History In The Headlines

10 Things You Should Know About Iceland

By Christopher Klein
On June 17, 1944, Iceland officially broke ties with Denmark to become a free and independent republic. As Iceland celebrates National Day and the 70th anniversary of its independence, explore 10 surprising facts about the island nation.

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1. The British invaded Iceland during World War II.
After Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, the Allies feared the Nazis would next occupy the neutral Danish territory of Iceland and use it as a strategically important North Atlantic supply post. In a pre-emptive strike codenamed “Operation Fork,” hundreds of British troops landed in the capital city of Reykjavik on the morning of May 10, 1940, and then arrested German citizens and spread inland without resistance. The occupation force eventually grew to 25,000 British and Canadian troops before the United States took over the occupation on July 7, 1941, five months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although Iceland cooperated with the Allies, it officially remained neutral during the war.

2. Beer was banned in Iceland for most of the 20th century.
Iceland, like the United States, enacted a prohibition on alcoholic beverages in the early 1900s. A national referendum led to the legalization of most alcoholic beverages in 1935 with one exception—beer containing more than 2.25 percent alcohol. The 74-year beer ban remained in place until March 1, 1989, a date now celebrated annually as Beer Day.

3. An 18th-century volcanic eruption almost forced the abandonment of the country.
For eight months in 1783 and 1784, the catastrophic Laki eruption spewed forth 30 billion tons of lava and hundreds of millions of tons of ash and sulfuric acid. The noxious gas clouds blotted out the sun across Europe and caused freak weather events, such as acid rain and floods. The toxic fog poisoned Iceland’s plants and vegetation and decimated its crops. More than half of the country’s livestock died. The resulting “Haze Famine” killed 9,000 people—a fifth of the country’s population—and led the Danish government to briefly consider evacuating the island’s remaining residents to Denmark. It took two decades for Iceland’s population to recover.

4. Irish monks are believed to have been the first people who voyaged to Iceland.
Fleeing political upheaval and later Viking raids, Irish monks are believed to have been the first to arrive in Iceland as temporary settlers, sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries. The Irish monk Dicuil noted in 825 that Iceland saw little winter sun but nights so bright in the summer that “whatever task a man wishes to perform, even picking lice from his shirt, he can manage as well as in clear daylight.” By 874, the Vikings had arrived in Iceland and began permanent settlement of the island they initially called “Snow Land.”

5. Iceland is home to the world’s oldest parliament.
Iceland’s rich democratic tradition dates back more than a millennium to the institution of a national assembly, the Althingi, to govern the island in 930. For two weeks every summer, chieftains from across Iceland convened in an outdoor assembly on the plains of Thingvellir, a rift valley east of Reykjavik where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. All free and law-abiding citizens could attend as the assembly passed laws and administered justice. The 63-member Althingi now meets in Reykjavik, but ceremonial gatherings, such as the ceremony marking Icelandic independence on June 17, 1944, still occur at Thingvellir.

6. Christopher Columbus may have learned of the European discovery of America in Iceland.
Iceland was the birthplace of Leif Eriksson, who is believed by many to have led the first European voyage to North America. Some historians believe that Columbus visited Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula on a trading mission in 1477 and there learned of Viking explorations of the New World.

7. Iceland publishes the most books per capita of any country in the world.
Iceland’s deep literary tradition dates back to its legendary medieval sagas, which told the stories of the country’s original Norse settlers, and the BBC reports that 1 out of every 10 Icelanders will publish a book during their lifetimes. Giving books as gifts is so common in Iceland that a free book catalog is delivered to each home in the autumn in time for the annual “Christmas Book Flood.”

8. Icelandic television was not broadcast on Thursdays until 1987.
Iceland’s government-run television station, which began broadcasting in 1966 and was the country’s sole channel for 20 years, went dark every Thursday until 1987 in order to promote human interaction. It also did not broadcast during the vacation month of July until 1983.

9. Iceland’s population is smaller than that of Anaheim, California.
With just over 320,000 people, Iceland is one of the least-populated countries in the world. Its population is surpassed by countries such as Luxembourg, Fiji and Brunei and more than 50 American cities, including New Orleans, Tulsa and the California home of Disneyland.

10. None of mainland Iceland is in the Arctic Circle.
In spite of its frigid-sounding moniker, Iceland is situated south of the Arctic Circle with the exception of the island of Grimsey off its northern coast, a place so remote that birds outnumber people by 1,000 to 1. The Gulf Stream warms Iceland’s climate, resulting in average winter temperatures comparable to those of New York City.

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