What led you to study this part of Iceland’s history?
When I was doing my doctorate in England, I interviewed a senior Icelandic diplomat named Helgi P. Briem, who told me the story of Karl Kroner… Kroner showed up at the Danish embassy one day [in the 1930s], his head shaven, very upset, saying that the Nazis had arrested him and ordered him to leave the country within twenty-four hours. He wanted Briem’s help. Briem had previously met a Nazi named Dietrich von Jagow, who had been bragging at a dinner party that he was the Number Three man in Berlin; that only Goebbels and Hitler were above him. So Briem contacted von Jagow, appealed to his great ego and asked for his help. Von Jagow avoided him and stalled him for a while, then finally agreed to help. But Briem also told me that there was a stream of Jews coming to the Danish embassy, asking for help in getting to Iceland, and Briem had to turn them away because it was Iceland’s policy not to admit any Jews to the country.
This information led me to the archives of the Ministry of Justice where I discovered that everything that Briem had told be was absolutely true. I then used the material that I had found in the archives as well as some U.S. Documents to publish an article in Lesbók Morgunblaðsins in 1974 entitled “Iceland’s Racial Policy”.
Were there any other ethnic groups that Iceland had similar policies towards?
Yes. Black servicemen. It was in fact one of the stipulations for making a defence agreement with the United States in 1941, that no black servicemen be allowed into Iceland. This condition was secretly repeated when Iceland again made the present defence agreement with the U.S. In 1951. But one has to be careful to bear in mind the smallness of the population and the relatively high number of foreign troops in the country.
Why did you think Iceland’s racial attitudes were worth investigating and writing about?
I thought it was an interesting aspect of our history, a sort of taboo. Icelanders, as other small nations, generally regard themselves as morally superior. Self-criticism is not our specialty. People would like to believe that they were never racist instead of attempting to deal with this part of our mentality. At the time I wrote that article for Lesbók, an American naval officer had privately confirmed to me that the racial policy at the Keflavík base had been pursued in some form up to the 1970s. He told me that it had been his task to wait at the airport for new servicemen to arrive. His orders were to tell any black servicemen that came off the plane that their orders had changed; that they were to get back on the plane and go back to the U.S. After the rise of the civil rights movement in the U.S. In the 60s, black Congressmen began to put pressure on the U.S. Government to abolish this racial policy, and by 1970, it was beginning to break-down – but not due to any internal pressure in Iceland.
What sort of reaction did you get to your article?
None, whatsoever, which is sad, because there were still a number of people alive who had been active in our government and civil service in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and it would’ve been interesting to get their reaction.
But… there was a reaction of a kind in 1990, an Icelandic sociologist in Germany, Friðrik Hallur Hallson published a doctoral thesis on the Keflavík airbase and Icelandic society. He intimated in a very learned way that my writings about Iceland’s policy towards black people from 1951 was just a conspiracy hatched by the military in Washington in order to undermine the moral fibre and national resistance of the Icelandic people. But by the time this was being published in Iceland, the papers relating to the 1951 defence agreement had already been declassified in Washington, and surely enough, there was a document proving that the Icelandic government had made exactly the same conditions as regards the entry of black servicemen as in 1941. This is what I had maintained in my article in 1974, but at that time the relevant documents were still classified.
Are racial attitudes a part of the Icelandic national character?
I do not think that any nation is free of racial attitudes and prejudices, but I think in the Icelandic case, it was very much a product of 19th century nationalism, which has long been dominant here. We had the image of ourselves as the great, heroic and pure race. The authorities believed they were protecting the purity of our race and culture by their policies towards Jews and blacks. The idea that this was racism simply didn’t sink in. Iceland was very nationalistic even through the 60s and 70s and still today nationalism is a force to be reckoned with in this country. It has its positive and negative sides.
