Gissurarson: Why Intellectuals Supported Totalitarianism

Hannes talking. Photo: Ragnhildur Kolka.

The 20th century was the best of times, and it was the worst of times, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, said in a talk at the University of Iceland 26 April 2018. It was a time of prosperity and progress, but also of totalitarian mass murders, by Nazis and communists. It is estimated that about 120–125 million people lost their lives because of totalitarianism in the 20th century, but the lives of many more people were affected and abrogated. The occasion for Gissurarson’s talk was the recent publication of his Totalitarianism in Europe: Three Case Studies, written at the initiative of ACRE, Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, as a part of the joint project with RNH, ‘Europe of the Victims’.


Gissurarson first told the story of Elinor Lipper, a young and intelligent girl of Jewish origin who became a communist and a Comintern courier all over Europe, also briefly having an affair with Italian writer Ignazio Silone. She went to Russia in 1937, but then Stalin’s purges were at their worst, and she was to spend the next eleven years in labour camps. She was a Swiss citizen, and because of the persistence of Swiss authorities she was released in 1948, after which she wrote a book about her experience that sold quite well and was much-discussed. Extracts of the books were published in Icelandic newspapers Timinn and Visir, and the one in Visir has been republished. In his research, Gissurarson discovered many unexpected facts about Lipper.

Then Gissurarson gave an account of a surprise encounter at the 60 years birthday party in Iceland of communist leader Brynjolfur Bjarnason in May 1958. A Jewish lady attending the party, Henny Goldstein, who had fled from Hitler to Iceland in 1934 suddenly noticed there a German Nazi whom she had known in Iceland before the war, Dr. Bruno Kress. She protested against his presence, but the incident was hushed down. During the war, Henny’s brother, Siegbert Rosenthal, and her sister-in-law and nephew, were sent to Auschwitz only a month before Henny and her husband had provided the necessary permissions for living outside Germany. The wife and the son were murdered almost immediately by the Nazis, but Rosenthal was selected to participate in the ‘skeleton collection’ of the Ahnenerbe, the SS ‘research institute’ and subsequently murdered. In Iceland, Dr. Kress was on a grant from the same Ahnenerbe, to write an Icelandic grammar. He was then a Nazi, but after the war he became a communist and the director of the Nordic Institute at Greifswald University, whereas the Director of Ahnenerbe was hanged for war crimes. Kress received an honorary doctorate from the University of Iceland in 1986.

Laxness. Image: Gunnar Karlsson.Finally Gissurarson turned to the most prominent Stalinist apologist in Iceland, the writer Halldor K. Laxness. In the 1930s, he wrote two travel books about the Soviet Union, but decades later he admitted that there he had not told the truth. In his later trip to the Soviet Union, in 1937–8, he had attended the public trial of Bukharin and his comrades whom Stalin forced to confess to the most extraordinary misdeeds. During the same trip, Laxness had also witnessed the arrest of an innocent young woman at her home, Vera Hertzsch, who had had a child with an Icelandic student in Moscow. Hertzsch was a German communist living in Russia and previously had been married to an alleged ‘Trotskyite’.

Gissurarson then tried to explain why so many prominent 20th century intellectuals supported totalitarianism, bitterly rejecting the system of free competition and private property. Schumpeter had suggested that intellectuals were alienated from society and that they usually lacked experience in making things works. Mises had surmised that intellectuals expected to do better personally under socialism than capitalism. Jouvenel had pointed out that intellectuals seemed to abhor having to produce in order to satisfy the needs of others, as the market system requires. Hayek had observed that many intellectuals could not envisage the spontaneous evolution that takes place under capitalism: They thought that everything had to be designed by human reason. Gissurarson found all of these explanations to fit Laxness, but especially the last one.

The meeting was well-attended. While historian Bessi Johannsdottir chaired it, Dr. Dalibor Rohac, analyst of Central and Eastern European affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, was commentator. Rohac recalled that he was born in a communist country with barbed wire and watchtowers visible from his parents’ house in Bratislava. The stories Gissurarson told were tragic, but needed to be remembered,  Rohac said. Guests at the meeting included Tomas Ingi Olrich, former Minister of Education, and History Professor Thor Whitehead, Iceland’s leading expert on communism, both of whom joined in the discussion after the talk.

Gissurarson Slides 26 April 2018

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Tszwai So Gets First Prize in Platform Competition

MEP László Tökés, Dr. Łukasz Kamiński, Platform President, and designer Tszwai So.

