not much would change. Norwegians might complain about sharing their oil fund, the Danes about not joining the EU and everyone would complain about the Swedes. They would be dominant with more than a third of the population, but they might not have the monarch. In 1872, Swedish King Charles XV died without leaving any sons. His daughter Louise had married prince Fredrick, son to Christian IX of Denmark, in 1869. It would probably be their heirs on the throne, leading to the current Queen Margrethe II of Denmark being queen of all the Nordic countries. Like her illustrious namesake.
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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