Anyway, the image was undoubtedly very much a part of a national identity and upbringing, and this is why I hesitate to blame the pursuit of racial policies in this country on one person. Some writers have mainly blamed Hermann Jónasson (who was prime minister and minister of justice at the same time) for these policies in the 30s and 40s. While it is true he was strict, Hermann was pursuing a policy supported by other politicians and probably the great majority of the population. He was reflecting the attitude of the nation as a whole. No protests were heard in this country from any side when a whole family of Jews was to be deported to Nazi Germany in 1937. On the contrary, there were articles in newspapers across party lines supporting the racial policies of the Progressive-Social Democratic government of Hermann Jónasson.
Like Morgunblaðið, which at the time compared Jews to vermin.
There were some pretty ugly articles, some very strong prejudices. You can find out for yourself by looking in the Icelandic dictionary for the synonyms of the noun Jew; it also means a stingy and cruel person.
Still, I think there is a danger in isolating this issue. Certainly Iceland practised anti-Semitism in its immigration policy in the 30s, but the whole world failed the Jews. It is a fact that an attempt was made in the last century to exterminate the Jewish people and since then the Jews have the strong feeling that they have to take care of their own security. No one will do it for them in the end. This is very much a part of the Middle East dilemma.
Were the nationalist tendencies the sole reason behind Iceland’s non-inclusion policy towards the Jews?
Not entirely. I can think of three other reasons.
The Depression was going on throughout the 1930s. There was a great unemployment here, and the country was supposedly closed to all foreigners. But there were Scandinavians coming here for work, and Germans of “Aryan origins”, too. At the same time, documents show that Jews who wanted to come here – even those who were bringing money with them and would be financially independent – were turned away.
A second reason is that the government feared that by allowing a handful of Jews into the country, it would start a great and unlimited flood of Jewish immigration. It was common knowledge that hundreds of thousands of Jews wanted to emigrate, not only from Germany, but later also from Austria and Czechoslovakia. If ministers said yes to a few Jews who sought entry, they worried that they would put themselves in a position where saying no would become increasingly difficult. However, the doors were not entirely closed because about 40 Jews and political exiles from Germany had found a refuge in Iceland by 1940.
The third reason – and mind you, I don’t have any documents to back this up – I think, the Icelandic government was afraid of offending the Nazis. The Nazis not only portrayed Iceland as a pure “Aryan country” – Icelandic students were welcome to study in Germany, and Iceland benefited from trade with Germany.
Iceland was trading with Nazi Germany during the 30s?
Yes, even into the start of World War Two. Germany was an important trading partner of Iceland.
Didn’t Iceland consider increasing trade with Britain or the US?
Yes, indeed, the Icelandic government did everything it could to expand trade with these countries, but due to the Depression they were restricting imports. We were on the brink of bankruptcy. Then war began, the British soon prevented all trade with Germany and opened up their market for Icelandic fish which they very much needed. This was the beginning of our greatest prosperity: the war made Iceland wealthy.
But there were some contradictions in the non-inclusion policy, weren’t there?
I suppose that many Icelanders took the view that the Jews might be an obnoxious people, but they didn’t feel that this gave the Nazis any right to maltreat Jews, let alone kill them. But there was also a sort of contradiction on the immigration issue, because the Progressives curiously criticized the Soviet Union for not accepting more Jews while praising other countries for lifting some of their restrictions on immigration. Again, a typical small nation double-morality.
One must, of course, try to see the immigration issue in context. This isn’t just a question of black and white – there are shades of grey in it. It’s very easy to denounce the governments of the past for what they did, and we should indeed denounce them for treating helpless people in the way they sometimes did. But one must bear in mind that Icelanders were a population of a hundred and twenty thousand people in the midst of a great depression. Moreover, we have to realize that we have the benefit of hindsight: the mass murder of Jews only started during World War Two.
Have racist attitudes in Iceland declined?
I certainly think so. It was a gradual development. Iceland took a somewhat different path from that of other Western European countries in its development after World War Two – in some respects we were quite a closed, heavily socialized society, pursuing for a while economic policies that remind one of the Soviet bloc or the Third World rather than the Western World. Iceland of today has moved much closer towards the integrated, multicultural European community. One only has to walk about in the centre of Reykjavík for five minutes in order to discover that Iceland is very much a part of globalization.