Article body copy
Egill Bjarnason has been Hakai Magazine’s go-to writer on all things Iceland since 2017. Bjarnason, an Icelander, has introduced readers to the small island nation’s fixation on swimming lessons for all, its connection to the first moon landing, and its role in seasickness research. The following excerpt, “That Time Hitler’s Girlfriend Visited Iceland and the British Invaded,” is from Bjarnason’s first book, How Iceland Changed the World. Iceland, it turns out has shown up unexpectedly—and has had an outsized role—in many world-changing events.
I always said it. Hitler should not be trusted. Had people just taken my advice, this mess would never have happened.
—A sheep farmer in northern Iceland lecturing his workers during a coffee break, according to Nú er hlátur nývakinn, a collection of anecdotes from the region
Some of the oldest color film footage ever taken of Iceland was shot aboard a cruise ship sailing around the Westmann Islands. The archipelago of 15 dome-shaped islands sits on a volcanic hotspot just 16 kilometers off the southern coast. The largest island, Heimaey, is inhabited by a community referred to as the Eyjamenn—the island people—by “continental” Icelanders. The journey as the ship enters Heimaey’s harbor is stunning. The ship sails through a narrow inlet, passing sheer black-green cliffs that plunge into the sea, crossed by the flight of fulmars and skuas. The old film footage is silent. All it reveals, so far, is a voyage in an astounding landscape. End of shot.
Next cut: the camera is on solid ground, pointed at some of the quaint houses that once dotted Heimaey (in 1973, the town would have to be rebuilt after a volcanic eruption). The sequence moves quickly, reflecting the price of color film, but the cameraperson lingers for a few seconds on the sight of clean laundry luffing on a clothesline in the ocean breeze. Green gardens suggest the peak of summer. The idyllic motifs continue as the filmmaker’s eye is drawn to children. One girl stands with her fist gripping the neck of a dead puffin, a local delicacy. She poses with two friends. The camera then cuts to a blond boy, probably around eight years old, and stays on him long enough to capture a shy smile toward the camera. The clip suggests an eye drawn toward the innocent, the gentle and pure. In context, it’s bone-chilling.
Holding the camera was Eva Braun. Eva Braun, Adolf Hilter’s girlfriend and partner in suicide; a woman who stayed with him for a decade, through the entire Holocaust; the only woman who could call der Führer by his first name: Adolf, dear.
Braun was in Iceland in the summer of 1939, the year the Second World War began, traveling on board the Milwaukee, a cruise liner from the Nazi state-operated leisure organization Kraft durch Freude. The ship’s manifest lists her real name, next to her mother’s and her older sister’s, Gretl. Only they know about the life she leads back home; the relationship with Hitler was a secret for 14 years, based on Hitler’s idea that a bachelor status would lure female followers.
After the Westmann Islands, the ship docked in Reykjavík and rented out the entire local taxi fleet in order to view the hot springs in nearby Hveragerði. From there the ship’s course was set for the northwest and northeast, docking at the regional capitals of Ísafjörður and Akureyri. According to a pamphlet about the voyage, the Milwaukee returned to Travemünde, Germany, on August 3, less than a month before Germany kicked off the most devastating war in history by invading Poland.
Months before Eva Braun’s visit, Germany had bought a prominent villa in downtown Reykjavík, one designed by the legendary Guðjón Samúelsson, the creator of the National Theater and the Hallgrímskirkja Church. The three-floor Túngata 18 was set to host an incoming consultant and Nazi Party favorite: the retired physician Werner Gerlach. For debt-burdened Germany, he had a startlingly large budget to spend on a tiny island nation still under the rule of the Danish king.
The full scale of Germany’s prewar operations remains unclear due to the sheer volume of documents the Nazi regime destroyed during the course of its collapse. We do know that after the Weimar Republic’s end in 1933, state-sponsored German “scientists” were arriving in Iceland in ever-growing numbers, with vague objectives. We also know that the German flag carrier Lufthansa sent corporate agents to lobby for a transatlantic base that could function as a layover between Germany and the United States. The political objective of Gerlach has come to light only in recent decades, thanks to local historian Thor Whitehead’s study of private letters and diaries. Gerlach, documents show, was a puppet for Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi death squad Schutzstaffel, better known by its runic letters ᛋᛋ. Himmler, the evil architect of the Holocaust, was a firm believer in the concept of the Thousand Year Reich—a pure German empire set to last for a millennium—and he was considering Iceland as the site for a long-term fort in the North Atlantic.
