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Iceland’s Road to Independence

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Each year on the 17th of June, Icelanders across the globe celebrate the independence of Iceland.

In 1944, The Republic of Iceland was formed. June 17th was chosen as the National Day to coincide with the birth date of Jón Sigurðsson who was a strong and tireless leader who helped pave the way for independence. To read more about Jón Sigurðsson, click HERE or order a book written by Jónas Þór: A Monument in Manitoba: How a Memorial to Icelandic Patriot Jón Sigurðsson United His People.

The independence of Iceland is unique in several ways. The year of independence was not until 1944. Secondly, the country was controlled, occupied, and influenced by many and much larger countries for many years (1262 – 1944) yet amazingly, they succeeded in preserving their unique traditions and rich culture. Another reason that gaining their independence was so unique is that Iceland’s independence was brought about by peaceful negotiations and legal means — not by bloodshed and war.

The following are just some highlights of Iceland’s Road to Independence with references to the connections to America.

From the initial settlement of Iceland in the 870s through 1222, the military force in Iceland was composed of the various chieftains and their clans. There were blood feuds and clashes between people and chieftains. This era lasted until about 1222 when these clan wars became very violent. My 17th Great Grandfather (and most likely your ancestor, too) is Snorri Sturluson. He was a great chieftain, historian, and poet. He worked with the Norwegian King Haakon to unite the countries but Haakon had our ancestor killed on 23 Sep 1241. Nancy Marie Brown has written an amazing book about Snorri. The years from 1222 – 1264 were called the Age of the Sturlungs and ended when Norway and Iceland were united.

Iceland thereafter was ruled by foreign kings, beginning with King Haakon IV of Norway. In the late 1300s, Iceland and Norway were united with Denmark and the Danish crown took control of Iceland. These years were especially difficult for our Icelandic ancestors. The Danish trade monopoly was enforced and many other social, health, environmental, and political issues strained the Icelandic people. In the year 1550, the Danish crown forced religious changes and took control of all the church lands which caused even more extreme problems and poverty throughout the land. I wrote a story about our ancestor, Reverend Jón Arason. He was beheaded in 1550 for not agreeing to the Danish rules about the churches in Iceland. You can read that story HERE. In the years that followed, there were poor harvests, volcanic eruptions, illnesses, and many more disasters.

Just a few of the examples from history, in 1808, English raiders came but the Icelandic people did not have enough weapons or gunpowder to fight. In 1855, an army was established in Iceland by a sheriff from Vestmannæyjar (Westmann Islands). The Danish King even sent some money to buy guns for this army. In 1869, the army was once again in disarray and it did not have a leader.

A great trailblazer in fighting for Iceland’s independence was Jón Sigurðsson. He was born in 1811 and he emerged as a leader to begin a great national awakening in Iceland. It was a long fought battle in the political arena. Iceland’s champion, Jón Sigurðsson, became a national hero for his work on fighting for independence. That is why his birthday was chosen as the same day as the Icelandic National Day – – June 17th.

In 1874, church services were held all over Iceland to celebrate the millennium of Iceland’s settlement and for the Danish King to present Iceland with a new limited constitution. At these church services, the Icelandic National Anthem Ó, Guð Vors Lands (Our Country’s God) was performed. The text for the sermons was Psalm 90: l-4, 12-17. This text was the inspiration for the National Anthem. Rev. Matthías Jochumsson (1835-1920) wrote the lyrics and the music was composed by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1926).

You can listen to the song and see the Icelandic text with English translation here:

This anthem was first performed at a church service in Reykjavík on Sunday, August 2, 1874. King Christian IX of Denmark was in Iceland for the millennium celebration. He had decreed that the Icelandic Parliament should be in session from 01 – 07 of August. On that Sunday, August 2nd, he requested that every church in the land have a service and that he would present Iceland with a new limited constitution. Jón Sigurðsson did not attend that session of Parliament but he advised the leaders to accept the constitution, even though it was inadequate, because it was a step in the right direction. But he cautioned the people never to down their desire for independence. His by word was “Aldrei ad vikja” (Never let down).

