Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Republic of Iceland. Last year, the nation celebrated 100 years of sovereignty, and on the occasion recalled its history, the events which led to its becoming a sovereign state, and the meaning of sovereignty in our time. After an entire year of celebratory speeches and events, it might seem like watering your garden after the rain to look back once more over the history of the past three-quarters of a century. Yet this day is nonetheless the anniversary of the republic which is now 75 years of age - and calls for a backward look.
We can be sure that if the typical Icelandic pair, Jón and Sigga, of former times could travel in a time machine from the year 1944 to the year 2019 they would find an incredible number of changes. In 1944 only 125,000 people lived in the entire country. Icelanders jumped straight into the modern age around the time the republic was born, with hydropower development, paved roads and bridge-building. The industrialisation which commenced in the 18th century in neighbouring countries arrived on the scene here in full force at the beginning of the 20th century. Our society soon ranked among the most highly industrialised in the world, after an unbelievably rapid transition from poverty to exceptional economic well-being. It is also a century since the first Icelandic airplane began flights in Reykjavík, launching an industry which is now of major significance for the country’s economy.
Jón and Sigga would be astonished at the modern conveniences, restaurants, theatres, concert halls, smart phones, televisions and computers. No doubt they would feel as if they had become characters in a science fiction tale where nothing was the same any more. But the truth is that humans are always changing and developing. The history of the Icelandic republic has also had its ups and downs. The economic situation has fluctuated in tandem with fishing catches, aluminum prices and tourist numbers, with regular periods of feast and famine characterising economic history. But we have made progress all the same.
Less than an entire lifetime ago a woman close to me, born a year after the Republic was established, lost her father in the town of Hveragerði. Her mother was left a widow with a family to raise, and the town's citizens decided to hold a collection for the widow, who had scant means of support, to relieve her dire situation. While this story bears witness to the positive solidarity of Icelanders in time of need, it also reminds us of the advances our society has made: its social security, healthcare institution, schools, culture. All of this infrastructure we have constructed, creating a society which is among the world's foremost in terms of equality and well-being.
If we face somewhat of a headwind in economic terms today, we are in good shape to deal with those cold gusts. The years since the financial collapse have been used to reinforce economic management, pay down debts and expand infrastructure. We will present a united front to weather all the varieties of economic climate with faith in the future, as we have done throughout the history of our republic.
Although many tangible things have changed in 75 years, attitudes have changed no less. Shortly after Iceland became a republic, the author Dr Benjamin Spock published his work Baby and Child Care, which would transform ideas on child raising. Almost overnight, it became acceptable for parents to be more sympathetic and affectionate with their children, even the boys, in contrast to earlier ideas advocating, for instance, allowing them to cry themselves out to make them grow up stronger. We may well be facing a similar change of direction today, when children and youth make greater demands than ever that their voices be taken into account in contemporary political debate - as is clearly visible in the weekly school strikes for climate action on this very spot.
Because everything, in fact, can change, even that which seemed inscribed in stone. It has now become clear to almost everyone what impact humans have on the atmosphere. And the younger generation is now demanding clearly that older generations do everything humanly possible now to combat this looming catastrophe. The government has laid out its vision to make Iceland carbon-neutral no later than by 2040, and to have the country fulfil its international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The first stage of the government’s action plan focuses on energy conversion in transport and increasing carbon sequestration. At the same time, it is absolutely essential to review this plan regularly, to accelerate the conversion.
Sigga and Jón would scarcely have foreseen all of this, but the establishment of the republic is rooted in the nation's strong solidarity - that same solidarity which we need now to achieve success in our struggle with major challenges, such as the catastrophic warming which now threatens all of us. Because we believe in the future just as those Icelanders believed in the future when they declared the country a republic. That decision has been to our great fortune. And that is what the balance of history is about. Creating consensus among people living today on decisions which will prove advantageous in the future, even if we cannot foresee all the changes which will take place or exactly who we will be then.
