History and Biography Discussed in Reykjavik

RNH is the Icelandic partner of the Remembrance and Future Centre in Wroclaw in Poland. This Centre is now undertaking a project on oral history with special reference to the connections between the Polish and Icelandic nations. In 17–27 August 2015, a workshop was conducted in Reykjavik where Polish scholars and university students interviewed Polish immigrants in Iceland, visited the oral history centre at the National Library of Iceland and listened to two scholars explaining Icelandic history on the one hand and the traditions of Icelandic biography on the other hand. RNH helped the Centre in organising the workshop.

Dr. Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland, gave an outline of Iceland’s history. It was, he said, mainly a story of the nation’s fight against ice and fire until the 20th century. The ancient Commonwealth had been an interesting attempt to resolve conflicts without government. The fishing grounds off Iceland were very fertile, but while the country was a Danish dependency in 1380–1918, the Danish King has in effect conspired with the small Icelandic landowning class to hinder the development of Icelandic fisheries. This had changed in the 19th century and the Icelanders had worked their way from poverty to affluence through the fisheries and free trade. The 2008 bank collapse had been a great shock to the nation, but it had quickly recovered as in former calamities. The nation has until recently been very homogeneous, but this was changing. Polish immigrants had adjusted better to life in Iceland than many other groups.

Dr. Gudni Johannesson, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Iceland, discussed the tradition of Icelandic biographies. He told the audience that he had himself written some biographies, including a controversial unauthorised biography of Kari Stefansson, the medical doctor and founder of Icelandic Decode, and a better-received and authorised biography of Prime Minister Gunnar Thoroddsen. Johannesson was now working on three biographies, two of them on prominent Icelanders, with the support of their families, and one about his own father. It was not always easy, Johannesson submitted, to find sources and to evaluate them. An honest historian had to approach his subject matter with sympathy, and yet critically. He had used oral sources in many of his works, but of course they had to be subject to the same critical analysis as other sources.

Gissurarson Slides 19 August 2015

Comments are closed.