Published February 15, 2012
The Icelandic communist movement began earlier, had closer ties with The Kremlin, lasted longer, and was more influential than had previously been recognised. These are the main conclusions of my book, ‘Islenskir kommunistar 1918–1998’ (“Icelandic Communists 1918–1998”), which was published in the autumn of 2011 and has been provoking heated debate amongst Icelandic historians.
The Icelandic communist movement can be traced back to November 1918 when two Icelandic students at Copenhagen University, Brynjólfur Bjarnason and Hendrik S. Ottósson, became political radicals after participating in a Copenhagen street riot. They were in touch with the main Soviet agent in the Nordic countries at the time, Fredrik Ström, who sponsored their trip to Moscow in 1920 to attend the second Comintern congress. There they heard Vladimir Lenin discuss the strategic importance of Iceland in a coming war in the North Atlantic and met some future leaders of the international communist movement, such as the famous German propaganda master Willi Münzenberg, who would later mentor Joseph Goebbels. The two young Icelanders also received some funds to use for propaganda in Iceland.
COMMUNISM ARRIVES TO ICELAND
In the next few years a small, but determined, communist nucleus—consisting mostly of young intellectuals who had studied in Denmark and Germany—formed in Iceland as the radical wing of the Social Democratic Party. Those communists had close ties to the Comintern, sending representatives to all its congresses, not only in 1920, but also in 1921, 1922, 1924 and 1928. Moreover, the Comintern sent agents to Iceland to help organize a communist party: Olav Vegheim in 1925, Hugo Sillén in 1928 and 1930, and Haavard Langseth, Harry Levin and (possibly) Viggo Hansteen in 1930.
Finally, the Icelandic Communist Party was established in November 1930 with Brynjólfur Bjarnason as its chairman. During The Great Depression, the communists organised a number of violent clashes with the police, mostly in connection with labour disputes. A Comintern agent, Willi Mielenz, was sent to Iceland in 1932, probably to advise on illegal activity (which had been his specialty in the German Communist Party). The Icelandic communists even organised a fighting force, modelled on the German Rot Front (Red Front, the communist fighting force), and sent around twenty Icelanders for revolutionary training in Moscow. One of those trainees, Hallgrímur Hallgrímsson, later fought in the Spanish Civil War. Archives in Moscow reveal that the Icelandic Communist Party was closely monitored and financially supported by the Comintern, by then tightly controlled by Stalin and his clique. The Party faithfully followed the changing directives from Moscow, fighting against Social Democrats as “social fascists” until 1934, but trying to establish a “United Front” with them after that.
Unlike its counterparts in other Western European countries, it succeeded in luring some leading Social Democrats into its camp, and in October 1938, the Socialist Unity Party was established. Its first chairman was the Social Democrat Héðinn Valdimarsson, but the communists controlled the party, which became evident in 1939, when Héðinn and some of his followers left in disgust over the communists’ unwavering support for Stalin’s politics. The communist Einar Olgeirsson then became chairman of the Socialist Unity Party.
SECRET TIES TO MOSCOW REMAIN
Their close ties to Moscow remained. Leading members of the Socialist Unity Party, such as Kristinn E. Andrésson and Einar Olgeirsson, went to Moscow, gave reports and received advice (and funding). The Party also followed the Soviet line in international affairs, defending the notorious show trials in Eastern Europe and the communist invasion of South Korea. The socialists staged violent demonstrations in the spring of 1949 when Iceland joined NATO.
Archives in Moscow reveal that in the 1950s and 1960s, the Socialist Unity Party received substantial financial support directly from the Soviet Communist Party, and important assistance from it and from other communist parties in Central Europe, in particular the East German Socialist Unity Party, SED. Needless to say, this was kept strictly secret. The only example I have found of the Socialist Unity Party not adhering to the Moscow line was that it refused to condemn those communist parties that had fallen out with Kremlin leaders, such as the Yugoslavian party in the late 1940s, and later the Albanian and Chinese parties.
After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, those Icelandic socialists who wanted to sever ties with Moscow gained the upper hand in the Socialist Unity Party. In the autumn of 1968, the People’s Alliance (which had previously existed as a loose electoral alliance) began to operate as a party, and the Socialist Unity Party disbanded. The considerable properties that the Socialist Unity Party had accumulated, most likely with Soviet money, remained in the hands of the old leadership of the Socialist Unity Party, but were later sold to solve a financial crisis in the People’s Alliance.
Some leading members of the People’s Alliance, including Lúðvík Jósepsson (chairman 1977–80) and Svavar Gestsson (chairman 1980–87), discreetly maintained ties to the Soviet Union, for example with visits to Moscow. From 1967 to 1968, Svavar Gestsson had attended a special cadre school in East Berlin, called Institut für Gesellschaftswissenschaften bei ZK der SED (The Institute for Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party), which was supposed to be the highest educational institution for the country’s communist elite. After 1968, however, Svavar Gestsson and other leading socialists increasingly turned to Ceausescu’s Romania and Castro’s Cuba for inspiration.
During its lifetime, between 1938 and 1968, the Socialist Unity Party was stronger than its counterparts in most other Western European countries. It received, for example, 19.5% of the votes in 1949 and 16% in 1953. Its chairman to the end, Einar Ólgeirsson, remained a staunch supporter of the Soviet regime. The People’s Alliance, mostly controlled by the socialists, participated four times in government during the Cold War, 1956–58, 1971–74, 1978–1979, and 1980–1983, and some of its ministers were old Stalinists, including Lúðvík Jósepsson and Magnús Kjartansson, neither of whom ever repented publicly. The Icelandic socialists were also very influential both in the labour movement and in Icelandic cultural life (partly, as the Moscow archives show, due to generous support from The Soviet Union).
While The Socialist Unity Party was in effect a communist party, the same cannot be said about the People’s Alliance, which operated as a party between 1968 and 1998. However, many in the People’s Alliance were sympathetic to the communist states. Some of my left-wing colleagues at the University of Iceland even volunteered to harvest sugar cane in Cuba in the 1980s, proudly defending the oppressive communist regime there. Significantly, also, the last act of The People’s Alliance (“Alþýðubandalagið”), in November 1998, was to accept an invitation from the Cuban Communist Party. The Icelandic delegation to Cuba included the former chairman, Svavar Gestsson, and the last chair Margrét Frímannsdóttir (chair from 1995). The Icelandic political pilgrims had hopes of seeing the dictator, Fidel Castro, who did not however bother to receive them. Thus, the history of the Icelandic communist movement ended, in the poet’s words, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
1. This is a historic photograph from the personal archive of Einar Ólgeirsson at the National Library of Iceland. It shows a young communists’ meeting in Moscow in July 1920 in connection with the 2nd Comintern congress. The two Icelanders, Hendrik Ottósson and Brynjólfur Bjarnason, are standing in the second row farthest to the right. Stalin later had at least three of the people photographed here killed, including Lazar Shatskin (front row, 3rd from left), Willi Münzenberg (front row, 6th from left), and Otto Unger (second row, 4th from left). Max Barthel (front row, 7th from left) became a Nazi, and Ruth Fischer (front row, 8th from left) a fervent anti-communist working with the CIA.
2. Ingi R. Helgason, the executive director of the Social Unity Party from 1956–62, delivers a message from his party to the 1966 congress of the Soviet Communist Party. For many years, Ingi R. Helgason was the party’s grey eminence. His daughter, Álfheiður Ingadóttir, is currently a Left-Green member of parliament.