Interviews on Gissurarson’s Retirement

About to turn seventy, on the way to the Rio Carnival Ball in February with a 23 year old Brazilian friend, Natan Reis. Photo: Carlos Costa.

RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson turned seventy on 19 February 2023 and therefore had to retire as Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland. He celebrated the birthday itself at the world-famous Copacabana Palace Carnival Ball on 18–19 February, at the beginning of the Rio Carnival. The University of Iceland subsequently held an international conference on 12 May because of his retirement. Before the conference Professor Gissurarson was interviewed on 5 May by Vidskiptabladid, a weekly business magazine, and on 6 May by Morgunbladid, Iceland’s only remaining daily. To Fanndis Birna Logadottir at Vidskiptabladid Gissurarson emphasised that he was not retiring from his activities, only from his duties at the University. He said he had enjoyed the 35 years he had spent as a university professor, teaching, doing research and writing. The University had to be an open forum, as science was best seen as the free competition of ideas, not as a group of scientists marching in a given direction to one tune.

To Kolbrun Bergthorsdottir of Morgunbladid, Professor Gissurarson described his daily routine in his two homes, in Reykjavik and Rio de Janeiro where he spends the winter. He has friends and family in Reykjavik and many friends as well in Rio. In Reykjavik, at the beginning of the Covid epidemic he sold the upper floor of his house to a friend’s daughter, who moved in with her one year old son, and according to Gissurarson it had been an unexpected but enjoyable task to participate a bit in his upbringing, as well as a welcome relief from the epidemic. When Gissurarson was asked what he had to say about the many attacks on him over the years, he quoted the adage: ‘Don’t get angry, get even.’ He said that he did not regard turning seventy as worrisome, but rather as a challenge. When he was asked what was most memorable in his career until now, he replied that he was proud of having been convicted of operating an illegal radio station in 1984, in protest against the government monopoly of broadcasting, and of having supported and hopefully furthered the comprehensive liberal economic reforms implemented in 1991–2007 in Iceland under the leadership of David Oddsson and Geir H. Haarde. He added that he was pleased about the positive reception of his works and talks abroad in recent years.

Journalist Eggert Skulason interviewed Professor Gissurarson on the television programme ‘Dagmal’, broadcast by Morgunbladid on 8 May. The Professor explained his theory that right-wing people tend to be much less right-wing than left-wing people are left-wing. They usually hold their views with much less intensity. This is because right-wing people are reasonably content with life. They just want to better the conditions of themselves and their families and live in comfort: Business during the day, barbecue in the evening. Left-wing people are on the other hand often dissatisfied with life and want to make the world over. They often believe that problems can be solved at meetings, where eloquence gets rewarded. They usually ignore incremental improvements brought about by economic growth, experiments and innovations. Wherever they can, they close ranks and try to exclude right-wing people from any influence. This may be one of the reasons left-wing academics have largely taken over the humanities and social science faculties of universities all around the world. They do not tolerate different opinions. Skulason suggested that this might also be the explanation why Professor Gissurarson has a singular capacity to enrage the Icelandic Left.

On 11 May, Professor Gissurarson was also interviewed on a popular podcast operated by radio host Frosti Logason where he returned to the question why intellectuals are often hostile to capitalism so that he has himself in Iceland stood out as a right-wing intellectual. In this connection, he made a distinction between two approaches to poverty: to make it more bearable, as left-wing intellectuals wanted to do, and to make it more avoidable, as right-wing economists proposed. The best way to tackle poverty was to create opportunities for people to leave it, he said. Left-wing people often did not understand this and therefore portrayed right-wing people as cold and heartless.

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David Oddsson 75 Years

Margaret Thatcher and Oddsson in 1993.