Designer Tszwai So from Spheron Architects in the United Kingdom received first prize in a competition of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience on proposals for a memorial for the victims of totalitarianism to be erected at the Place Jean Rey, in the heart of the European district of Brussels. This was announced at a meeting of the Platform 24 April 2018 in Brussels where RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson was present. Attending the meeting were MEPs László Tökés from Romania, who hosted it, Milan Zver from Slovenia and Petras Auštrevičius from Lithuania, as well as representatives of the embassies of Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic to the EU. So’s proposal was that the square would be turned into a kind of an historical post office, with letters from prisoners in totalitarian countries.


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Totalitarianism in Europe: Three Case Studies

RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, reads a paper at a meeting of the Institute of Public Administration and Politics at the University of Iceland Thursday 26 April at 17. The meeting takes place in Haskolatorg, Room 101 (Ingjaldsstofa), and the topic is “Totalitarianism in Europe: Three Case Studies”. A monograph with this title by Professor Gissurarson has recently been published by ACRE, Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, as a part of a joint project with RNH on “Europe of the Victims”. In the monograph, Professor Gissurarson presents his research on three cases.

The first study is about Elinor Lipper, the author of a widely discussed 1950 book about her eleven years in Soviet prison camps, of which an extract was published in Icelandic newspapers. After the publication of her book and testimonies in court and at conferences Lipper seemed to have vanished. Professor Gissurarson found out who she was and where she went.

The second study is about the intertwined fates of two Germans living in Iceland before the Second World War: Henny Goldstein was a Jewish refugee, and Bruno Kress a stipendiary of the SS institute Ahnenerbe. Goldstein lost much of her family in the Holocaust, including a brother who was murdered in an Ahnenerbe ‘experiment’. After the war, Kress became a communist, and the encounter of Goldstein and Kress at a communist meeting in Iceland in 1958 was dramatic.


The third study is about Stalin’s Icelandic apologist, Nobel Laureate Halldor K. Laxness. Professor Gissurarson describes how Laxness tried, in the 1930s, to ingratiate himself with Italian fascists in order to get his books published in Italy and how he ignored many first-hand accounts by foreign friends of the oppression in the communist countries, not to mention that he kept silent for a quarter of a century about witnessing in Moscow, during Stalin’s purges, the arrest of an innocent woman.

Political economist Dr. Dalibor Rohac  from Slovakia, at present an analyst of European affairs at AEI, American Enterprise Institute, comments on Professor Gissurarson’s paper, and afterwards, between 18 and 19, the audience is invited to a reception in Litla Torg, alongside the University cafeteria. Historian Bessi Johannsdottir will chair the meeting.

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Gissurarson: Lessons for Others from the Icelandic Bank Collapse

Alejandro Chafuen and Gissurarson at the APEE conference.

The three main lessons for other nations from the 2008 Icelandic bank collapse are that an economy need not collapse even if the whole of its banking sector falls; that it may be prudent to recognise the priority of depositors’ claims to bank estates; and that if this is done, then government guarantees of deposits may be unnecessary. This was the message delivered by RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson in a lecture at a session on money and banking at the annual conference of APEE, Association of Private Enterprise Education, in Las Vegas 1–5 April 2018. Gissurarson added that other three lessons from the bank collapse were that discretionary power would always be abused, as the British Labour government did by imposing an Anti-Terrorism Act upon the Icelanders; that small nations had no friends when push comes to shove; and that in a crisis it was important to have strong leadership such as the Central Bank of Iceland exerted before and during the bank collapse by ‘ring-fencing’ Iceland.

Alan Kors speaks. New APEE President Andrew Young (left) and Edward Stringham listen. Photo: P. Boettke.

Speakers at the APEE conference included Professor Barry Weingast who discussed explanations of the poverty of nations (some of which Adam Smith submitted in the Third Book of the Wealth of Nations), one being that parasitical groups and institutions seized wealth from its creators. Professor Randall Holcombe asked whether Western elites were turning market capitalism into political capitalism. Professor Alan Charles Kors criticised the demand for political correctness in academia, which was threatening the Enlightenment value of free inquiry. Professor Larry White compared three kinds of monetary arrangements, gold, fiat and crypto-currencies, concluding that gold seemed on the whole the soundest. Professor Michael Munger wondered whether market capitalism was sustainable on its own or whether it would develop into crony capitalism, as a result of intensive rent-seeking; it depended, according to him, on whether the productivity of capitalism was larger than the possible gain from rent-seeking.

