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A Revealing King’s Diary

Why is Iceland Not a Monarchy?

Danish Princesses Benedikte and Anne Marie, Queen Ingrid, and Crown Princess Margaret (born as Princess of Iceland), in 1964. Photo: AP.

The present Danish Queen was born in 1940 as a Princess both of Denmark and Iceland. What happened?...

Counterfactual history is not only a parlour game: it can also be an exploration of possibilities serving to illuminate existing realities. Sometimes we may say something about such possibilities, not with certainty, of course, but perhaps with some plausibility. One example is the First World War. If Great Britain and her dominions and then the United States had not joined France and Russia in the war against the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, then this would have been a short war, with the Central Powers prevailing. Again, if the well-equipped French Army had resisted Hitler when he broke the Versailles Treaty in 1936 by sending an army into Rhineland, then his generals would have ousted him. Yet again, if in 1979 the Shah of Iran had stood firmer against his opponents, and if he had been backed by his Western allies, then the ghastly Khomeini would not have returned to Iran to take power and bring his country back to the Dark Ages.

Tributary of Norway, and later Denmark

One intriguing question about the history of Iceland is why the country is not still a monarchy like the two islands she most closely resembles, Newfoundland and New Zealand. After all, Iceland has been ruled by a monarch for most of her history. The previously uninhabited island was settled by people from Western Norway, Ireland and the Norse outposts in the North Atlantic between 874 and 930. When the country was fully settled, a Commonwealth was established which lasted to 1262. In that period the Icelanders had, as a German chronicler admiringly said, no king but the law. They were in close contact with Norway, but they were not Norwegian subjects. Iceland’s greatest historian, Snorri Sturluson, wrote a celebrated history of the political struggle between the Norwegian kings and their own subjects, demonstrating to his fellow countrymen the perils of trusting in kings, men intent on raising taxes and recruiting armies for pointless wars. Predictably, Snorri was finally killed in 1241 by emissaries of the Norwegian king.

From 1262 to 1380, Iceland was a tributary of the Norwegian king like other Norse settlements in the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and Orkney. When the Norwegian crown passed in 1380 to the royal family of Denmark, these territories were included, although in late fifteenth century Scotland absorbed Shetland and Orkney. From now on Iceland was, like Norway, ruled from Denmark’s capital Copenhagen. The Danish kings thought little of their remote possession: they tried four times to sell Iceland, thrice to King Henry VIII of England and once to the merchants of Hamburg. But Denmark was on the losing side in the Napoleonic Wars, and the victors decided in 1814 to give Norway to Sweden as compensation for the loss of Finland to Russia in 1809. Somewhat surprisingly the old Norse dominions in the North Atlantic, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, were kept by Denmark, probably because Great Britain did not want the presence of any significant European power north of her waters. There the Royal Navy should be in control. Nobody protested.

From a Danish Dependency to a Sovereign Kingdom

Thus, in the nineteenth century Iceland had become a dependency of Denmark, with her own laws, but impoverished and reliant on Danish subsidies (as a result of past misrule, Danish and Icelandic). Nonetheless, the Icelanders, led by the great historian Jon Sigurdsson, a worthy heir of Snorri Sturluson, began to demand self-government. To the political leaders in Copenhagen, in power after the abolition of absolutism in 1849, Sigurdsson and his supporters insisted that they were Icelanders, not Danes: They wanted to speak their own language and to reaffirm their national identity. The Danes were bewildered by such demands. It seemed to them utter madness that this desperately poor island, with a tiny population, less than one hundred thousand, could become independent. In 1864, after Denmark had lost the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in a war against Prussia and Austria, the Danish king discreetly enquired whether the Danish-speaking Northern part of Schleswig could be regained in exchange for Iceland, but Otto von Bismarck was no more interested in the remote fishing outpost in the North Atlantic than Henry VIII had been three centuries earlier.

In 1904 the Danish government granted Iceland home rule, and in 1918, after Iceland had made significant economic progress, they accepted her full sovereignty. The Kingdom of Iceland, in a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark, was established on 1 December 1918, according to the so-called Act of Union. The Danish government undertook to defend the new country, most importantly to operate a coast guard, and to represent her abroad, although the Icelanders had the right to make all relevant decisions on their foreign policy.

