Left-wing historians in Iceland are trying to distort history. Here is an example....
In 2019, Routledge published a book on Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries. The chapter on Iceland was jointly written by History Professor Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir of the University of Iceland and her student Pontus Järvstad. I found this joint authorship somewhat surprising. Some years ago I pointed out an egregious error in Järvstad’s BA-thesis supervised by Kristjansdottir. The thesis was about the ‘discourse of anti-Communism and its influence on the history of Communism in Iceland during the interwar period’. In effect, Järvstad’s thesis was a critique of a study of Icelandic communism by one of Kristjansdottir’s colleagues, History Professor Thor Whitehead, and of another study by me. Whitehead and I had both published much-discussed books about the Icelandic communist movement (with which Kristjansdottir had a strong personal connection as her stepfather, Svavar Gestsson, trained in East Germany, was long a leading member first of the Socialist Unity Party and then the People’s Alliance, two successor parties of the Communist Party of Iceland). Järvstad held that Whitehead and I had written a ‘triumphalist’ narrative of communism which had led to ‘an extremely polarised understanding of history’. He said, furthermore, that it had led ‘to a denial of a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of the history of Communism’. In particular, Järvstad accused the two of us of having exaggerated the anti-democratic element in Icelandic communism.
Järvstad’s accusation was somewhat unfair because neither of us had intended to write a general history of Icelandic communism: Whitehead and I were both explicitly concerned with its anti-democratic element. But Järvstad gave an example. The Communist Party of Iceland, founded in 1930 and member of Comintern, the international organisation of communist parties, had in July 1932 organised a fighting force (Varnarlid verkalydsins). Whitehead had claimed that by organising such a fighting force the party was fulfilling one of the twenty-four conditions of admission to the Comintern. Järvstad said however: ‘Whitehead takes the Comintern resolution out of context and choses [sic] to ignore certain aspects of it. When one reads through the 21 Conditions one finds one condition that mentions the obligation to start a fighting group.’ He quoted this condition as follows:
3. In almost every country in Europe and America the class struggle is entering the phase of civil war. Under such conditions the Communists can place no faith in the bourgeois legality. … In all countries where a state of siege or emergency laws make it impossible for Communists to carry out all their work legally, it is absolutely necessary that legal and illegal activity be combined.
He then pointed out that the Communist Party of Iceland was legal. Thus, he asserted, there was no formal obligation on it to organise a fighting force, even if it eventually did so.
But as I pointed out publicly, Järvstad did not quote the third condition of admission to the Comintern correctly or in its entirety. The original German text within the deletion mark was the following: ‘Sie sind verpflichtet, überall einen parallelen illegalen Organisationsapparat zu schaffen, der im entscheidenden Moment der Partei helfen soll, ihre Pflicht gegenüber der Revolution zu erfüllen.’ Note the word ‘überall’, everywhere. An accurate translation into English of the third condition in its entirety, to be found for example in The Communist International 1919–1943: Documents, edited by Jane Degras and published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1955, is as follows:
In practically every country of Europe and America the class struggle is entering the phase of civil war. In these circumstances communists can have no confidence in bourgeois legality. They are obliged everywhere to create a parallel illegal organization which at the decisive moment will help the party to do its duty to the revolution. In all those countries where, because of a state of siege or of emergency laws, communists are unable to do all their work legally, it is absolutely essential to combine legal and illegal work.
This could hardly be clearer. The Communist Party of Iceland was obliged to create a ‘parallel illegal organisation’, and so it did. However, in Wikipedia and in some other places this third condition is mistranslated by leaving out the words ‘everywhere’ or ‘illegal’.
This was not only a grave error, but also scandalous scholarship. First, Järvstad did not bother to look up the third Comintern condition of admission in the German original or in a recognised translation into English. Nevertheless, he used his inaccurate version of the third condition to attack a History Professor at the University of Iceland and an acknowledged expert on communism. He alleged that Whitehead ‘takes the Comintern resolution out of context and choses [sic] to ignore certain aspects of it’. In the second place, his supervisor, Kristjansdottir, obviously did not bother, either, to check on the quotation even if it was used in an attack on one of her colleagues. Neither Kristjansdottir nor Järvstad has ever acknowledged the error, let alone apologised to Whitehead. Instead, we see now that Kristjansdottir accepts Järvstad as her co-author in the piece on Iceland published in Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries. It is difficult to interpret this as anything but an explicit endorsement of Järvstad’s unscholarly methods.