A small group of Icelandic people who immigrated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the early 1870s also held a celebration on the same day – August 2, 1874, to celebrate this event. It is known that the Icelandic community of Winnipeg held the first celebration on the second of August in the year 1890 and called it, “The Day of the Icelanders.” While August the second was never declared a legal national holiday in Iceland, this day was celebrated whenever and however small the settlement was, whether in Canada or the United States by the Icelandic settlers who called the second of August, “The Day of the Icelanders.” Here in our area, it is called the ”Second of August” or ”Deuce of August” Celebration. The website for our event is and you can also find us on Facebook.

Home rule for the Icelandic people was not granted until 1904. Under home rule, Iceland now could govern themselves. The new government was located in Reykjavík. The Icelandic Alþingi was recognized and able to form their own government. However, Denmark kept control of foreign affairs, defense, and other government interests. Iceland started building their own fleet of merchant ships and used this crowned silver falcon on a blue background as their flag. If you want to learn more about the history of flags in Iceland, click HERE.

In 1918, Iceland regained sovereignty as a separate kingdom but still under the Danish King. Iceland established a Coast Guard shortly afterwards but could not financially have an army. The government hoped that by taking a neutral position, it would protect them from any other country’s aggression. When WWII began, the government became very worried about a possible invasion. They expanded the Icelandic National Police force into a military unit of 60 officers but Britain invaded Iceland on 10 May 1940 before they had added any further numbers to their unit.

One month earlier, in April of 1940, Nazi Germany gained control and occupied Denmark. The government of Iceland voted to take control of foreign affairs at that time. Following the German invasion of both Denmark and Norway, the British government was very worried that soon Germany would take control of Iceland, too. The British military came to Iceland on 10 May 1940 and the Canadians sent troops shortly afterward.

While all this was going on, Iceland had been building a new University. The University Building was consecrated on 17 June 1940 and was regarded as one of the most magnificent buildings in the country at that time.

Iceland entered into a defense agreement with the United States by 1941. At this time, the British troops were needed in other places more urgently and Iceland was happy to have them leave because they had been controlling the trade ships that came to Iceland. In 1941, there were about 120,000 people living in Iceland.

Communications between the US government and the Iceland government continued and US troops landed in Iceland on 15 Sep 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s message to the US Congress regarding the military occupation of Iceland can be read on this LINK. Part of it states, “The United States promise to recognize the absolute independence and sovereignty of Iceland … and to not interfere with the Government of Iceland neither while their armed forces remain in this country nor afterwards.”

There were quite a few incidents of US ships being attacked near Iceland by German U-boats before the US entered into the war officially. The boats that are most famous for their injuries include the Navy vessels, USS Greer and USS Kearny before USA declared war. The Kearny was docked at Reykjavík and she left Iceland along with three other destroyers to go help a convoy of Canadian escorts that were being overwhelmed by German U-Boats. 11 US Navy men were killed and 22 were injured. Time magazine reported 27 Oct 1941, that “on the chilled hell’s highway of the north Atlantic, the U.S. last week lost the illusion that it was not engaged in a shooting war. The illusion faded when the U.S.S. Kearny (rhymes with Blarney), a crack destroyer scarcely a year in service, was torpedoed.” Read more: – Sailor was among first casualties. The front page of The New York Times on 18 Oct 1941 had more about the Kearny attack. While escorting a different convoy, the Navy ship, the USS Reuben James, was sunk by German U-Boats killing 115 men. A song was made about the Reuben James – HERE. The USA officially entered WWII in December of 1941.

By a referendum held on 23 May 1944 a new constitution was adopted and Iceland became fully independent on 17 June 1944. On that very first day, the United States was the first country to recognize Iceland’s independence. To this day, Iceland’s Independence Day is celebrated on the 17th of June.

Happy National Day, Iceland!

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