Just Finished Reading: How Iceland Changed the World – The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason (FP: 2021) [264pp]
When asked about the most important or influential countries in history, few would add Iceland to their list and, before reading this book, I’d be among them. But rather surprisingly that remote island has been involved, indeed at the centre of things, surprisingly often since its founding 1200 years ago. It was Vikings sailing from Iceland that discovered both Greenland and who were the first Europeans to land in North America, it was Icelandic Saga writers who preserved early history and tales that were lost elsewhere in Europe with the coming of Christianity, it was volcanic venting in the 18th century that triggered a global climate crisis that prompted regime change, famine, and scientific investigation leading to new ways of thinking about the world, it was Allied occupation (against the wishes of the population themselves) that arguably led to the containment of what remained of the German High Seas Fleet after their disastrous campaign in Norway and the subsequent security of Atlantic convoys, it was the Icelandic ambassador to the UN who was instrumental in the foundation of the State of Israel, it was Iceland that was picked to represent the Moon and be the location where Neil Armstrong and other astronauts trained for future landings, it was Iceland that hosted the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and help reduce tensions towards the end of the Cold War and hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union, and on...
This was SUCH a fun read! Not only did I learn a LOT of Icelandic history, which I was very much ignorant of, but it was told in such a way that I was smiling, chuckling or outright laughing throughout. The author had a wonderful touch and wove a great story tying events and personalities together to bring out both the very human story and the world spanning consequences that unfolded. I’ve heard different interpretations of the ‘Vikings in America’ story – did it really happen? - and was pleased to read more background on the story. I was also very intrigued to read about Iceland in WW2 where the British essentially showed up in warships and took ‘ownership’ of its ports so that the Germans couldn’t do it later. The funniest bit was where the senior British officer arrived at the home of a senior German on a ‘fact finding mission’ to arrest him and his staff. “You can’t do this”, the German said. “This is a neutral country”. “What”, the British officer said, “Like Denmark”. I didn’t realise that Armstrong and his crew had practiced on Icelandic territory but can see why as some of it is often described as like a lunar landscape. That definitely makes sense!
Overall, this was a fascinating read and I really enjoyed it. I’ll be reading more about the larger Scandinavian world next year – specifically Norway, Denmark and Finland – and it’ll be nice to get a rounder picture of the whole region/culture. Definitely of interest for anyone looking for something a bit different or those who have ever wondered about the island itself.
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