Moreover, in the piece in Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries there are several misrepresentations, errors or omissions. Kristjansdottir and Järvstad call an Icelandic Nationalist Movement founded in 1933 the ‘first Nazi party’ and tell their readers that it had ‘close relations with the conservative Sjálfstæðisflokkur (Independence Party, IP)’. This is inaccurate. This movement was not a Nazi party, as is obvious from its corporatist-nationalist manifesto. This is explicitly recognised by its historian, Asgeir Gudmundsson (whom Kristjansdottir and Järvstad quote). This movement tried, with scant success, to be to the Icelandic right something like the Fabian Society was to the British left. Founded on the initiative of an eccentric farmer in the North of Iceland, it was not really a political party and did not have any formal relations with the Independence Party, although some of its not-too-many members belonged to the Independence Party. It would also be inaccurate to characterise the Independence Party as conservative. It was a conservative-liberal, or centre-right party which arose with the 1929 merger of the old parties of Iceland’s independence struggle. One of its main tenets was a rejection of the notion of class struggle, introduced into Icelandic politics in 1916 when the Social Democratic Party and the agrarian Progressive Party were both established.
To be sure, there were fascist elements in this Nationalist Movement. (I would, like many other scholars, reserve the expression ‘Nazi’ for German fascism and use instead the word ‘fascism’ as the proper generic term.) But what happened in early 1934 was that the fascists within the Nationalist Movement split from it because they did not want to support the Independence Party in hotly contested municipal elections in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik where the choice seemed to be between that Party or the Left. Instead they founded the Nationalist Party (Flokkur thjodernissinna) and presented their own candidates in the elections. Their party received only 2.8 per cent of the votes and no seat on the Town Council, while the Independence Party received 49.3 per cent and kept its majority in the Town Council. (In the elections, the Communists received 8.0 per cent, the Social Democrats 32.7 per cent and the Progressive Party 7.1 per cent.)
The two crucial facts about Iceland’s only fascist party were therefore that it was formed in explicit opposition to the Independence Party, and that it had negligible support, in its first elections only one-third of the communist vote. In the parliamentary elections later in 1934 the Nationalist Party only received 0.7 per cent of the votes (while the Communist Party received 6 per cent). Three years later, in the 1937 parliamentary elections the Nationalist Party received 0.2 per cent of the votes (against 8.4 per cent for the Communists), and in the 1938 municipal elections in Reykjavik the Nationalist Party received 1.5 per cent of the votes. Not surprisingly, the Nationalist Party did not stand in elections after this, vanishing from the political field. It had in four elections from 1934 to 1938 been exposed as being what it really was: a group of young fantasists who liked to march around in uniforms, but with almost no support in the Icelandic population at large.
It is amazing in an historical study of anti-fascism in Iceland that Kristjansdottir and Järvstad do not make a clear distinction between the Nationalist Movement founded in 1933 which never came to anything much (it was in effect a debating club) and the Nationalist Party founded a year later which could plausibly be regarded as a fascist party, but which never was a significant factor in Icelandic politics. In 1934 the Nationalist Movement dissolved itself, some of its members joining political parties, mainly the Independence Party, others joining the Nationalist Party.
It is true that some activists in the Nationalist Party during its brief history in 1934–1938 later became prominent members of the Independence Party, including two members of parliament (economists Birgir Kjaran and David Olafsson). But this was because they had changed their views, just like some activists in Nordic communist parties changed their views and subsequently switched political allegiances, such as Swedish communists Zeth Höglund and Ture Nerman. Both joined Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, and Nerman became a vocal critic of the German Nazis, serving three months in prison during the war for his anti-Nazi writings (at a time when the Swedish government of national unity, led by the Social Democrats, went to great lengths to appease Nazi Germany). After the war, Nerman became engaged in the cultural struggle against communism and even wanted Sweden to join NATO. Some switched political allegiances differently. For example, two of the Nordic delegates to the 1922 Comintern Congress, Haakon Meyer from Norway and Nils Flyg from Sweden, became fascists. Incidentally, in their elaborate effort to link the Icelandic fascists to the Independence Party, Kristjansdottir and Järvstad mention that one leader of the Independence Party’s labour association ‘came from the Nazi movement’. Apparently, they do not know that this man (Sigurdur Halldorsson) had been a founding member of the Communist Party of Iceland before joining the Nationalist Party and subsequently the Independence Party.
This was not the only example of communism meeting fascism in Iceland. One of the most active anti-fascists in Iceland during the 1930s was journalist Hendrik Ottosson whom Kristjansdottir and Järvstad strangely do not mention. He married in 1938 a Jewish refugee, the seamstress Henny Goldstein, so that she could stay in Iceland. At the time, the Nazis among the Germans living in Iceland formed a party cell. One of the most ardent Nazis was Bruno Kress, a philologist on a grant from Ahnenerbe, the ‘research’ institute of Himmler’s SS. He was party member no. 3.401.317. When British forces occupied Iceland in 1940, Kress was apprehended and spent some time in detention until he was handed over to the Germans in a prison exchange in 1944. However, although he was married to an Icelandic woman and therefore could return to Iceland, after the War he decided to settle in East Germany where he joined the Communist Party. He became Director of the Nordic Institute at Greifswald University and befriended the many Icelandic communists who visited East Germany. In 1958, when he happened to be in Iceland he was invited to the sixtieth birthday party of communist leader Brynjolfur Bjarnason. There, to her great surprise Henny Goldstein-Ottosson ran into this man whom she had known in Iceland before the War as a devout Nazi. There was quite a scene at the party, although it was hushed down. Subsequently, Kress asked communist leader Einar Olgeirsson to write to a district leader of the Communist Party of East Germany, with assurances that he had never been a Nazi. Olgeirsson did so although he knew of course quite well about Kress’ Nazi past. I would have thought that this strange episode would have been relevant in a book about Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries. But perhaps it does not exactly strengthen the authors’ rejection of totalitarianism as an analytical tool.
