From Iceland — From The Past To The Future: An Interview With Our New President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson

From The Past To The Future: An Interview With Our New President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson

Published July 3, 2016

From The Past To The Future: An Interview With Our New President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

In the wake of the recent presidential elections, Guðni and family have been pretty busy people. As he’s our first new head of state in a generation, we wanted to find out what we were all getting into, so the Grapevine snagged a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to talk about history, football, and the future of Iceland.

I’ve seen more than a few people draw comparisons between your campaign and those of Sanders, Corbyn, and Trudeau, as all having in common this break from the past. Do you see yourself as a part of that?
Yes and no. We’re talking about a post here in Iceland that’s partly ceremonial, and partly political. The President of Iceland does play a role in the political process, and he or she has indirect influence by being able to put on the agenda issues of concern. So yes, I think people wanted change in this regard. I am of course of a different generation than the outgoing President. I’m the first President of Iceland born while Iceland was a republic. I ask people to keep in mind though that the President of Iceland does not play a political role similar to Trudeau, or political players like Corbyn or Sanders. So there is a difference there.

I understand you’ve just returned from watching Iceland play against England in France. What was the environment like down there, surrounded by all these Icelanders celebrating this incredible game?
It was unbelievable. I am a sports fan, so it’s nothing new to me to go to a game and cheer on the national team, wearing the team jersey and all that. I was actually given the option of sitting in the second tier of VIP personnel—behind the glass, presumably being able to sip champagne or something. But I much prefered being in the thick of it. I realise that once I’m President, my room to maneuver changes a bit, but since I haven’t officially assumed office yet, I was thrilled to be able to cheer on the team with my fellow Icelanders, hug people I’ve never met before, cheer and cry tears of joy, and all the other things you do when you witness a spectacular event such as this.

What are you most looking forward to when you do officially assume office?
I most look forward to being able to influence society. I have worked for decades now as an academic and an historian, and my aim has always been to connect with the public. There’s always a danger in academia that you end up losing touch with the public, or you only write for a very specialised field of academics. You get stuck in the ivory tower. I, however, have always felt that it is the duty of academics to influence the public vision of your field, and in my case it happens to be history, so I wanted to be able to say that my work changes the way people look at the past. Now, I want to change the way people look at the present and the future. It’s the same object, but a different time frame.

When we last spoke, your book on the 2008 economic crash, Hrunið, had just come out. Looking back now, what are the lessons that we need to learn from this time going forward, to keep history from repeating itself?
Pride comes before a fall. As a historian, I felt that in the years prior to the collapse, almost as a nation but definitely the business and political elite had lost their footing a bit. They had created the false image of an economic boom based on Icelandic superiority. This idea that Icelandic businessmen—not businesspersons, because it was a male-dominated world—somehow had an advantage in the world of international finance because they were the descendents of vikings and voyagers who dared when others hesitated. And we learned that this was all untrue. They were just better at borrowing money than others and worse at repaying. So let us be proud, as a nation, but let’s show modesty as well. Let’s keep both feet on the ground, because people with confidence do not need to boast. That is the lesson we can take from the collapse, and that is the message I want to bring when I influence the present and the future.

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