Totalitarianism and Émigrés in Iceland

Gissurarson delivering his paper in Viljandi.

RNH’s Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, read a paper 29 June 2016 to a conference on “Totalitarianism, Deportation and Emigration”, held in the Estonian village Viljandi by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

Professor Gissurarson’s paper was about two Germans in Iceland before the 2nd World War, the Jewess Henny Goldstein Ottosson and the Nazi Bruno Kress, whose lives were intertwined in some unexpected ways. Before the War their paths did not cross much in Iceland, even if sources claim that Kress had, like other German Nazis, been unfriendly to the Jewish refugees in the country. But there was another connection. The SS operated a “research institute”, Ahnenerbe or Ancestral Heritage, which gave Kress a grant to study Icelandic. Another topic in which Ahnenerbe took interest was the physiology of Jews: Henny Goldstein’s brother was picked up by Ahnenerbe “experts” at Auschwitz and brought to the Natzweiler prison camp where he was measured and then murdered. (After the War, the Ahnenerbe Director was hanged.) Her first husband, Robert Goldstein, and her sister-in-law and nephew were all murdered in Auschwitz. After the War the paths of Henny Goldstein and Bruno Kress crossed again, unexpectedly, in Iceland. Now Kress had become a communist, residing in East Germany, and in the spring of 1958 he was invited to the 60th birthday party of Icelandic communist leader Brynjolfur Bjarnason. There, to her great surprise, Henny Goldstein recognised the man who had been a zealous Nazi in Iceland before the War and complained about it. The incident was hushed down however. Kress was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Iceland on its 75th anniversary in 1986.

A lively discussion followed the paper, with some in the audience expressing surprise at the fact that the University of Iceland had given an old Nazi an honorary doctorate. Other speakers at the conference included Vytautas Landsbergis, former President of Lithuania, and Urmas Reinsalu, the Estonian Minister of Justice. Professor Gissurarson’s contribution to the conference formed a part of the joint project of RNH and AECR, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe of the Victims”. At the conference, the annual Prize of the Platform was awarded to Leopoldo López, the leader of the opposition in Venezuela and now a political prisoner. López’ father received the award on his behalf. Here López speaks in Oslo, before his imprisonment:

Slides of Gissurarson Paper Viljandi 29 June 2016

Comments Off

Browder: Putin Regime Cruel and Corrupt

Browder at the University of Iceland.

The festivities hall of the University of Iceland was crowded Friday 20 November when US investor Bill Browder told his story at a meeting arranged by RNH, the Public Book Club (Almenna bokafelagid) and the Institute of International Affairs at the University of Iceland. The grandson of American communist leader Earl Browder, Bill Browder grew up in a left-wing environment of intellectual excellence and little interest in pecuniary affairs. Rebelling against his family, he decided to become a businessman, studying finance at Stanford University and moving to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in order to operate a hedge fund there. For a while, his Hermitage Capital had great success, even if conditions were unstable: In one day, the fund lost 900 million dollars, which it managed however to regain later. In Russia, Browder witnessed the outrageous behaviour of the Russian oligarchs and their allies in power. For a while, he welcomed Putin as a reformer, but his view was to change. Putin turned against Browder; he was denied entry into Russia; and his friend and legal adviser Sergey Magnitsky was imprisoned, maltreated and eventually left to die. This had much impact on Browder who vowed not to rest until the perpetrators of this intentional crime had been brought to justice.

Browder’s audience 20 November 2015.

Eventually, Browder succeeded in having the US Congress pass a law whereby Magnitsky’s murderers were blacklisted in the United States. He is advising other legislatures around the world on similar laws. The European Parliament has already passed resolutions about the Magnitsky case, but the European Commission has not implemented them which would mean blacklisting Magnitsky’s murderers in Europe. Browder had stated his case in the news magazine 60 minutes and in countless television and radio interviews, as well as in films on Youtube and in a best-selling book, Red Notice, which the Public Book Club has just published in Icelandic. At present, Browder’s book is appearing in 22 languages. Wherever he has the opportunity, Browder warns against the Putin regime in Russia which is, he says, both cruel and corrupt. Browder’s visit to Iceland was widely reported in the local media: The news magazine of the government television station interviewed him, and he was also featured in the daily Morgunbladid and in the business weekly Vidskiptabladid.

