Greeting from the President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson

My dear friends!

 Sunday 1 December 1918 was quite a sunny day in Reykjavík, capital of Iceland. The drizzle of the preceding days had let up, followed by a crisp, bright frost. Towards midday a crowd assembled at Government House overlooking Lækjartorg square: parliamentarians, other prominent individuals, and members of the public keen to observe the planned ceremony. And for good reason. The Union Treaty had taken effect. Iceland was no longer “an inalienable part of the Danish realm,” but a free, sovereign nation, in personal union with Denmark under the same king, and collaborating on various other matters, such as foreign affairs and protection of territorial waters.

On that same day Iceland celebrated its attainment, by royal decree, of a recognised national flag. For the first time the Icelandic swallowtail state flag was hoisted, slowly and ceremoniously. The future awaited, with all its opportunities, threats and challenges.  

What lay ahead for the nation? Earlier that year Icelanders had gone through the Great Frost Winter: the record low temperature of that year still stands, the most severe frost ever recorded in Iceland – minus 38 degrees C at Möðrudalur in the central highlands. In many places horses froze to death. Mt. Katla also erupted, with grave consequences. And in the world outside the Great War had come to an end, leaving Europe devastated. The catastrophic international influenza pandemic reached Iceland, where it cost nearly 500 lives. Just a few weeks before Sovereignty Day, the streets of Reykjavík had been largely deserted.

But better times were to come. We can assume that most of those who gathered at Government House – a building which had been a Danish jail, then the residence of Danish governors – looked hopefully to the future. That cannot be proved, of course, but contemporary accounts and memoirs give that impression. And no doubt those people hoped above all to be able to make a better world for themselves and their children, in a sanctuary of security, happiness and autonomy.

          Most of us who now live in Iceland are descendants of those who experienced that historic moment in the nation’s history, Sovereignty Day 1918. In 2018 we celebrate the centenary of Iceland becoming a free and sovereign nation. Although there is still room for improvement in our society, it must be clear to all that together we Icelanders have made great advances. Life expectancy is much enhanced and improved, health care and social security far better. Gender equality has made vast progress, as have human rights. And opportunities for education and leisure activities have been transformed. The same is true of people’s power to determine their own destiny and pursue their dreams.

What does the future hold for Iceland? What challenges, victories and opportunities await us? In many ways no doubt we have the same hopes and fears as those who stood outside Government House a century ago. In other ways the world is utterly different. The people of Iceland no longer live solely on the resources of land and sea. Today our wealth also consists in people’s mental powers, education, science and technology. Cold weather conditions are unlikely to pose the same threat as they did a hundred years ago. It is more probable that we will see record high temperatures as global warming takes hold. We must hope not to be struck by another such epidemic as cost so many lives in 1918; but prosperity has led to other ailments of mind and body. Iceland went on to become a republic, independent of the Danish crown – and today international collaboration is growing in all fields, and foreign influences on Icelandic culture and language are greater than ever before; although Iceland was never completely cut off from the outside world as is sometimes assumed. We have succeeded in making greater use of our natural resources – but that entails a concomitant danger of pollution and other damage. Our society grows ever more diverse – but prejudices can prove a hindrance to social harmony.

My fellow Icelanders:

Let us celebrate the progress that has been made since we gained national sovereignty. Let us resolve to defend and constantly improve the society of opportunities and rights that the people of this country wish to hold in common. Let us set ourselves the objective of doing even better. And let us take the opportunity offered by forthcoming events to remember the historic turning-point that was marked by our nation on Sovereignty Day 1918.