Kristjansdottir and Järvstad make much of a few clashes on the streets of Reykjavik between young members of the Nationalist Party and young communists (and occasionally young social democrats). But these were insignificant skirmishes, mostly subject to ridicule in the press. Much more serious was the powerful, sustained and well-organised threat to law and order posed by the communists in the 1930s. Having in July 1932 organised a fighting force, on 9 November 1932 they mounted a fierce attack on the Reykjavik Town Council at its meeting place and managed to break up its meeting and to overpower the Reykjavik police (Gúttóslagurinn). Communist leader Brynjolfur Bjarnason could triumphantly write in a secret report to Comintern in Moscow: ‘The Fighting Force of the Communist Party managed to disarm the police, and many policemen are severely injured.’
Kristjansdottir and Järvstad are at pains to reject Whitehead’s thesis (shared by me) that the tiny Icelandic fascist party at least partly arose in response to the Communist Party, especially to the violence the communists perpetrated on the streets of Reykjavik and other Icelandic towns. But in fact no less than 23 Icelanders received training in secret Comintern camps or ‘revolutionary schools’ in Moscow between 1929 and 1938. They were taught to use arms, send coded messages, forge documents, organise street riots and engage in other subversive activities. Many of them used their training in fights against the understaffed and unarmed Icelandic police in the 1930s and 1940s. Although no policeman was killed in those fights, many were injured and some became permanent invalids. Whereas the tiny fascist group in Iceland did not have formal ties to fascist parties in other countries, the Communist Party of Iceland was not only a member of Comintern, but also received substantial financial assistance (and guidance) from Moscow, also after it in 1938 accepted some left-wing social democrats into its ranks and changed its name to the Socialist Unity Party.
Kristjansdottir and Järvstad try hard to establish the communists as the staunchest opponents of fascism in Iceland. This is of course partly true: In Iceland, as in many other European countries, fascists and communists clashed. But Kristjansdottir and Järvstad downplay the fact (although they mention it) that the position of the Icelandic communists towards fascism was far from being consistent. Between 1933 and 1935 the communists regarded social democrats as their chief opponents: they were ‘social fascists’, as the communists put it. The fight against fascists was then considered to be of secondary importance. This changed abruptly when Stalin, speaking through Georgi Dimitrov, in 1935 ordered communist parties everywhere to make the fight against fascism a priority and to form alliances with social democrats. The Icelandic communists followed this directive eagerly until 1939 when Stalin made the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. Then the Icelandic communists did yet another u-turn. Their most prominent spokesman, Halldor Laxness (later to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature), wrote that now national socialism had been reduced to a docile, harmless dog.
In their contribution to Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries, Kristjansdottir and Järvstad do not mention Laxness, but in fact he had been Iceland’s most prominent anti-fascist before the Non-Aggression Pact. His anti-fascism was however even more ambigous than that of his comrades. In late 1934, for example, Laxness was in Italy trying to promote his novels, writing privately to an Icelandic friend: ‘Here one only meets fascists and makes no fuss about it; when reindeers run with wolves, they have to howl.’ Again, Laxness and the communist leader Einar Olgeirsson were on the editorial board of the anti-fascist magazine Nordeuropa, mentioned elsewhere in Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries. In the first issue, Swedish novelist Vilhelm Moberg committed the grave sin of discussing Stalin’s terror. Laxness was asked for his response, and in a letter to a prominent Danish communist he wrote: ‘If I am in the future to have any connection with Nordeuropa, then I must insist that the forces hostile to the Soviet Union leave the editorial board because a stand against the Soviet Union implies support for fascism.’ It is indeed strange that Kristjansdottir and Järvstad do not touch upon any of this.
I could go into more detail, but the examples I have given suffice to show that in the piece by Kristjansdottir and Järvstad in Anti-Fascism in the Nordic Countries there are several misrepresentations, errors or omissions. Unfortunately, it appears that they have not learned anything from the egregious error about the Comintern which I pointed out some years ago. Their writings seem to be based on personal prejudices and on Wikipedia, Google and other such secondary and unreliable sources, and not on meticulous archival research.