In an age when we are all on-line and new messages steadily appear on our screens, there is a danger that few things are too small for them not to appear in the digital world, while at the same time, what in fact is most important loses significance, and those hours we devote to it grow fewer. Everything becomes much of the same in the digital world, the scandals of today fade away with astonishing rapidity regardless of their scope and import. The risk is that what really matters may be drowned out in the everyday noise - everything becomes monotonous.
In the monotony what is dearest to us loses its importance in comparison with other less significant matters and events. This affects politics, where major issues and minor become all stirred together. Technological change has exaggerated this situation, as the social media discussion creates an urgent demand for response to the issues of the hour, but neglects to pay heed to the larger questions which will change our society in the longer term.
Much that politics concerns does not seem to be conducive to changing values or having a real impact on people’s lives. But political decisions can change the lives of many. Bridging the gap in childcare, by lengthening childbirth leave, changes the lives of parents with young children. Ensuring that childbirth leave is shared between mothers and fathers has altered the attitude of an entire generation, which now sees it only natural and appropriate that children enjoy the love and care of both parents. (What would Dr Benjamin Spock have had to say about that?) Creating a substantial social housing system changes the lives of people struggling with housing insecurity. It alters the lives of children worried about where they will live in a few months’ time. Decisions taken now on energy conversion in transport and increased carbon sequestration will change the lives of generations to come, who will judge our doings from their impact on the environment and atmosphere in the future.
Although it was a hard struggle to achieve Icelandic independence, once a long time has elapsed since the fight was won, we tend to get a bit complacent. It’s easy to forget that the democracy which was achieved 75 years ago with the founding of the Republic of Iceland, is not a matter of course. Democracy can perhaps be likened to a middle-aged couple, thinking of buying a motorcycle or taking up mountaineering ̶ like them, democracy can sometimes seem to be seeking a new purpose in life, in a world where doubts are expressed about political parties, national parliaments and other democratic institutions every single day. We should not forget that over 80% of Icelanders head for the polling station in national elections, even when they are held at intervals of only a year, Because it is the role of all of us to represent the entire nation, not just our own voters, to safeguard these democratic institutions and ensure they work properly for the benefit of all citizens.
Icelandic history is a history of interacting with the outside world. We may be an island, but as the saying goes, no man is an island entire of itself. Since the country was settled we have been constant travellers, pursuing commerce and trade, seeking culture and art, or for less than noble purposes of which we seldom boast nowadays. Icelandic culture is a product of international interaction and exchange, despite being also unique in many respects. Iceland's place in the community of nations needs to be assessed regularly, but one thing history can teach us: It is important to stand up for ourselves, and protect what we possess, our land, language and culture. And at the same time to recall that we are a sovereign nation and, as such, can interact with any other on equal footing. We cannot preserve our sovereignty by fleeing from others, with the risk of ending up like Bjartur of Sumarhús, who left one dwelling place only to find himself in another even worse. Let us face other nations on equal terms, and in so doing secure the interests of our citizens.
This past month the weather has smiled on us, prompting many people to share with others images of our fair country and people at work and play. Although a Prime Minister may sometimes be scolded by foreigners, who feel the border security's treatment of their football team could be more agile, it is much more common to hear comments abroad of Iceland's unique beauty, enviable lifestyle and hard-working people.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Republic of Iceland. As we celebrate our common history, and all the positive achievements since 17 June 1944, we need to look forward and deal with the challenges ahead. Seldom has it been more important to stand up for sovereignty and democracy, and the values of the people who worked to achieve independence for Iceland. Climate change and new technology have had, and will continue to have, a major impact on society and democracy. As Icelanders, our position as a small nation who can have a strong voice gives us opportunities. What we do makes a difference in the international community and for ourselves. What we do makes a difference for those of here today, but also for the generations to come. Let us then show the world that Iceland has the confidence, the will and the ability to do so.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.