History of Iceland, 1840s to the Second World War

Even though Iceland remained under Danish rule, the Icelandic ‘Althing’ was restored in 1845 as a national consultative assembly, and in 1874 the country obtained a constitution giving the Althing its own legislative power. Home rule was introduced in 1904, and in 1918 Iceland became an independent and sovereign state in personal union with Denmark. Among other things, the union meant a joint monarchy and that Denmark was responsible for Iceland's foreign affairs. The union came to an end in 1944.

2019.09.11 | Agnes Arnórsdóttir

The modern flag of Iceland, which was adopted in 1918 when Iceland gained independence from Denmark. It was officially recognised in the Law of the National Flag of Icelanders and the State Arms in 1944 when Iceland became a republic. Photo: Public Domain.

Iceland’s independence in the 19th century

Due to growing Icelandic nationalism, a royal decree was issued in 1843 to restore the Althing. The first election was held in 1844, and in Reykjavik on July 1 in 1845. In the summer of 1845, the elected Althing met for the first time in Reykjavík and, in the following decades, the Althing was held for several weeks every two years with representatives from all over Iceland. In the beginning, the Althing had no legislative power, but was only advisory to the Danish king in Icelandic financial and legal matters. The revival can be seen as a response to a budding demand emerging in the 1830s for national sovereignty and independence. It coincided with Icelandic students in Copenhagen expressing their wish for Iceland to have a more independent status in relation to Denmark. This wish was reinforced in 1849, when absolute monarchy ended. However, in 1851 the Althing rejected a proposal from the Danish state for an Icelandic constitution.

The Icelandic nationalist movement was led by Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879). He came to Copenhagen in 1833 to study and lived there all his life. In addition to his political work, he was affiliated to the Arnamagnean Collection at the University of Copenhagen in order to investigate and publish Icelandic manuscripts. The collective memory of his significance in the struggle for independence remains strong, and Iceland's national day is celebrated every year on his birthday, June 17.

In 1871, the Danish Parliament adopted a new law on Iceland's constitutional status. The Danish government subsequently gave Iceland its own constitution with effect from 1 August 1874. Thus, Iceland gained increased autonomy, but executive power was still in Danish hands. To a large extent, the Constitutional Act of 1874 still forms the basis of the current Icelandic constitution.

In Icelandic history, 1874 was an important year in which 1000 years of Nordic settlement in the country was celebrated. On that occasion, Christian IX (born 1818, regent 1863-1906) visited the country, the first Danish king to do so. He was welcomed sailing into Reykjavík aboard the Frigate Jutland, but, despite the royal visit, the demand for increased independence was still relevant. The Althing had been given limited legislative power, but the executive power remained with the Danish government in Copenhagen. In 1874, a Ministry for Iceland was established, headed by the Danish Minister of Justice. In Iceland, a Danish governor sat as the highest royal authority in the country. This was changed in 1904 when the demand for more independence was met; a system of home rule was introduced based in Reykjavík, and an Icelander was appointed Minister of Iceland.

Icelandic society and home rule 1904-1918

Socially, Iceland experienced major changes during the 19th century. Due to a large population growth, the social system partially broke down and the country could barely feed its population through traditional agriculture and fishery. The changes were particularly drastic in the second half of the 19th century, as population pressure led many to emigrate to North America, while cities and villages along the coast began to grow. The new century saw the start of engines being used on fishing boats, and the new technology quickly replaced the old open rowboats. Increased prosperity followed, urbanisation took off at full speed, and a great need arose to reorganise the political system based on a more modern society.

Both women and workers received full civil rights in the first decades of the 20th century, and in 1904 Iceland changed from being part of Denmark to having home rule. However, the political power struggle was not over. The country was still regarded as an integral part of the Danish kingdom, and the following years were characterised by strong nationalism. In 1908, Icelandic voters rejected an accord regarding the status of the country reached between the Althing and the Danish parliament, but Icelandic and Danish parliamentarians managed to resolve the crisis by the end of World War I. In November 1918, a Danish-Icelandic law was passed in both parliaments which came into force on December 1, 1918. Thus, Iceland had become a free and sovereign state in personal union with Denmark.

On December 1st, 1918, a Danish-Icelandic federal law was passed in both parliaments, establishing Iceland as an independent state in personal union with Denmark. Photo: The National Museum of Iceland.

The personal union between Iceland and Denmark, 1918-1944

On November 30, 1918, the Danish Parliament passed an Act of Union (Forbundsloven) whereby Denmark recognised Iceland as an independent, sovereign state in personal union with Denmark. The main elements of the union were the joint monarchy and Denmark’s responsibility for Iceland's foreign affairs and the coast guard. Section 18 of the Act of Union contained a provision that, after the end of 1940, both parties could require that a revision of the Act be negotiated. If the negotiations did not lead to a new agreement within three years, both parties would have the right, subject to more specific provisions, to unilaterally abolish the union.

In 1940, Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and Britain occupied Iceland. The following year, American soldiers replaced the English by agreement with the Icelandic home rule administration. With the German occupation of Denmark in 1940, Denmark was prevented from fulfilling its obligations under the 1918 Act of Union which is why the Althing decided that, for the time being, the Icelandic government would exercise the authority of the King and take over foreign affairs. In 1944, Iceland wanted to have the issue of its constitutional status and the question of full independence settled, but negotiations with Denmark could not be conducted because of the situation during the war. The Danish government wanted to maintain the union, but not if it was opposed by Iceland. From an Icelandic point of view, the personal union was never considered anything but a temporary scheme supposed to last for 25 years. The Althing decided on June 16, 1944 to abolish the 1918 Act, and the following day the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland was declared.

Iceland did not participate directly in World War II, yet it had a great impact on the country's population and political conditions. Iceland entered into a defence agreement with the United States, and US forces undertook to defend the country. British forces remained, however, until after the war, but the agreement with the Americans proved to be of great significance in the following decades; the American sphere of influence included Iceland.

The personal union was dissolved by Iceland following a referendum in Iceland in May 1944; more than 98% were in favour of a repeal of the union. On 17 June 1944, Iceland was declared an independent republic.

Read about the next chapter in Iceland’s history by clicking on the link to the next article: Iceland from 1944.

In connection with the 2018 centenary of Iceland being heralded as an independent, sovereign state, the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a video recounting the key historical events which you can see below:

Further Reading:

  • Guðmundur Hálfdánarson, Historical Dictionary of Iceland (European Historical Dictionaries; 1997).
  • Gunnar Karlsson, Iceland´s 1100 Years. The History of a Marginal Society (United Kingdom: Hurst & Co, 2000).
  • Thanks go to danmarkshistorien.dk for allowing us to translate this article. Read this article in Danish on danmarkshistorien.dk.  
The Quick Read, Agnes Arnórsdóttir, Nation building, Democracy