Many of those who attended Browder’s lecture blogged about it. Former Justice Minister Bjorn Bjarnason who chaired the meeting wrote: “This is an unbelievable, yet true story which is reminiscent of past accounts of individuals against a totalitarian regime in Russia—a regime which operates without any regard whatsoever for human rights. Vladimir Putin’s methods become ever more unpleasant, and he increasingly builds his power on fear, creating the belief that national security is at risk, if he does not have his way both home and abroad.”

Literary critic Ragnhildur Kolka wrote: “The incredible story of a man fighting the mafia of Russian President Putin. I could have remained there for a day listening to his talk, how he became a super-investor in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, and how he gained billions, only to lose much of it again to the oligarch mafia. The story is utterly absorbing, but it is also the tragic tale of a young man who participated in this fight and became the victim of the criminal elements in Putin’s regime.” The RNH participation in this event forms a part of the joint project with AECR, Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism”.

Comments Off

Putin’s Enemy No. 1 Gives a Talk

US investor and writer Bill Browder gives a talk in the Festivities Hall of the University of Iceland Friday 20 November 2015 at 12–13, sponsored by RNH, the Public Book Club (Almenna bokafelagid) and the Institute of International Affairs at the University of Iceland. The title of the talk is “Putin’s Russia”. In Red Notice, a book recently published in Icelandic, Browder describes his eventful life and the reckoning with Putin. The grandson of Earl Browder, leader of the US Communist Party, Bill Browder rebelled against the left-wing views of his family and studied finance at Stanford University. He became one of the most successful investors in Russia after the collapse of communism, in a very unstable environment. For a while he supported Putin against the Oligarchs, but then Putin turned against him. When Browder’s Russian friend and lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, was imprisoned by the Russian authorities, tortured and left to die, Browder took a vow that justice should be obtained for him. On his recommendation, the US Congress passed the “Magnitsky Act”, barring those responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the United States or doing any business on US territory. Allegedly, Putin regards Browder as his Enemy No. One. Browder’s book is being published in 22 languages. Its name is derived from a “red notice” which Interpol, at the insistence of Russian authorities, put out against Browder for alleged crimes in Russia, withdrawing it almost immediately when the charges were found to be groundless. Browder’s talk, as well as the publication of his book, forms a part of the joint project of RNH and AECR, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism”.

Former Justice Minister Bjorn Bjarnason chairs the meeting, and a discussion will follow the talk. Here is a speech recently given by Browder on how he became Putin’s Enemy No. One:

Comments Off

Online Anti-Totalitarian Literature

Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, attends the annual meeting of the European Platform of Memory and Conscience in Wroclaw, Poland, 17–19 November 2015. At the meeting he gives a presentation on a joint project of RNH and AECR, Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe of the Victims” and describes a new series of anti-totalitarian writings online which RNH is publishing in cooperation with the Public Book Club (Almenna bokafelagid). The works in the series originally came out in the intellectual battle of Icelandic democrats against admirers of the totalitarian states. They will be made available online (both in Google Books and on Kindle) and also printed in limited quantities. They are targeted to students writing papers in schools and to people with general interest in history, not least in the Cold War, when democracy was embattled.

The first book in the series came out 17 June 2015, when the Public Book Club celebrated its 60th anniversary. It was Articles on Communism (Greinar um kommunisma) by the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell, also a Nobel Laureate in literature. These articles appeared in Icelandic newspapers and magazines in 1937–1956. Professor Gissurarson writes a Foreword and some Notes.

The second book in the series came out 19 June 2015, when a century had passed since Icelandic women acquired the right to vote in parliamentary elections. It was Women in Stalin’s Prison Camps (Konur i thraelakistum Stalins), the memories of two women who were without any guilt whatsoever kept in Soviet prison camps. Extracts of these memories appeared in Icelandic newspapers in 1951, 1953 and 1975. The authors were Elinor Lipper from Switzerland and Aino Kuusinen from Finland. Professor Gissurarson writes a Foreword and some Notes.

