Chronicles of Iceland: A Colorful Glimpse into a Thousand-Year Legacy

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Iceland had a colorful history ever since the first settlers came from Northern Europe in the 9th Century. Erik the Red, exiled for murder, settled in Greenland. Other Viking explorers reached the New World centuries before Columbus. Denmark eventually ruled over Iceland, granting its independence in the 1940s. After the United States safeguarded Iceland during World War II, astronauts trained there. Iceland had a significant role in the creation of Israel. It also had the first woman president.


Iceland is the only European country that remembers its beginnings as a nation.  

The North Atlantic island first began to form millions of years ago. Iceland’s first history book, The Book of Settlements, tells the story of the first settlers in 874. 

It was the age of the Vikings, fierce sailors from Northern Europe. The first settlers of Iceland were Norse and Celtic. In the thirteenth century, Norway took over, later passing control to Denmark. Denmark controlled Iceland until its independence in the 1940s. 

Greenland and the New World 

Erik the Red, exiled from Iceland for killing a few people, started a colony in Greenland. Greenland is the world’s largest island and not very green. Nonetheless, Erik’s band of explorers did settle on a piece of fertile real estate. Inuits lived far away in Northern Greenland.

The Vikings also sailed westward. Archeologists found a Norse settlement in Newfoundland. Nonetheless, the settlement was short-lived. Permanent European settlement of the New World (Native Americans had already been there for quite some time) would have to wait.

The Viking settlement in Greenland died out in the 15th Century. A variety of reasons caused the decline of their settlement. Climate change, the Black Death, the exhaustion of trade goods, and other factors contributed. Danish settlement returned later. 

Greenland today is self-governing. Denmark still controls foreign affairs and other matters. Denmark sold another American territory, the Virgin Islands, to the United States.  

World War II 

Iceland was on the road to independence when World War II broke out. 

The Allies were concerned that it was a prime target for Germany. Germany aimed to control North Atlantic shipping and force Great Britain to surrender. Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, already visited the island. The English took over Iceland. 

Great Britain was busy trying to keep the Germans at bay after the fall of France. Denmark was now under control of Nazi Germany. The United States took the responsibility of taking care of Iceland off their hands. The U.S. later leased a military base there.  

Birth of Israel 

The Jews have forlornly dreamt of returning to their ancient homeland in Palestine ever since the Romans conquered them in the First Century BCE. Zionism, the movement for a Jewish state, had a real chance of happening with British control after World War I.  

The road to nationhood was messy, especially with the opposition of the other residents of Palestine. Iceland’s ambassador to the United States and first permanent representative to the United Nations played a significant role in the final agreement to create the nation of Israel. Iceland was part of a set of neutral countries that handled the final arrangements.  

Iceland’s representative was Thor Thors. Yes, that was his name.  

Cold War 

Iceland regularly played a significant role during the Cold War.

The United States took part in a Space Race with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had many “firsts.” They had Sputnik, the first satellite in space. Would the United States have the first moon landing? If we had the first man on the moon, they needed a place to train in moon-like conditions. Helpfully, Iceland had desolate desert areas that were perfect.  

Sports from ancient times provided a peaceful means of international competition. The United States and the Soviet Union clashed in multiple games. The famous “Do you believe in miracles” hockey win by the Americans came after a very controversial loss in a basketball game. Bobby Fischer’s chess battle in Iceland with Boris Spassky was another American triumph.

President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had a summit meeting (meeting between governments) in Reykjavík, Iceland. The 1986 meeting between the leaders of the two superpowers eventually broke down. Nonetheless, the two sides had a productive conversation and built up trust. They signed the  Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. 

First Woman President 

There were multiple “firsts” in women’s leadership throughout the world. Prime ministers in Great Britain, India, Israel, and Pakistan have been women. Iceland had the first woman elected by a national public vote. The United States shows how hard that can be. 

Vigdís Finnbogadottir was a divorced single mother. Her mother led Iceland’s national nurses association, and her father was a civil engineer. Vigdís studied in France when only nineteen women had graduated from the University of Iceland.  

Vigdís later became the director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company. Her pioneer run for the presidency, a largely ceremonial role in Iceland, surprised many people. On the other hand, a woman whose first name means “war goddess” was a suitable first for the nation of Iceland.

Her first successful run was in 1980. When will the United States have a woman president?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.