The Personality of Christian X

It was clear from the outset that this newly sovereign nation was sooner or later going to take control of foreign affairs and to establish and operate her own coast guard, although Iceland did not have any military of her own so she had in effect to rely on the protection of the Royal Navy. This was a development similar to that in the British dominions, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Newfoundland. They became independent countries, with a foreign service and their own defence forces, but in a personal union with the United Kingdom, recognising the king or queen as their monarch. But why did Iceland not follow the example of the Commonwealth countries and retain the monarchy? I have pointed out elsewhere that there are plausible arguments for monarchy in terms of continuity and stability. In a monarchy, moreover, the power and the glory of the state are divided between elected and inherited office holders, resulting to some degree in what Edmund Burke called ‘reciprocal control’. It is hardly a coincidence that the most solid democracies in Europe are monarchies, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries and the Benelux countries. Nor that Canada, Australia and New Zealand have not chosen to become republics. But perhaps a part of the answer to the question of Iceland is found in a fascinating book recently published. It is the personal diary King Christian X of Denmark—who in 1918 became King of Iceland as well—kept (in Danish naturally) about Icelandic affairs from his ascension to the Danish throne in 1912, Christian X og Island (Christian X and Iceland), edited and with an introduction by Professor Knud J. V. Jespersen. The diary ends somewhat abruptly in 1932, without any apparent reason.

It has long been said that one reason the Icelanders decided to repeal the personal union with Denmark was the unpopularity in Iceland of King Christian X. Many stories circulated about the king’s barely concealed dislike of his Northern subjects. Once he remarked to the Icelandic writer Kristmann Gudmundsson during a casual conversation: ‘I would not like to live up there in the north.’ Sometimes, the Icelanders were able to retaliate (like Icelandic Vikings sometimes did in confrontations with Norwegian and Danish kings according to the ancient Icelandic sagas). Once, in an audience with the leader of the Icelandic Social Democrats, Jon Baldvinsson, the king asked: ‘And you are of course staying at a hostel here in Copenhagen, Mr Baldvinsson?’ He received a swift response: ‘No, your Majesty, I am staying at the hotel King of Denmark.’ This hotel, Kongen af Danmark (The King of Denmark), was (and is) in the centre of Copenhagen. After the king once heard of a tumult in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, he remarked to the Icelandic High Commissioner in Copenhagen, Sveinn Bjornsson: ‘What the Icelanders need is a Mussolini!’ Mr Bjornsson politely replied: ‘And perhaps your Majesty would then like to be his Victor Emmanuel?’ The Italian king was small of stature (1.53 m) and not widely respected. When the millennium of the Icelandic Parliament was celebrated in 1930, King Christian X visited Iceland. He was introduced to local dignitaries, including the controversial and combative government minister Jonas Jonsson. The king said: ‘Ah, so it is you who play Mussolini in this country?’ Apparently, Jonsson was furious at the insult, but he restrained himself and replied: ‘Such a character is not needed in a country where Your Majesty reigns.’ It was also noted, although not of overriding importance, that at the 1930 festivities King Christian X defied the wish of the Icelandic government not to wear military uniforms.

Reading the king’s diary, my opinion of him as a person changed for the better, but I also understood more clearly why he did not contribute much to a continuing personal union between Denmark and Iceland. King Christian X was a more thoughtful, serious and conscientious man than I had realised. He wanted to perform his duties as King of Iceland as well as possible. But at the same time he looked down on the Icelanders, regarding them, it seems, as the proverbial poor cousins from the countryside. He did not appreciate their strong sense of national identity and their immense pride in their past, especially in their rich literary heritage, the sagas, chronicles and poems. The king had little sympathy with the desire of this tiny nation to obtain all the external symbols of independence such as a separate flag. This is amusingly illustrated by a discussion he once had with a Danish Navy Captain who had just returned from duty in the Icelandic waters (p. 151). ‘The Captain found the population in general to be rather ignorant. Everybody has read the sagas, and everybody knows them intimately. It is as if their natural stubbornness is nourished by the sagas, and this encourages the demagogues.’ In a discussion the king had with his Danish prime minister (p. 122), they both sighed over the audacity and arrogance of the Icelanders. They found them unable to recognise how hard the Danes were trying to accommodate them. The Icelanders would not get any real support elsewhere, the prime minister said, and the king concurred. If they chose Norway, then they would quickly be sidelined. If they chose Great Britain, then they would be overlooked and ignored. Therefore their best strategy was to go along with Denmark (not an unreasonable assumption at the time, I would comment).