The third book in the series came out 23 August, which had been designated by the European Parliament as a Remembrance Day of the Victims of Totalitarianism. It was Out of the Night (Ur alogum) by Jan Valtin, a pseudonyn for Richard Krebs, who had been a Gestapo spy, but in reality a Comintern counter-intelligence agent. In 1941, this racy and readable autobiography was a best-seller in the United States. When the Social Democratic Book Club published the first part of it in the summer of 1941, the Icelandic communists organised a campaign against it with the result that the second part was only published in 1944, by “A handful of comrades”. The well-knwon communist writer Halldor K. Laxness and a communist renegade, economist Benjamin H. J. Eiriksson, debated the book and its message. Professor Gissurarson writes a Foreword and some Notes.

Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson is the general editor of the series. Sigurgeir Orri Sigurgeirsson designs the book covers; Kristinn Ingi Jonsson is in charge of proof-reading; Fridbjorn Orri Ketilsson scans the books; and Hafsteinn Arnason oversees the technical aspects of publication online. What is also stressed in the publication of the series is the important contribution by Icelanders who took up the fight against the totalitarians, Larus Johannesson, Geir Hallgrimsson, Eyjolfur K. Jonsson and others.

In 2016, the online publication of five works are planned: 1) Khruschev’s Secret Speech on Stalin, 25 February, sixty years after its delivery, which was a major blow for Icelandic communists; 2) El campesino: Life and Death in the Soviet Union by Valentín Gonzalez and Julián Gorkin, 17 July, when eighty years have passed since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in which El campesino fought, before fleeing to the Soviet Union; 3) Baltic Eclipse by Ants Oras and Estonia — A Small Nation under the Yoke of Foreign Power by Anders Küng, 26 August, when 25 years have passed since Iceland became the first country to re-recognise the independence of the Baltic countries. David Oddsson, Prime Minister in 1991, had translated Küng’s book in 1973, then a student of law; 4) The Hungarian Revolution by Erik Rostbøll, in early November, when sixty years have passed since communists suppressed the uprising of the Hungarian nation; 5) The Black Book of Communism, 25 December, when 25 years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. The book came out in 2009 and is about to be sold out. In some cases, events will be organised in connection with the publication of the books.

Comments Off

Lively Debate on the Oddsson Era

Gissurarson talking.

Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, former government minister Ogmundur Jonasson of the Left-Green Party, and Dr Vilhjalmur Egilsson, presently President of Bifrost College and a former Member of Parliament, discussed the David Oddsson Era at a meeting of Politica, the association of politics students at the University of Iceland, Thursday 12 November. A large meeting hall at the University was full to the brink. Gissurarson pointed out that on the most common criteria in politics, Oddsson had been a successful politician: As Mayor of Reykjavik, he had increased the share of the Independence Party in each of the elections he fought, bringing it up to more than 60% in the 1990 municipal elections; Prime Minister from Spring 1991 to Autumn 2004, he had held office longer both totally and continuously than any other Icelandic politician. Indeed, 1991 was a turning point in the Icelandic economy. Government subsidies from several funds and agencies to loss-making enterprises were abolished, and the waiting room at the Prime Minister’s office consequently emptied; inflation fell, and monetary stability was introduced; a government deficit was turned into a surplus; government companies were privatised, and the revenue used to reduce, and almost to eliminate, public debt; pension funds were strengthened and made sustainable; laws were passed to increase the protection of individual rights; and the economy was opened upon and foreign trade facilitated when Iceland joined the European Economic Area. When Oddsson resigned in 2004 as Prime Minister, the great expansion of the banking sector had not really begun. In 2004, Iceland had been one of the best countries in the world to live in, prosperous and stable.