Winston Churchill, summarizing an observation made by one of his generals, said during the war: “Whoever possesses Iceland holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.” Iceland’s location in the middle of the North Atlantic turned out to be crucial during the war years. But neither side knew just how important Iceland was going to get. Early on, the Nazis’ interest in Iceland was as ideological as it was militaristic. Iceland, with its homogeneous populace and violent history, complemented the Nazi conception of Aryan heritage. Bizarrely, Nazis viewed the isolated nation as harboring a kind of original Aryan race, one rooted in heroic sagas and all-knowing gods like Odin and Thor.
Reality of life in Iceland would later disappoint the dispatched agents. But among Nazi leaders who never actually visited Iceland, the crush was real. And extremely dangerous, as the dream of conquering Iceland filtered up to the Nazi Party’s highest ranks.
Himmler did not succeed. But the specter of a Nazi invasion changed the fate of Iceland forever.
In 1939, Iceland was a sovereign state, reaching its teenage years after Denmark had finally signed the emancipation papers back in 1918. The king of Denmark was still Iceland’s head of state, according to the treaty, but the commitment was set to expire in 1944, when Icelanders would decide—either remain under the protection of the Danish king, or become a republic with its own leader and foreign ties.
To set the stage, it’s necessary to go back to the end of the First World War and the years that followed. Inconveniently, Denmark had approved the breakup in the midst of the coldest winter in living memory (and on record, still). The Spanish flu had also ravaged Reykjavík just months prior, claiming the lives of some 500 people, many of them at their prime (older people had immunity from an earlier, milder outbreak). And on top of that, the Katla volcano—the mother of all volcanoes—sent southern Icelanders fleeing a VEI-4 eruption.
Icelanders, in short, barely had the energy to wave the Danes goodbye. Cold, ill, and fleeing lava, many wondered in the hardship of the intervening years if standing on their own was such a good idea after all.
By 1929, the collapse of American finance meant US banks could no longer lend money to Germany and Austria, the two nations still licking their wounds from the Great War. European banks’ cash flow ran dry, and national economies across the continent swiftly shut their doors, imposing tariffs and restrictions on the flow of money into and out of the country.
Demand for Iceland’s fish took a big hit, while the price of imports increased. Suddenly it seemed that the more globalized your economy, the more vulnerable you were. Reykjavík, in turn, had a sad shopping street, with no paved road and open sewers. At the edge of town, sheep roamed freely.
Not a place for a man who wore tight, spotless uniforms and high boots.
The uptight Gerlach arrived in the world’s northernmost capital in 1939, on sabbatical as a medical professor at the German city of Jena. Gerlach was described as one of the best pathologists in Europe, but his devotion to the Nazi Party got him fired years earlier from his university in Switzerland. The Nazi Party was quick to promote him to the highest honor of medical research and in return he ratted out colleagues who gave medical help to Jews. And soon enough, he was invited to serve the Third Reich in Iceland, a place of high culture. What an honor! Imagine the anticipation of a Nazi who’d been promised he could work with pure Aryans. His voyage was like that of a kid heading to an actual unicorn ranch, only to be stabbed by a horn. He struggled to make friends with anyone other than German nationals living in Iceland and a few long-standing German allies.
The people of Iceland were filthy, with gray eyes and auburn hair, according to Gerlach. Furthermore, the newspapers mocked Hitler day after day, and despite Gerlach’s repeated grievances, the prime minister refused to censor the press. Gerlach’s house was near the harbor (the Old Harbor), and rowdy drunks kept him and his family awake at night. Theaters performed plays written by Jews. The retail store where he planned to buy a dress for his wife had just two items on sale, and they were both the same size. People ate pickled sheep testicles (hrútspungar), burned sheep’s head (svið), and held forks in their right hands like shovels. There were no apples in the store.
But Gerlach kept these frustrations private, recording them only in his personal notes. As was typical in Nazi Germany, he was afraid to speak his mind when reporting back to higher-ranking officials like Himmler. These officials regarded Iceland with general admiration, and tarnishing that image would potentially ruin his own funding.
Another Icelandic quirk was the country’s single most dangerous profession: fishing. They had no military. Despite the alarming news of another war brewing in continental Europe, Iceland remained fixated on safety at sea—they had a national campaign to teach everyone to swim—and no national defense. But they did have a strategy: no army = no enemies. That was the logic. The other Nordic nations practiced the same strategy, but with armed neutrality, much as Switzerland did. Being small and neutral and nonthreatening had served the nation well during the First World War. Sailors and fishmongers waved the white flag and sold their catch across battle lines, even prompting a bidding war between Germany and the United States. As the various forces on the mainland assembled to blow one another to smithereens, again, the government of Iceland said, again: we’ll take care of the fish. How much do you need?