Geopolitical and Cultural Considerations

The diary shows that King Christian X could hardly envisage a personal union between Denmark and Iceland without the Danish foreign service representing Iceland abroad and in effect conducting foreign policy for both countries. If this was not to be, he did not want to remain King of Iceland. He could not reign in two countries in possible conflict with one another. But it became obvious to the Icelanders already in the First World War that the geopolitical interests of their country could diverge from those of Denmark, as a glance of a map might reveal. When the war started in 1914, the United Kingdom dispatched a consul to Iceland who swiftly took control of trade with other countries, even if Denmark had declared her neutrality. During the war, the Icelandic government made trade deals directly with the British government despite the fact that formally Iceland was still a Danish dependency. The Danish government could not but accept this, because the Royal Navy controlled the North Atlantic and thus the lifeline to Iceland. This divergence in interests became more obvious during the Second World War: Nazi Germany occupied Denmark and Norway in April 1940 whereas a month later Great Britain occupied Iceland and the Faroe Islands in order to retain as much control of the North Atlantic as possible. In 1941, with the consent of Great Britain, a Defence Pact was negotiated between Iceland and the United States. The Americans undertook to defend the island and to replace the British force with their own military. Icelandic politicians decided that the safest course was to sever all political ties to Denmark. If the Germans would win the war, then Denmark would definitely be within their sphere of influence. If they were defeated, it was quite possible that Stalin’s Red Army would occupy Denmark. In either case, Iceland would not want to be in any way committed by decisions made in Copenhagen and not necessarily by the Danes themselves.

The decision to sever the remaining formal ties with Denmark and to repeal the 1918 Act of Union was therefore more a recognition of existing conditions than an attempt to break with the past or to reject friendship with Danes. Relations between Iceland and Denmark were quite good at this point in time, and King Christian X and his ministers were probably right that for the previous one hundred years Iceland could consider herself lucky to be attached to Denmark rather than to Norway or the United Kingdom. But there was an important difference between Iceland on the one hand and the British dominions on the other hand. Iceland had not been settled from Denmark, and while the Icelanders shared a long (and not always happy) history with the Danes, they did not speak Danish and their culture was not Danish. By contrast, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Australia and Canada were all settled from the British Isles and shared both the language and, in the main, the culture of their motherland. In spirit they were much closer to Great Britain than Iceland was to Denmark, as shown by the remarkable fact that in both world wars they all unquestioningly supported the United Kingdom and sent troops over half the globe. When Denmark was attacked in 1864, it would not have occurred to any Icelander to take up arms to defend her.

A Possibility, Not a Reality

However, at this point some counterfactual speculation becomes irresistible. Newfoundland is no longer a sovereign state, having in 1949 joined Canada after her bankruptcy, just like Scotland in 1707 joined England, Wales and Ireland in forming the United Kingdom to avert her impending bankruptcy. But three former British dominions, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, are certainly fully sovereign states. They conduct their own foreign policies and are nonetheless still monarchies. Why could Iceland and Denmark not make similar arrangements? The answer is that perhaps they could have, with a different personality on the throne and in different geopolitical circumstances. If Christian X had visited frequently (he only visited Iceland four times during his reign), and if he had been as sympathetic towards the Icelanders as was his father, King Frederick VIII, and if he had shown the same lively interest in all things Icelandic as did his son and daughter-in-law, Crown Prince Frederick and Crown Princess Ingrid, then he would without doubt have been much more popular in his second kingdom. Probably the Icelanders would then also have provided him with a permanent residence, the old governor’s house at Bessastadir where the President of Iceland now resides (this idea is briefly mentioned in the diary). And if Iceland and Denmark had both been members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, at the time the Act of Union was to be revised, the possibility of geopolitical conflicts would have been much less, if any. The Icelanders would then have been spared the regular spectacle of presidential elections which are essentially about nothing because the President just stepped into the role of the Danish king and is virtually powerless. Although the Icelanders are justly proud of their Commonwealth heritage when they had no king but the law, there is undeniably something more majestic about having a king than an elected president.

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