David Oddsson who is the longest-serving prime minister in Icelandic history, between the spring of 1991 and the autumn of 2004, celebrated his 75th birthday on 17 January 2023. On this occasion RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, published an analysis of Oddsson’s political views in Morgunbladid, placing him in a long Icelandic tradition which supported friendship with other nations but submission to none. After Iceland had been settled in 874–930, mainly from Western Norway, a Commonwealth was founded and soon the Icelanders had developed a keen sense of their own separate identity. The word ‘Icelandic’ first occurs in a poem by Sighvat Thordson around 1020, and in 1022 Iceland made her first treaty with a foreign power, Norway, on the rights and duties of Icelanders in Norway and of Norwegians in Iceland. In 1024, an Icelander at the court of Norwegian King Olav the Fat, Thorarinn Nefjolfsson, travelled to Iceland and at a meeting of the Parliament at Thingvellir he tried his persuade his compatriots that they should become subjects of the king. Then an Icelandic farmer, Einar from Thvera, called Einar the Thveraeing, gave a famous speech where he said that kings turned out differently, some well and others badly, and that therefore it was best to have no king. The Icelanders should be friends of the Norwegian king, but not his subjects. They should maintain the freedom from royal oppression, high taxes and military adventures, that they had enjoyed since the island was settled.

Ever since, Icelanders have been divided into Nefjolfssons and Thveraeings, Gissurarson said. The Nefjolfssons believe that Icelanders are best off under the protection of a foreign power, in some kind of a shelter provided by others, whereas the Thveraeings hold that the country should cultivate good relations with other nations without completely renouncing her sovereignty. The leaders of Iceland’s independence struggle, Jon Sigurdsson and Hannes Hafstein, were both Thveraeings: Iceland was then a Danish dependency, and they realised that the poor and tiny country had to cooperate with Denmark, not least in order to attract much-needed Danish capital, but at the same time they insisted on self-rule. In 1918, after cordial negotiations Denmark recognised the sovereignty of Iceland which thereupon formed a personal union with the Danish king. During the Second World War, the ties with Denmark were severed and Iceland became a Republic. The two most powerful political leaders of the post-war years, Olafur Thors and Bjarni Benediktsson, were both Thveraeings. They wanted, and got, military protection from the United States while insisting on the country’s sovereignty, and seeking to trade with as many partners as possible. David Oddsson continued their policies as prime minister. He implemented a comprehensive programme of stabilisation, liberalisation, privatisation and tax cuts, while remaining a staunch ally of the United States.

During Iceland’s independence struggle and long after that, not much was heard from the Nefjolfssons. But during the 2008 bank collapse they rose up and wanted to yield to loud demands from the United Kingdom and other European states that Iceland should take responsibility for the financial obligations of the fallen banks. David Oddsson, now Governor of the Central Bank, flatly rejected those demands, and he and Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde instead put the banks into resolution at the same time as they gave deposits priority over other claims on the bank estates, thus averting panic. In the aftermath of the collapse, the Nefjolfssons also fought hard for Iceland to join the European Union instead of remaining in the European Economic Area, with Norway and Liechtenstein, and for all practical purposes, with Switzerland. Now Editor of Iceland’s leading newspaper, Morgunbladid, Oddsson fought hard and successfully against submission to the Brussels bureaucracy. His 75th birthday was celebrated at a large dinner party at the Editions Hotel in Reykjavik, attended by four other past and present prime ministers, Katrin Jakobsdottir, Bjarni Benediktsson, Sigmundur D. Gunnlaugsson and Geir H. Haarde.

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Two television interviews

Below are two television interviews with Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, on his new book, Landsdómsmálið, The Impeachment Process Against Former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, which was, the author argues, a travesty of justice even if Haarde was acquitted of all real charges, and only convicted for the alleged negligence of not putting the impending bank collapse on the agenda of cabinet meetings. Six of the fifteen judges wanted to acquit him also of that charge which was, they said, based on a misinterpretation of the Icelandic Constitution. Egill Helgason interviews Gissurarson on the National Broadcasting Service (the government television station) and Sigmundur Ernir Runarsson interviews him on Hringbraut, a private television station.

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Gissurarson: Book on the Impeachment Process

The Impeachment Court on 5 March 2012.

