Exploring the Nordic Heritage

Culture - January 31, 2024

European Diary: Copenhagen, May 2022

The city of Copenhagen has a special significance for Icelanders because it was long their capital. Iceland had originally been settled between 874 and 930, mostly from Western Norway. A Commonwealth which had no king but the law (as a German chronicler put it) was in place there from 930 to 1262. The Icelanders then bowed to pressure from the king of Norway and became his subjects against guarantees that he would respect local laws, keep peace and ensure sufficient trade, crucial for this remote, windswept North Atlantic island. In 1380 the Norwegian crown passed to the Danish king who eventually made Copenhagen his permanent residence. The Danish name of the city is København which means Merchants’ Harbour. The city, formally founded in 1167, had been a trading centre for centuries, located on the Sound between the Danish island of Zealand and Sweden and with an excellent harbour. All the Nordic countries were ruled from Copenhagen until 1523 when Sweden successfully rebelled against the Danish king, and with Sweden went Finland. Then in 1814, after a defeat in the Napoleonic Wars the Danish king had to cede Norway to the Swedish king, but for reasons that are still not clear it was decided that Denmark should retain the Norwegian possessions in the North Atlantic, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Jon Sigurdsson’s Arguments for Independence

Although ruled from Copenhagen, Iceland was never a part of Denmark. She had her own laws and language and took pride in a rich and unique literary heritage, most importantly the poems, chronicles and sagas from the Commonwealth period, but also various legends, fairy tales and folk songs. In 1848, the Icelandic struggle for independence began when a thirty-seven year old Icelandic historian residing in Copenhagen, Jon Sigurdsson, published an ‘Exhortation to the Icelanders’. He presented three main arguments for the right of the Icelanders to self-determination. First, in the Commonwealth period Iceland had indeed been a sovereign state and when the Icelanders in 1262 pled allegiance to the Norwegian king, it had only been to the king and not to Norway, or later to Denmark. Hence, Jon—as he is called in Iceland, since Icelandic does not have any family names, Sigurdsson only being a notification of the fact that Jon’s father was called Sigurd—argued, when the Danish king handed over power to the Danish people in 1848 (ratified in a constitution in 1849), that it did not follow that the Danish nation, through the organs of the Danish State, had gained any right to rule Iceland. This was a matter to be settled between the king and the Icelandic nation. In the second place, the Icelanders constituted a distinct nation, with a shared history of almost one thousand years, with their own territory, defined by natural boundaries, with their own laws, language and literary heritage. Thirdly, the Icelanders presumably knew better what was in their own interest than bureaucrats in Copenhagen, which is of course the traditional argument for devolution (or the subsidiary principle).

Jon Sigurdsson died in 1883 without seeing his dream of Iceland as a sovereign state being fulfilled. The well-meaning Danish governments of the day did not take his position seriously. The Icelanders were a tiny nation living on a barren island. To survive, they needed the Danes, it seemed. But in early twentieth century the Icelandic economy grew significantly as the Icelanders acquired the capital and the technology to utilise the fertile fishing grounds around the island. At the same time, demands for national self-determination became louder, also in the Nordic countries. Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905, and Finland from Russia in 1917. After amicable negotiations, the Danes and the Icelanders agreed that Iceland would become a sovereign state on 1 December 1918 in a personal union with the Danish king, and that the treaty on this between the two countries could be revised and possibly abrogated after twenty-five years. Jon Sigurdsson’s political project had now been implemented. The Icelandic state acquired the house (depicted above) in which he had lived in Copenhagen, at Øster Voldgade 12, close to the city centre. A flat in the house was put at the disposal of Icelandic scholars doing research in Copenhagen. I have twice had the opportunity to use the flat, for a month on each occasion. The first time was in the summer of 2002 to study Nordic literature for a dictionary of quotations I was compiling. The second time was in the summer of 2023 to explore the Nordic liberal tradition.

