Even in remote, sparsely populated Iceland, the epic Twentieth Century struggle between Communism and democratic capitalism played itself out. The origin of Iceland’s Communist movement can be traced all the way back to November 1918 when two Icelandic students at Copenhagen University, Brynjolfur Bjarnason and Hendrik S. Ottosson, participated in a street riot in Copenhagen, and became political radicals. They got into contact with the main Soviet agent in the Nordic countries, the Swede Fredrik Ström, who sponsored their trip to the 2nd Comintern Congress in Moscow in 1920.
There they heard Vladimir Lenin comment on the increased strategic importance of Iceland in a potential war in the North Atlantic, as a result of new technology, including aeroplanes and submarines. The two Icelanders also received some funds to use for propaganda in Iceland. In Moscow Bjarnason and Ottosson met some future leaders of the international Communist movement, such as the German propaganda master – from whom Goebbels learned a lot – Willi Münzenberg, later killed on Stalin’s orders. They also befriended Mátyas Rákosi, who was to become the notorious Hungarian despot.
In the next few years a small but determined Communist nucleus – consisting mostly of university students returning home from Denmark and Germany – formed in Iceland, becoming the radical wing of the Social Democratic Party.
In the next few years a small but determined Communist nucleus – consisting mostly of university students returning home from Denmark and Germany – formed in Iceland, becoming the radical wing of the Social Democratic Party. Those Communists had close ties to Comintern, sending representatives to all its congresses, not only in 1920, but also in 1921, 1922, 1924 and 1928. Moreover, Comintern sent agents to Iceland to help organise 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 Brynjolfur Bjarnason as its chairman. During the Depression, the Communists organised various 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 at least 23 Icelanders, from a tiny nation of only 100,000 people, for revolutionary training in Moscow.
One of those trainees, Hallgrimur Hallgrimsson, later fought in the Spanish Civil War, besides two other Icelandic Communists. In the 1937 elections, the Party received 8.4 per cent of the votes. By now, it was strongly supported by many Icelandic intellectuals, including novelist Halldor Kiljan Laxness, who was to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. Laxness wrote an influential travelogue on the Soviet Union, defending the 1938 trial of Bukharin and other old Bolsheviks, which he attended as guest of Soviet authorities.
Archives in Moscow reveal that the Icelandic Communist Party was closely monitored and financially supported by Comintern, by then tightly controlled by Stalin and his clique. The Party faithfully followed changing directives from Moscow, fighting against Social Democrats as “social fascists” until 1934, but trying after that to establish a “United Front” with them. Unlike its counterparts in other Western European countries, it succeeded in luring some leading social democrats into its camp, and in October 1938, the Communist Party was dissolved and the Socialist Unity Party established. Its first chairman was social democrat Hedinn Valdimarsson, but the Communists controlled the party, as became obvious in late 1939, when Valdimarsson and some of his followers left in disgust over the Communists’ unwavering support of Stalin’s policies, including the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler and the invasion of Finland. The Communist Einar Olgeirsson became chairman of the Socialist Unity Party.
The close ties with Moscow remained. Leading members of the Socialist Unity Party, such as Kristinn E. Andresson and Einar Olgeirsson, frequently went to Moscow, giving reports and receiving advice (and money). The party also toed the Soviet line in international affairs, defending the infamous 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.
In today’s money, the donations from Moscow amounted to €2.5 million a year on average, a significant sum indeed in a country where the population was by that stage only just reaching 200,000.
In today’s money, the donations from Moscow amounted to €2.5 million a year on average, a significant sum indeed in a country where the population was by that stage only just reaching 200,000. 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 which had fallen out with the 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, while the Socialist Unity Party was dissolved. 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 Ludvik Josepsson (chairman 1977–80) and Svavar Gestsson (chairman 1980–87), discreetly maintained ties to the Soviet Union, for example in visits to Moscow. In 1967-8, Gestsson had attended a special cadre school in East Berlin, Institut für Gesellschaftswissenschaften bei ZK der SED (the Institute for Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party), supposed to be the highest educational institution for the country’s communist elite. After 1968, however, 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 per cent of the votes in 1949 and 16 per cent in 1953. Its chairman to the end, Einar Olgeirsson, remained a staunch supporter of the Soviet regime. The People’s Alliance, mostly controlled by the socialists, participated five times in government during the Cold War, in 1956–8, 1971–4, 1978–9, 1980–83, and 1988–1991, and some of its ministers were old Stalinists, including Ludvik Josepsson and Magnus Kjartansson, neither of whom ever repented publicly. While the socialists failed to move Iceland into the Soviet orbit, they remained influential both in the labour movement and on the cultural front.
There were probably three main reasons why the Icelandic Communists gained more support than their Nordic comrades: Iceland, like Finland (where the Communists were also strong) was a new state, gaining sovereignty only in 1918, so civic traditions were weaker than in the three Scandinavian countries; in this period she was also, like Finland, much poorer than her Scandinavian neighbours; thirdly, the generous support from Moscow may have had a real impact on this tiny island.
Significantly, also, the very last act of the People’s Alliance, in November 1998, was to accept an invitation from the Cuban Communist Party.
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 when it split, with some joining a new Social Democratic Alliance and others founding a Left Green Party. However, many in the People’s Alliance had sympathy with 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 regime there.
Significantly, also, the very last act of the People’s Alliance, in November 1998, was to accept an invitation from the Cuban Communist Party. The Icelandic delegation to Cuba included the former chairman and government minister, Svavar Gestsson, and the last chairman (from 1995), Margret Frimannsdottir. 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 a whimper.