In September 2010, a narrow majority in the Icelandic Parliament decided to impeach Geir H. Haarde, Iceland’s Prime Minister in 2006–9 and Leader of the centre-right Independence Party, for negligence in the period leading up to the 2008 bank collapse. It was decided, also by small majorities, not to impeach three other former leading government ministers although a left-wing majority in a special parliamentary review committee had recommended it. The committee’s recommendations had been based on a long report on the bank collapse by a Special Investigation Commission, SIC, with three members, a Supreme Court judge, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and a recent graduate in finance teaching at Yale at the time. In April 2012, the Impeachment Court passed its judgement on the six charges against Haarde. It had already dismissed two charges, and now it unanimously acquitted him of three charges, whereas a majority of nine found him guilty of only one charge: that of not having held cabinet meetings about the impending bank collapse as required by the Icelandic Constitution; a minority of six, including two Supreme Court judges, also wanted to acquit him on this count.

The whole process was quite controversial in Iceland, not least because most people thought that Geir H. Haarde himself should not be the only Icelandic politician in office before the bank collapse to be held responsible. In a new book of 366 pages in Icelandic, The Impeachment Case: Political Machinations and Legal Maneuvers (Landsdomsmalid: Stjornmalarefjar og lagaklaekir), RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland, argues that the whole process was unjust and that Haarde’s conviction on the somewhat trivial charge of not having held cabinet meetings about the impending bank collapse was legally groundless. The 1920 constitutional stipulation that cabinet meetings had to be held about all ‘important government issues’ was derived from the fact that Iceland was then a kingdom in a personal union with the Danish king who resided in Copenhagen. Twice a year an Icelandic government minister went to Copenhagen to attend the Icelandic Council of State with the king and the crown prince where he presented not only his own issues but also those of other ministers. Thus, it had to be ensured that all these issues had already been properly discussed at cabinet meetings. When Iceland became a republic in 1944, the constitutional stipulation about cabinet meetings was interpreted as a requirement to discuss all issues at cabinet meetings that subsequently were to be presented in the rarely-held Council of State, presided over by the president.

Haarde enters the Impeachment Court on 5 March 2012.

In his book, Gissurarson argues that three venerable legal principles had been violated in the impeachment process against Geir H. Haarde. The principle Nullum poena sine lege, no conviction without law, was violated by the SIC which had based its accusations of Haarde’s negligence on a law passed at the end of 2008, after the bank collapse, thus applying the law retroactively. The principle Ne bis in idem, not again, or double jeopardy, was violated by the parliamentary review committee when it added the charge on cabinet meetings to other accusations of negligence against Haarde, because the SIC had already considered this particular charge and dismissed it. The principle In dubio, pars mitior est sequenda, when in doubt, choose the milder course, was violated by the majority of the Impeachment Court when it used a controversial and doubtful interpretation of the constitutional stipulation about cabinet meetings to convict Haarde on a fairly trivial issue. Gissurarson suggests that the majority simply wanted to respond to the loud popular demand after the collapse for a scapegoat. He points out, also, that before the collapse  it would indeed have been unwise to hold cabinet meetings on the problems of the struggling banks, thus bringing unwelcome attention to them, and that in the past cabinet meetings had not been held on some sensitive yet important issues, such as negotiations in 1956 on defence arrangements with the United States while communists were participating in a coalition government and the 2003 declaration of support for the Iraq War made jointly by the then prime minister and the foreign minister.

Feelings ran high during the bank collapse. Haarde’s car was attacked by an angry mob on 21 January 2009 while he was still Prime Minister.

It was not negligence by government ministers which turned a foreseeable bank crisis in Iceland into a bank collapse, Gissurarson argues. It was a series of events which together formed a ‘black swan’, a sudden, unexpected incident which could only be foreseen by the knowledge gained by its very passing. In his book, Gissurarson lists 12 events that combined together to bring about the collapse, including the refusal of the U.S. Fed to offer to the Central Bank of Iceland the same dollar swap deals that it made with the three Scandinavian central banks and the refusal of the British government to offer to the two British banks owned by Icelanders the same liquidity provisions it made available to all other British banks. Gissurarson also points out that three judges on the Impeachment Court—who all voted for conviction on the cabinet meeting charge—had themselves lost a lot of money in the bank collapse, both bank stocks and money kept in money market funds and that they could therefore be seen as holding a possible grudge against former Prime Minister Haarde who had refused to bail out the banks. One of them, Eirikur Tomasson, had not only had a considerable financial interest in the fallen banks, but he had also blamed the collapse partly on Haarde in a 2009 article on the internet which mysteriously disappeared before he took a seat on the Court, while the same judge had protested loudly when Haarde had not appointed him Supreme Court judge in 2004. Tomasson certainly should have recused himself, Gissurarson says.

