Iceland: self-image after crisis

Sumarliði Ísleifsson
27 April 2009

The financial implosion of 2008-09 in Iceland, felt at every level of this society, has now had a political answer. The general election of 24 April 2009 shows a substantial increase in the centre-left vote, enough to produce a government of a different colour. 

How different it will be in practice remains to be seen. Iceland's economic problems run deep, and the next government's task is a big one. At the same time, no one expects politicians to produce instant answers to the issues of debt, unemployment and poverty the country faces. 

Many Icelanders are already looking for answers in other areas, including the skills and resources that were neglected during the boom years. In my view, this process of recovery could also benefit from renewed debate about prevailing national self-images. A look at how Icelanders' ways of seeing themselves have evolved (and persisted) through the island's history may offer some insight into their current predicament. What is interesting in this process is that - as so often with small countries - it begins with outsiders' perception of the Icelanders.

The far land

The few literary descriptions of Iceland that have survived from the early modern period reveal a marked tendency to call the people of this land uncivilised (even only half-human). Such narratives bolstered the image of Iceland - and to a degree the whole of Europe's northern periphery - as very much "other".

Sumarliði Ísleifsson is a historian, writer, and editor who works at the ReykjavíkurAkademíunnar                                 His recent and current research projects include studies of changing images of Iceland, pilgrimage from Iceland in the middle ages, and the history of trade unions in Iceland

This lasted until at least the late 18th century, though in the particular case of Iceland, a number of factors - the smallness of the population, complete lack of power, distance from western European centres, and location as an island in the high north - contributed to the creation of utopian as well as dystopian images: the notion of a wonder-island, even a paradise, existed as well as that of a devils' island.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, new and more positive images of the country and people emerged in response to increased nationalism and romanticism in western and northern Europe. Icelanders started to be described as innocent, noble savages. By the late 19th century, the demand for "timeless" places in the midst of a changing world and the need to frame the idea of a unique Nordic cultural heritage in relation to a southern European one recast Iceland as a new type of "other": the Hellas of the north. Tacitus's depiction of the lives of the ancient Germans was a point of reference in describing Icelandic rural customs; the "saga" period of Icelandic history was compared to the Greek and Roman "golden age", with the narratives of heroic Viking deeds and the intellectual achievement represented by the sagas themselves playing an important role. 

These later national images of Iceland were very influential among many educated people in western Europe until the second world war; not least in Nazi Germany, where discussions about the "holy island in the north" were not uncommon. Some of their traces lasted well beyond 1945, a subject that extends beyond the scope of this brief article.

The other as creator

The early attempts by Icelandic authors to write about Iceland and its national character were typically a response to the dominant European "othering". From the medieval period to the Enlightenment, some Icelandic authors tried to "write back" against dystopian images of the country - emphasising that Icelanders were not complete barbarians. This effort was more or less in vain until the 19th century, when the more positive images of Iceland opened up new opportunities for less reactionary self-images. This change is evident in Icelandic literature from the late 19th century: poems, schoolbooks, handbooks for travellers and interviews in foreign magazines. A journal for foreign visitors called The Tourist in Iceland, published in Reykjavík in 1893, is exemplary:

"In the first place we have a saga or history unique as it were ... We possess a literature of our own which we may say is the admiration of the civilised world ... In the second place we possess a very interesting and highly cultivated language ... In the third place, especially during summer, we possess a most salubrious climate, invigorating pure and healthy. Our scenery is unique ... Such is briefly stated the country which we now are going to open to our foreign readers."

During the struggle for independence from the late 19th century onwards, this was the image of Iceland that Icelandic intellectuals and nationalists cultivated through the school system, the press, and in literature.

A well-known intellectual in Iceland from the first half of the 20th century, Guðmundur Finnbogason, devoted much research into understanding the character of his people. His work on the matter - published in English in 1943 under the title The Icelanders - was greatly influenced by the American geographer Ellsworth Huntington, in particular the latter's views on the relationship between climate and culture. Finnbogason cited Huntington to argue that the settlers of Iceland were "a most gifted group [of] an uncommonly able race" from whom "there were selected first those who loved freedom more than the favour of kings, and second those who were inclined to try their chances in a new and difficult land ... Thus it was the best of the best who founded Iceland and they created there what [James] Bryce calls ‘an almost unique community whose culture and creative power flourished independently of any favouring material conditions and indeed under conditions in the highest degree unfavourable'" (the reference is to James Bryce's preface to Jón Stefánsson, Denmark and Sweden with Iceland and Finland [London, 1916]).