Professor Gissurarson also discussed common criticisms of the Oddsson Era. The Prime Minister had been faulted for supporting the 2003 Iraq War; but the support had only consisted in a declaration of support for an old ally after the decision, in which Iceland was not involved in any way. This was different from the acceptance by the left-wing government of 2009–2013, in which Ogmundur Jonasson served, of the NATO air raids on Libya; within NATO, Iceland had had a veto which it had not used in this case. In the second place, the privatisation of the banks for which Oddsson was sometimes criticized had begun in 1990 when one of the three commercial banks owned by government had been sold by the left-wing government of the time. The two sales of the Oddsson government had been scrutinised by the Icelandic National Audit Office which had delivered thorough reports on them and not found anything significantly wrong with them. Professor Gissurarson’s talk formed a part of the joint project of RNH and AECR, Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism”.

Jonasson talking.

Ogmundur Jonasson said that he belonged to the same generation as David Oddsson. When they had become politically active in the early 1970s, the left wing had been spirited and full of ideas whereas the right wing had been intellectually sterile. This had changed with the arrival of Oddsson and his supporters who had been inspired politically by Reagan and Thatcher and intellectually by Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan; suddenly the right wing had become full of ideas, while the left wing stagnated. However, Oddsson and his group had broken with the consensus of the previous few decades—the golden age of the mixed economy; they had been indifferent to, or even welcomed, increased inequality of wealth and income and they had also advocated a more materialistic way of thinking; “greed was good.” Dr Egilsson recalled the 1980s when a spiral of wage increases and inflation had run out of control while the over-regulated economy had offered few opportunities to enterprising individuals. It had been necessary in the early 2000s to privatise the two government banks because they had not been able to compete with the bank which had been privatised already in 1990. There was no doubt, Egilsson argued, that most enterprises were better run by individuals seeking profit than by government officials. Egilsson added that as a Member of Parliament he had found it easy to work with Oddsson. He had not engaged in any micro-management, but he had been swift and resolute in decision-making and true to his own words.

In the discussion following the three talks, former government minister Gudni Agustsson, who had led the Progressive Party in a coalition government with Oddsson’s Independence Party, asked for the floor. He said that he and Oddsson had become good friends over the years, even if they had initially had a lot of disagreements. He could not understand however why Oddsson abandoned his earlier policies of a bilateral agreement between Iceland and the European Union (like Switzerland has) instead of membership in the European Economic Area, and of a wide dispersion of ownership of shares in the privatised banks. Agustsson added that Oddsson had as governor of the Central Bank of Iceland saved the country from catastrophe. He had been the author of the plan to ring-fence Iceland which everybody supported now as the only feasible plan out of the quagmire which the banking crisis had been for Iceland. Dr Egilsson commented that in his opinion Oddsson had performed well as a governor of the Central Bank. He could not understand why it had been a priority of the left-wing government taking power in 2009 to drive him out of the Bank.

The meeting was taped, and thousands of people have watched it on Youtube:

Gissurarson Slides 12 November 2015


Comments Off

The Oddsson Era

Three talks are scheduled at a meeting of Politica, the Association of Politics Students at the University of Iceland, Thursday 12 November 2015 at 19.30 in Room O-101 in Oddi, the Social Sciences House, on “The Oddsson Era”: Mayor of Reykjavik in 1982–1991 and Prime Minister of Iceland in 1991–2004, David Oddsson was a dominant and powerful politician. The speakers are Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson who edited a festschrift on Oddsson’s sixtieth birthday in 2008, Dr Vilhjalmur Egilsson, President of Bifrost College and a Member of Parliament 1991–2003, and Ogmundur Jonasson, a Member of Parliament since 1995 and a government minister for the Left Greens in 2009–2013. Professor Gissurarson writes in his blog: “Much can be said about Oddsson’s Era, even if he was of course not the only person on stage. But it is interesting that Oddsson increased the support of the Independence Party in the three municipal elections which he fought in 1982, 1986 and 1990, irrespective of whether the Indepencence Party was in government or not. It is no less interesting that Oddsson has served longer than anyone else as Icelandic Prime Minister, both totally and continuously.”

Professor Gissurarson’s participation in the meeting forms a part of the joint project with AECR, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism”. Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister in 1979–1990, seen here with David Oddsson in 1991, was the protector of AECR.

Comments Off