Gissurarson first presented his book (which carries an English Summary) on 4 December in Silfrid, a television programme on current affairs at the National Broadcasting Service. He was interviewed in Dagmal, a television programme operated by the newspaper Morgunbladid, on 7 December, in Hrafnathing, a small private right-wing television station, on 9 December and in Hringbraut, a television programme operated by the newspaper Frettabladid, on 12 December. He also discussed his book in two popular podcasts, by Solvi Tryggvason 10 December and Thorarinn Hjartarson 17 December, and at the private radio station Utvarp Saga on 16 December. A long comment on some issues in Gissurarson’s analysis of the impeachment case, in particular the incompetency of one of the judges, was published in the web journal Visir on 8 December. A business weekly, Vidskiptabladid, published an extract from the book on 15 December. Gissurarson shares some of his findings in the case with the readers of Morgunbladid in his weekly column on Saturdays, and in an article in the left-wing journal Stundin on 21 December. On 8 December, at a large party given by the Public Book Club which publishes Gissurarson’s book, the author gave a copy to former Prime Minister Haarde who in a short address thanked Gissurarson for his initiative. At the party, a former member of parliament for the Independence Party, the Reverend Hjalmar Jonsson, recited to general merriment a few humorous verses he had composed about the book and the case itself, widely seen in Iceland as a travesty of justice. Here is an account in Morgunbladid on 9 December about the party:

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Prague: Russia’s Hybrid War Against the West

President Nausėda, Prime Minister Fiala, and Tsikhanouskaya at the conference in the Liechtenstein Palace.

Speakers at an international conference on ‘Russia’s Hybrid War Against the Democratic World’ in Prague 16–18 November included Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda, Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the democratic movement of Belarus, French Professor Stéphane Courtois, who edited the seminal Black Book of Communism in 1997, American Professor Nicholas J. Cull and American writer and commentator David Satter. The conference was organised by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience and the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, with the support of the Czech government which provided the venue, the Liechtenstein Palace. RNH has been a member of the Platform since 2014, and its academic director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, translated the Black Book of Communism into Icelandic; he has also recently published a short history of Icelandic communism.

Topics at the conference included Russian disinformation as a tool of aggression, the question how to counter Russian disinformation, the experience of communism in the European remembrance perspective, and the question how to deal with the communist past. Three common themes were that after the Russian attack on Ukraine it was even more urgent than before to keep alive the memory of the victims of Soviet communism; and that the meaning of the term ‘totalitarianism’ had to be re-examined and deepened in the light of historical experience; and that it should never be forgotten that the Second World War was started as a result of the Non-Aggression Pact signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939 when Stalin and Hitler basically divided up between themselves most of Europe. Professor Gissurarson chaired the last session, on what more needs to be done. The participants in that session were the Polish historian Dr. Łukasz Kamiński, Romanian philosopher and writer Professor Vladimir Tismăneanu, Ukrainian actress and blogger Yanina Sokolova, English architect Tszwai So, German historian and novelist Nancy Aris and Russian chess grandmaster and human rights champion Garry Kasparov. When introducing Professor Tismăneanu, Gissurarson recalled a remark that Leszek Kolakowski had made to him at a dinner in April 1979: ‘The problem is not that God is dead in the minds of men. It is that the devil is dead in the minds of men. We have little or no awareness of the evil men can do.’ Gissurarson also quoted Arthur Koestler’s remark that statistics do not bleed: therefore it is difficult to convey the sheer horror of totalitarianism.

Tsikhanouskaya gives the prize to Belinkin, Dr. Mutor and Vystrčil applauding.