But as it turned out, the Second World War was not simply a rerun of the Great War. German forces simply had much greater ambitions than reclaiming what was previously lost. Hitler had been ramping up the military for years, until it reached an unprecedented strength. The invasion of Poland was his first move; the next was even more surprising: the occupation of Denmark and Norway. Germany needed iron ore to keep up military production, and sought to force its way toward mineral-rich northern Sweden via Denmark and Norway. Control over Norway, furthermore, gave Germany access to the North Atlantic, the sea route vital to Britain’s supply chain.
From a military standpoint, the next smart move would be to grab a peaceful mid-Atlantic island and turn it into a base camp.
Whoever gets there first, wins.
For anyone who is enduring a winter within the Arctic Circle, one thing is important to keep in mind: the sun pays back its debt in full. The annual hours of sunlight total the same, everywhere on Earth. At the extreme end, the North Pole has six straight months of night, followed by six months of day. Iceland is a version of that, tuned down by 25° latitude.
The darkest day of the year is December 21. From then on, the days slowly get longer again. By February, the day is extending by seven minutes per day. Come March, bank robbers have just enough time to do their thing in broad daylight. By April, the northern lights fade into the ever-bright evenings, and birds arrive from their winter whereabouts. And May provides no place to hide—no darkness.
The British army invaded Reykjavík at 5:00 a.m. on a Friday in May. The mission, dubbed Operation Fork, was meant to surprise the people of Iceland, arriving as it did with the ship lights shut off. But when the four warships sailed into harbor, a massive crowd of onlookers stood there watching. They’d seen them miles away.
The convoy had first passed the Reykjanes Peninsula, the boot-shaped corner that stretches out of Reykjavík, with fishermen in Keflavík noticing the unusual convoy. But it was the middle of the night, and they didn’t see a reason to notify the authorities because Iceland had nothing to do with the war—those guys must be headed somewhere else. Britain, for its part, had not taken into consideration that the ships would arrive on a public holiday and a payday for fishermen, when a good number were awake in the middle of the night, drinking and dancing. Police and taxi drivers on drunkard duty were the first to spot ships on the horizon. One, two, three, four … gray … warships. Were they British or German? No one knew.
The British cabinet had decided not to notify Icelandic authorities ahead of their arrival and instead jumped straight to an actual invasion. Their reasoning was that despite unofficially leaning toward Britain in the war, the Icelandic government would likely reject any suggestion of military protection due to their neutrality. If they’d first been given the opportunity to reject the Brits, the forthcoming invasion might be met with more hostility. Plus, if word got out, Germany had their fleet in northern Norway and could get there faster than the British.
The only two people in Reykjavík certain about the nationality of the approaching ships were the British consul (thanks to a radio telegram) and the German consul (thanks to the process of elimination). Gerlach had long since sensed that the Icelandic public, as well as Icelandic politicians, favored the British in the war. “Iceland: a British country under a Danish crown,” he wrote in one of his secret files—the very documents he’d intended to burn before British forces arrived. “Bring the files! Light the boiler!” he’d ordered, realizing no one at the residence knew how to light the coal heater.
The harbor crowd grew bigger, and then significantly less anxious as soon as the ship’s flag was visible. The British consul arrived with his suitcase in tow, a clear indicator of the nationality of the incoming troops. Britain was hoping for a peaceful operation—though the mariners were ordered to load their guns just in case. But as the ship got closer, it was easy to read the crowd: everybody was standing completely still, even the police.
The consul, according to witnesses, tapped the shoulder of a policeman standing in the middle of the crowd and asked, “Would you mind getting the crowd to stand back a bit so that the soldiers can get off the destroyer?”
The policeman, whose job description likely did not require him to help foreign invaders, just nodded: “Certainly.”
At 6:00 a.m., the first regiment of soldiers stood lining the harbor, at ease. A noticeably drunk man walked through the crowd and raised his fist, shaking it in the direction of one soldier. Another ashed his cigarette into the barrel of a rifle. Then they, along with the rest of the crowd, wandered off. That was it: the resistance.
The British forces—a bunch of 20-somethings in uniforms that were, as a rule, either too baggy or too short—split up to seize the town. One unit set up roadblocks at the city’s only exit to make sure German residents would not attempt escape. Another went farther from town, under orders to occupy every flat piece of ground, anything that could be a potential landing strip for the Germans—an ambitious task in the flat south. British commander R. G. Sturges, in a statement issued via flyer, apologized sincerely for the inconvenience. The goal, he said, was to “save Iceland from the fate that Denmark and Norway have suffered.” The British manner of polite but firm very much characterized the entire operation: while seizing telecommunications, the soldiers made sure to knock before they broke down a few doors. The building’s janitor was then showered with apologies and a promise to pay for the damages.