Finnbogason argued that the environment was in turn vital in shaping the Icelandic character: "The influence of the country seems to be in the direction of stimulating a strong national consciousness and characteristic culture, versatility, self-reliance, independence and an egalitarian turn of mind, manliness, tenacity and equanimity in emergencies, alertness of mind and imaginative power."

Many Icelanders took this image - one partly characterised by ideas of superiority and racism - to their hearts; it became one of the most prevalent among Icelanders in the decades before and after independence in 1944. But at the same time, different and almost equally potent self-images to the one promoted by Guðmundur Finnbogason and others were available. These were infused by a deep sense of inferiority. Iceland was seen as the poorest of the poor, the smallest of the small, the most backward of the backward, lacking almost everything that cultivated nations in the western world could offer.

The texts by Finnbogason and other authors praising the qualities of the Icelanders should be read in this light: as an attempt to increase confidence, to encourage the small and unconsidered to develop a voice and live up to the noble ideal. These efforts were central to the self-imagining nation-building rhetoric of late 19th- and 20th-century Icelanders.

The roots of success

The sixty-six years that have passed since Finnbogason published his article span the years of Iceland's existence as an independent nation in the world. The development of the official national self-images of the Icelanders in this period is a large question which, again, this brief reflection can only hint at. But the views of the president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson - now in his fourth term of office after being re-elected in 2008 - can be taken as representative here, in that he has been especially active in portraying Iceland and its economic "model" to the world in many speeches and interviews during his (to date) almost thirteen years in office.

Also on Iceland in openDemocracy:

Tobias Munthe, "Iceland: ‘It will fix itself'" (14 January 2009)

His comments about the intensive investments made by Icelandic businessmen in parts of Europe in the 2000s are particularly revealing. In a speech at London's Walbrook Club on 3 May 2005, for example, the president explained this proclivity with reference to the Icelandic national character: "We are succeeding because we are different". He went on to tell his audience that he is going to offer them a "list of a dozen or so of elements that I believe have been crucial to Iceland's success story ... a guide to the ground in which achievements are rooted".

Among these elements are: that Icelanders have "a strong work ethic"; that they "go straight to the task and do the job in the shortest time possible"; that "Icelanders are risk-takers. They are daring and aggressive"; that they lack "tolerance for bureaucratic methods"; that they have a "strong element of personal trust"; that they are flexible and form easily "small groups of operators"; that the boss himself or herself stands in the frontline; that they have a "heritage of discovery and exploration"; that they value the "importance of personal reputation", as "rooted in the medieval Edda poems"; that "creativity [is] rooted in the old Icelandic culture".

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson - whose speech was entitled "How to Succeed in Modern Business: Lessons from the Icelandic Voyage" - argued that all this explains why Icelandic business companies "win where others either failed or did not dare to enter. Our entrepreneurs have thus been able to move faster and more effectively, to be more original and more flexible, more reliable but also more daring than many others."

The end of silence

This kind of discourse was understandable a century or even six decades ago; again, it is a common part of the nation-building efforts of small states in the early years of independence or which aspire to that status. It was helpful for a colony that sought its sovereignty and dignity to have arguments to convince the world that - even as the smallest of the small, the poorest of the poor - it was worth being counted among civilised people. All the better if it could be claimed that this tiny nation was of importance for the surrounding world, even that its people were in some respects superior.

By the 21st century, however, and in a world completely different from that of 1909 or 1949, it might be expected that the discourse of leading politicians would have changed. Instead, Icelandic politicians promoted an image that praised arrogance and risk-taking based on the heritage of a Viking people settled in the high north, and that extends the notion of Icelandic superiority over others. This discourse, insofar as those who believed in and promoted it allowed it to influence their judgments, must be accounted as having made some contribution to the severe financial shock that hit Iceland in 2008-09.

The persistence of the boastful self-image and its adaptation to new contexts may in part be the result of the lack of discussion of the issue in the post-1944 decades. In those years, the independence struggle found new causes to feed on which captured the national imagination: the demand to have medieval manuscripts returned from Copenhagen, and then the fight for the 200-mile fishing-zone around the country. It may in part be related to the survival of the sense of inferiority; or perhaps it is a residue of the phenomenon that we see what we have been taught to see, and sometimes even, in Jaakko Lehtonen's words, "see things that are not really there".

The endurance of this powerful discourse of Icelandic superiorism is probably owed to a combination of all these factors. In any event, the country's economic collapse makes discussion of the self-images of the Icelanders freshly relevant. Now that Iceland has made a new beginning in politics, the search for new self-understandings is also timely as the country faces the future. 

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