The Platform held its annual meeting on 16 November, re-electing Polish historian Dr. Marek Mutor as its president. The Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, a founding member of the Platform, was re-admitted to it, to the great satisfaction of present members. The annual prize of the Platform was given to the Russian institute Memorial which sadly has been dissolved by the Russian authorities. Historian Boris Belenkin, member of Memorial’s Board, received the prize on its behalf. ‘I am pleased that the Prize of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience for the year 2021 is being awarded to this association and that it will be presented to Russian historian Boris Belenkin. It is essential and right to support efforts to seek the truth in history. I consider it symbolical that this is happening in the Czech Republic at the time of the anniversary of the Velvet revolution which brought us freedom and democracy,’ said Miloš Vystrčil, President of the Czech Senate, on this occasion.

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Pacheco Receives Hayek Prize

Pacheco accepts the Hayek Prize. Photo: Victoria Schmid.

Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson gave the laudatio for Dr. Emilio Pacheco, former Liberty Fund President, at a gala dinner on 8 November 2022 in the Ringturm, Vienna, organised by the Austrian Economics Centre, where Pacheco received the Hayek Lifetime Achievement Award. Former prize winners include novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, economist Arthur Laffer, and historian Niall Ferguson. In his speech Gissurarson recalled that Pacheco was born in Venezuela in 1953, graduating with a BA in social sciences from the Catholic University André Bello in 1975, an M.Phil. in intellectual history from the University of Sussex in 1980 and a D.Phil. in political studies from Oxford University in 1986. He is married to Isabel Pacheco, also from Venezuela, and they have two daughters, Isabella and Iñez, residing respectively in Japan and Jamaica, and five grandchildren, Margot, five, Jósefina, four, Agnes, three, Carmen, two, and Oscar, one.

Hayek and Pacheco at the Ritz in London in spring 1985.

Gissurarson recalled that he and Pacheco were at the same time at Oxford where they founded, with some other students, the Hayek Society in the spring of 1983. Hayek came to visit that spring and told the students that he was delighted that they were interested in his ideas but that he had to make them promise not to become Hayekians: the Keynesians were much worse than Keynes and the Marxists were much worse than Marx, he observed. In the spring of 1985, Pacheco, Gissurarson and three other active members of the Hayek Society—Chandran Kukathas, Andrew Melnyk, and Stephen Macedo—had a memorable dinner with Hayek in London where the guest of honour was in a very good mood and told them a lot of anecdotes about his long life some of which Gissurarson shared with the audience.

Gissurarson pointed out that Pacheco had been with Liberty Fund in Indianapolis since 1991, making a significant contribution to the remarkable work of the Fund which had been established in 1960 by an Indianapolis businessman, Pierre Goodrich, who believed passionately in liberty as the product of Western civilisation. Liberty Fund is unique as an institute in that its focus is not on short-term policy, but rather on the conservative-liberal political tradition of the West in a broad sense. It regularly holds colloquia which engage in what could be called Socratic dialogues, without any preset conclusions, and it publishes classical political texts in accessible formats, both on paper and online, including the collected works of Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James M. Buchanan, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. In the same way as monasteries were sanctuaries for scholars in the Middle Ages, Liberty Fund has been a sanctuary for conservatives and (classical) liberals since its foundation, Gissurarson said, but more than that: it has been a lively and inspiring forum for the discussion and development of conservative-liberal ideas.

The day before, on 7 November, the Austrian Economics Centre held a seminar on the newly-published biography of Hayek by Bruce Caldwell and Hansjörg Klausinger where much new information is presented, not least about Hayek’s personal life. The participants included Pacheco, Gissurarson, Dr. Barbara Kolm, Director of the Centre, Sean Shelby, Director of Liberty Fund, Nathan Feltman, Chairman of the Liberty Fund Board, and Prince Michael von und zu Liechtenstein. After the seminar, Dr. Kolm graciously invited its participants to dinner at her Vienna residence. On 6 November, Pacheco, Gissurarson and several other foreign visitors for the event were treated by the Austrian Economics Centre to supper at the Rote Bar in the Sacher Hotel and afterwards to the Vienna Opera House where Verdi’s Traviata was performed.

Gissurarson Slides in Vienna 8 November 2022

Pacheco receives the Prize from Dr. Kolm, watched by Gissurarson and Peter Thirring of the Vienna Insurance Group, a major sponsor of the event. Photo: Victoria Schmid.

Gissurarson’s speech:

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