On this day in 1918, Denmark and Iceland signed an historic agreement that would lead to the country’s independence less than 30 years later.
While many people know that Iceland’s Independence Day is on the 17th of June – and achieved full independence on that day in 1944 – the transition from Danish colony to independent nation was anything but sudden. For much of the late 19th century, Iceland gained greater control over its own affairs, with its own legislative body and de facto head of state at home. The country was still, though, considered by the Danish crown to be a colony.
On December 1, 1918, the dynamic shifted. The Danish–Icelandic Act of Union was signed, whereby Iceland’s official name was changed to The Kingdom of Iceland. Rather than being a Danish colony, Iceland was officially recognised as a fully sovereign state that was simply in a union with the Danish crown.
It was at this time that Iceland established its own flag – the one we recognise today – and took a position of neutrality in foreign affairs. Iceland was sovereign, but not yet independent.
It was agreed upon when signed that The Act of Union would be up for review in 1940. However, with the German invasion of Denmark in that year, ties between Iceland and Denmark were effectively severed. While Iceland maintained its neutral position, British forces would put an end to that – they occupied the country in May of that year, ostensibly to beat the Nazis to the punch.
In December 1943 – 25 years after the Act of Union was signed – the agreement had expired, and Icelanders began the process of going all the way to establishing their country as an independent republic. About six months later, that goal would be achieved.
Today, December 1 – known as Sovereignty Day – is not recognised as a public holiday like Independence Day. However, it is still regarded by many Icelanders as an important day in history – the Act of Union would take Iceland from being a colony, to a kingdom, to a republic, over the course of less than three decades.
For more backstory on Iceland’s independence and the events leading up to it, Guðmundur Hálfdanarson’s Icelanders: Reluctant Europeans (.pdf file) might interest you.