Gerlach, meanwhile, was not keeping it cool. The British forces had arrived at the local Nazi’s neat cream-colored house set behind the mowed lawn. They stood outside dangling cuffs. Gerlach tried to stall them by yelling through the door, “You can’t come in here! Iceland is a neutral nation!”
A British officer on the other side of the door replied in deadpan Oxford English: “You mean neutral like Denmark?”
Suddenly a soldier noticed smoke coming out of the back window, and the forces rushed inside. Gerlach’s wife and daughter were burning the classified documents in the upstairs bathroom, still in their pajamas. A mariner grabbed a bed sheet and stifled the fire. Fearing the house had booby traps, the Brits forced Gerlach to walk first into every room. And then onto a ship bound for London. He was extradited in a prisoner swap months later and continued to serve the SS, stationed in Paris, among other places.
Signed pictures of Himmler and Hermann Goering, the supreme commander of the Luftwaffe, were found in the family’s possession, as well as two paintings of Hitler and a portrait statue, surrounded by candles. “Very strange scene,” one British officer wrote. A receipt from the downtown store Flowers & Fruits for one French hydrangea, bought on Hitler’s birthday (April 20), was among the files recovered.
Over the next several weeks, British forces sought to establish control over the entire country. Locals still did not seem quite clear on where they’d come from. A British soldier recalled meeting a man yelling, “I like you! I like you!” in English, but then adding, just in case, “And Heil Hitler!”
By this point, the Nazis controlled the entire coastline from Spain to Norway. The only thing standing in the way of a Nazi invasion of the United Kingdom was 33 kilometers, the width of the English Channel at its narrowest point. Knowing the German Kriegsmarine could not get past the Royal Navy, Hitler decided to use his sea forces strategically. Instead of attacking Britain directly, the plan was to strangle its cargo routes, depriving the island nation of everything from food and clothing to oil and iron.
Control of Iceland would help.
During the first 18 months of the war, Germany destroyed some 40 percent of Britain’s merchant ships. Their strategy was working tremendously well. Britain tried to guard its cargo by embedding it with battleships, which met only mild success. Because Germans only needed their fleet to attack—not transport—they could focus production on submarines called U-boats, an English abbreviation of Unterseeboot. One by one, the U-boats scouted the main sea routes. Once a target was spotted, the U-boats would gather in a wolf pack. The surprise attacks decimated the convoys.
In the United States, President Roosevelt realized that Hitler’s ambition and the rise of fascist political powers could not be ignored much longer and started seeking a stronger alliance with Britain and France—the Allies. Not quite yet in the war, Roosevelt’s administration first took careful but gradual steps toward increased military spending, first strictly in the form of military aid to Britain. Under the Lend-Lease Act, as the aid was known, Britain could order war supplies, food, and clothing, regardless of its ability to pay.
Roosevelt’s second move was to extend the so-called Pan-American Security Zone to Iceland, moving the defense line beyond its North American boundaries in Greenland. Following the move, US diplomats asked Icelandic officials to ask the United States for protection during the war. The idea was to assist Britain by taking over its tasks in Iceland without officially entering the war, allowing Britain to send the 25,000 troops stationed in Iceland on to direct combat. Iceland went ahead with a formal request, which the United States was obliged to approve under the new defense line.
After one year of British occupation, the Americans arrived in Reykjavík. Local restaurants changed their menus from fish and chips to hot dogs and meatloaf.
The Second World War was truly a global war. While the First World War saw 30 national forces take part, during the Second World War the fight was among 81 nations that declared war against either the Allies or the Axis. Some nations resisted. Iceland was officially a transatlantic cog in a global war machine, a stopover for Allied gear and personnel on their way to the battlefields, from London to Moscow.
The Battle of the Atlantic, a name Churchill claims to have coined, was the longest continuous battle in the war. A series of technological breakthroughs turned the tables for the Allies. First they developed a shortwave radar to detect surfaced U-boats, one small enough to fit into an aircraft; then the introduction of the Leigh light, a massive searchlight for anti-submarine airplanes, allowed them to patrol at night.