Jon Sigurdsson’s Arguments for Free Trade

Jon Sigurdsson was himself a part of the Nordic liberal tradition. Well read in history, economics and politics, he was influenced not only by the remarkable political heritage of the Nordic nations, but also by Anglo-Saxon liberalism. ‘Individual liberty should not be limited unless where society as a whole (the nation) would be harmed by it,’ he wrote in 1841. Jon urged his compatriots to learn from other nations without having to sacrifice their own identity. ‘We have advanced the most when we have travelled widely and traded with other countries, but with many countries, not only with just one,’ he observed in 1842. A year later he argued for free trade in the spirit of Adam Smith:

Our trade is confined to just one country, and we are not allowed to do business with any other countries. This goes against the nature of exchange and evolution, because progress and prosperity depend on trading what is necessary, so that people in fact support one another. When a nation disregards this rule and this law of nature, it will be punished, and the punishment will be its own humiliation and loss. No country in the world is completely self-sufficient, even if human foolishness has tried to make it so. Neither is any country such that it cannot contribute something and thus obtain what it needs. But when a country has obtained what it needs, which is what trade brings about, then it is as if itself had possessed these necessities. When trade is free, then every nation offers what it has in surplus, to those who have what it needs.

Jon pointed to England as the example the Icelanders should follow. Its rapid progress could, he wrote in 1844, without doubt be attributed to its freedom of enterprise and association.

Jon Sigurdsson as a Conservative Liberal

In 1855, trade between Iceland and other countries became free, having previously been confined to Danish subjects. Jon Sigurdsson welcomed this important change and reiterated the case for free trade in a letter to his brother in 1866:

You think that someone will absorb us. Let them all absorb us in the sense that they trade with us and do business with us. Freedom is not about living alone and not having anything to do with others. I doubt that Simeon Stylites or Diogenes were freer than any other unfettered people. True enough, freedom comes mostly from within, but no freedom relevant in society is realized except in exchanges, and they are therefore necessary for freedom.

Jon was however also of a conservative disposition. In 1875, his young admirers organised a celebration for him in Reykjavik, one of them composing and reciting a poem in his honour. When Jon thanked them, he took issue with a statement in the poem that he was ‘the leader who never knew any restraints’. He rejected the idea that he had never known any restraints. Discipline and restraints were needed for human development, he observed. Restraints were indispensable within and outside, for individuals and for nations. Unrestrained freedom, without any limits, was no freedom, but simply turmoil and disarray. Thus, Jon can convincingly be characterised as a conservative liberal.

The Nordic Political Tradition

The month I spent in Copenhagen in the summer of 2022 was both fruitful and pleasant. In the quiet comfort of Jon Sigurdsson’s house in Øster Voldgade, I could study and reflect on the political heritage of the Nordic nations: Snorri Sturluson’s warnings against unlimited power in his history of the Norwegian kings; Anders Chydenius’ arguments for free trade and division of labour in the eighteenth century; the liberal Norwegian constitution of 1814 at Eidsvoll; the great liberal statesmen of the nineteenth century who laid the foundations for Scandinavian prosperity, Anton Martin Schweigaard in Norway and Johan August Gripenstedt in Sweden. In particular, I examined the works of the remarkable Danish liberal Nikolaj F. S. Grundtvig, a pastor, poet and polymath, who exhorted his countrymen to preserve and develop their national heritage. A fascinating character, Grundtvig is often seen as the main proponent or even creator of the peculiar and unique Danish national identity, danskhed, Danishness.

From Jon Sigurdsson’s house there is only a short walk to Kongens Nytorv, the King’s New Square, where the National Theatre is located, the famous department store Magasin du Nord, several good restaurants and the venerable Hotel d’Angleterre where I have sometimes stayed. It has a nice spa and swimming pool in the basement. On the square, there is also Copenhagen’s oldest pub, Hviids vinstue, established in 1723. It was, and remains, popular with Icelanders in Copenhagen. Inside, there is a portrait of four famous (or perhaps notorious) Icelandic bon vivants, two poets and two historians, who all lived in Copenhagen for some time, albeit in different periods. The older historian, the aforementioned Arni Palsson, once famously exclaimed: ‘It is said that drinking is an escape from reality. But people can sometimes save themselves by running away.’ The younger historian actually taught me in Secondary School. Hviids vinstue offers not only the famous Danish beers, Tuborg and Carlsberg, but also Danish smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches with delicious toppings such as prawns, smoked or cured salmon, roast beef and eggs.

A Toast to Freedom

Just around the corner, on Vingårdstræde 6, is one of my favourite Copenhagen restaurants, the Michelin two-star Kong Hans Kælder (King Hans Cellar), which serves what one could describe as French-inspired Danish food, elegant and tasty. King Hans (or John) reigned from 1481 to 1513. He had, like other Scandinavian kings, to accept a Charter, somewhat similar to the English Magna Carta, reaffirming the traditional rights of his subjects. The King Hans Cellar is therefore an appropriate place for a toast to the great Nordic liberal heritage.