Buchanan in his office at George Mason University. Knut Wicksell and Frank H. Knight adorn the wall. Photo: H. Gissurarson.

Several sessions were devoted to the political ideas of James M. Buchanan, the father of the public choice school and the 1986 Nobel Laureate in Economics, not least on the occasion of a recent book-length attack on him by leftwing historian Nancy Maclean, Democracy in Chains. In one of these sessions Professor Gissurarson said a few words about Buchanan who visited Iceland in 1982 and whom Gissurarson met several times at Mont Pelerin Society conferences and Liberty Fund colloquia. Buchanan had regarded homo economicus as an analytical tool, Gissurarson pointed out, not as a true description of human nature. Indeed, he had criticised some Chicago economists for seemingly believing that man always sought to maximise his or her income. However, in analysing politics as well as business homo economicus had to be the presumption, or test, just like a shipbuilder would design his product to survive rough seas, however rarely they might occur. Gissurarson recalled that he had learned a lot from Buchanan when they had discussed the management of the Icelandic fisheries. Buchanan had pointed out that it was not sufficient to demonstrate that commons were inefficiently utilised; someone had to have a vested interest in enclosing them. Moreover, such a change had to be Pareto-optimal in the sense that nobody would be worse off as a result. The Icelandic ITQ system fulfilled both these conditions, Gissurarson argued.

At the APEE conference Gissurarson (who resides part of the year in Rio de Janeiro under a research agreement with Brazilian institutions) met with Brazilian participants who are organising the 2020 Mont Pelerin Society general meeting in São Paulo. In Las Vegas, Professor Andrew Young was elected APEE President, replacing Gabriel Calzada, and Dr. Jerry Jordan, former Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Vice-President. Professor Edward Stringham (who recently visited Iceland to give a lecture at a regional meeting of the European Students for Liberty) continues as editor of Journal of Private Enterprise and Professor J. R. Clark as APEE Treasurer. Gissurarson’s participation in the APEE conference formed a part of the joint project by RNH and ACRE, Association of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, on “Europe, Iceland, and the Future of Capitalism”. The 2019 annual APEE conference will be on Paradise Island in the Bahamas 5–8 April.

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Paper in Las Vegas on Icelandic Bank Collapse

RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, reads a paper on the Icelandic bank collapse in a session on money and banking at the annual conference of APEE, Association of Private Enterprise Education, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas 1–5 April. The session is scheduled for 2:30–3:45 pm Monday 2 April. Gissurarson’s paper forms a part of the joint project of RNH and ACRE, Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism.”

In his paper, Gissurarson briefly describes the events leading up to the bank collapse and argues that six lessons may be drawn from the collapse and the Icelandic experience: 1) It is not necessary that governments always rescue banks. 2) It is reasonable to give priority to depositors over other bank creditors. 3) If this is done, then government guarantees of deposits are unnecessary. 4) Discretionary power will always be abused, such as was the case with the British Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, invoked against Iceland. 5) Small states have no real friends and have to fend for themselves. 6) Firm leadership is crucial in crises, such as the CBI, Central Bank of Iceland, showed when it proposed ‘ring-fencing’ Iceland and splitting up the banks into domestic and foreign entities.

Gissurarson Slides in Las Vegas

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Gauck Receives Ján Langoš Award

Platform President Łukasz Kamiński congratules Gauck.

RNH is a member institute of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience which seeks to keep alive the memory of victims of communism and other European totalitarian movements. Monday 26 March 2018 the Platform was the co-sponsor, with the Ján Langoš Foundation in Bratislava in Slovakia, in giving an award to Joachim Gauck, President of Germany 2012–2017 and previously Federal Commissioner for the Records of  Stasi, the secret police in the Soviet-occupied part of Germany (East Germany). Gauck received the award for his courageous fight against totalitarianism both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ján Langoš, after whom the award is named, was a Slovakian dissident in the communist era, Interior Minister in Czechoslovakia in 1990–1992 and the director of the National Memory Institute in Slovakia from 2003. He died in a car accident in 2006 on his way to a trial where he was to testify against former secret police agents. Other recipients of the award include Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan liberation movement, Václav Havel, former President of Czechoslovakia, and Sandra Kalniete, MEP for Latvia.

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