The planes, for the most part, took off from Iceland, a country turned landing ship. British forces, to begin with, made a permanent mark on Reykjavík by building a massive airport on its outskirts, known today as the domestic airport and loathed by city planners for occupying prime real estate. The Americans went on to build an even bigger airport on the desolate Reykjanes Peninsula: the Keflavík International Airport, originally named Moss Airport after a pilot who died in a storm. Iceland also gave the Allies exclusive access to weather stations in the middle of the North Atlantic. To know the weather is to know when to strike.
But the focus on geography disregards the significance and sacrifice of the Icelandic people.
Britain, early in the war, turned half its trawler fleet into warships, about 600 ships. The move was considered vital to keep the upper hand in the Atlantic, but the government worried that a shortage of cheap fish would wreck the national diet of fish and chips. That, as noted by officials, would grossly “upset” the working class, and subsequently affect moral and military production. So Iceland, on orders from London, could sell its entire catch to idle fish factories in England. But that meant sailing through a war zone, at half the speed of German submarines.
Icelandic sailors demanded a 150 to 200 percent risk fee for crossing the Atlantic. At first, the demand was considered ridiculous. The route wasn’t that hazardous! But a year later no one questioned their sacrifices anymore. Armed or not, the U-boats were ordered to weaken the British supply chain by any means available. From sea or air, sailors could expect an attack at any time, each attack a story of defeat. In Skjálfandi Bay, northern Iceland, a cargo vessel was sunk by two German planes that appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as swiftly, the attacker’s identity never known. Another small fishing vessel, the Holmsteinn, happened to sail upon a U-boat that had surfaced to meet with a nearby supply ship. The U-boat, in order not to waste a torpedo, sank the vessel with a machine gun at close range. Otherwise, the sailors might reveal the U-boat’s location, and in a brutal war, the next battle matters. Surviving that day, and the next, was all that mattered. Note the fact that Icelandic sailors had a history of helping German seafarers in the past: as recently as 1940, a German crew arriving from Brazil was rescued and brought to harbor in Reykjavík, saving 60 men and two cats.
American president Dwight Eisenhower, the five-star general in the war who led the Normandy invasion, said in his memoir that Iceland’s strategic location made a difference on both the western front and eastern front. He didn’t go so far as to thank Iceland for the free world’s prevailing, but the statement makes a strong point about the speed and duration of the war that claimed the lives of 1,000 people every hour. That means 24,000 lives a day, ongoing for six years and a day, by the lowest estimate. It is, of course, impossible to quantify by how much Iceland-led operations may have shortened the war’s duration. A single month? That’s 720,000 lives, 60 percent of them civilians.
At age 33, Eva Braun married Hitler. Forty hours later, on 30 April 1945, the couple committed suicide by taking a capsule of cyanide; Hitler then shot himself in the head, while Eva died from the poison.
According to Hitler and Film, a book by Bill Niven, the couple spent countless evenings satisfying Hitler’s strong passion for moving pictures. The screenings took place after supper, often in the company of his closest circle, who described him as having “incredible stamina” to binge movies past midnight—favoring American westerns despite officially banning Hollywood films. He watched all kinds of films, even those starring Jewish actors, at least early on. Braun’s Iceland film may well have made his screening party at some point.
If it did, Hitler and his guests watched a world gone by. Everything was different—over a six-year period, Iceland had gone from Europe’s poorest to richest. And it kept growing. Iceland qualified for Marshall Plan aid after the war despite having gained two airports, hundreds of barracks to house the urban poor, and multiple bridges precisely because of the war.
In 1944, the country voted for complete independence. Voter turnout was 98.4 percent overall, reaching 100 percent in two districts. Only 377 people, a fractional percentage, voted in favor of remaining in the Danish kingdom.
The main lesson for Iceland was that neutrality did not offer protection.
The Republic of Iceland took its first steps on the world stage at a time when the world was headed for reconciliation and international cooperation. A number was burned into every citizen’s brain: six million. Over the course of the Second World War, that’s how many Jews the Nazis had executed. Some had managed to flee, many of them to the British-controlled territory, Mandatory Palestine, and they were now fighting for a Jewish homeland in the Levant. Britain, overwhelmed by the task, threw up its hands and asked the newly founded United Nations (UN) to untie the knot.
The UN scrambled. Its founding member states were there to make allies, particularly the type of friends sitting on large oil reserves in the Middle East. Delegates dodged the question of Palestine. But how about asking the youngest country among the UN nations?
And so the first Icelandic delegate—a man in a pinstripe suit who loved to party—found himself the kingmaker on a committee tasked with discussing a proposal to establish a Jewish nation in the land of Palestine. Ears open. Clock ticking. What to do, Mr. Iceland?
From HOW ICELAND CHANGED THE WORLD by Egill Bjarnason, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 Egill Bjarnason.