At the beginning of December 1918, Elka Björnsdóttir, a labourer in Reykjavik, wrote an entry in her journal, as she did at the end of each workday. Elka was 37 years old at the time, and had kept a diary for over a decade. Her writings give us unique insight into the lives of ordinary workers in the early 20th century, before the foundations of the Icelandic welfare system were laid.
One entry in the journal stands out, including the following:
The festivities were brief but fine. If things had been otherwise than they are today, if the threat of the epidemic were not still hanging over us and paralysing everyone in the country, then no doubt the celebrations would have been as festive as the occasion deserved. […]
But this was better than nothing, and the Lord gave us such fine weather to make it memorable. Many vessels flew their flags, some of them even with banners strung up, and the Icelandic flag atop their masts. This is a great day in the history of this country, if it gets to be longer. A milestone, independence gained once more, after six and a half centuries. What a time of humiliation, struggling and oppression and a new beginning. Lord knows what’s ahead of us.
Earlier in her diary entry Elka had described celebrations that took place on that day, December 1st, 1918, when Iceland became a sovereign state. She spoke of the twenty-one gun salute, from the Danish vessel Islands falk which was anchored out beyond the harbour, in honour of the Icelandic flag, which a short time before had been hoisted on its own above Government Offices for the first time. And Elka recounted how the country’s main notables had gathered to celebrate the nation’s sovereignty. She herself had without a doubt been absolutely certain who was who in that group, as Elka was known to be “as uppity as a lord”, as people said in those days. She worked cleaning offices in Reykjavík.
But Elka was no less notable herself, a true leader in her community despite poor health. A few years earlier she had taken part in founding both the women’s trade union Framsókn and the social democratic party of Iceland Alþýðuflokkur. A woman who was made of stern stuff.
Recently Elka’s voice was heard once more, although only briefly. An excerpt from her diary entry was read on Icelandic National Broadcasting when several dozen Icelanders who lived here in the capital a century ago were given a chance to be heard again, one each day.
But what do 100-year-old journal entries matter? What significance can people who lived in Iceland 100 years ago have for us today?
Elka Björnsdóttir was not at all sure what the future would bring. She asked herself whether the country’s history would be longer. Understandably enough, in the light of the Spanish flu, which had then ravaged for several weeks with horrendous consequences, the volcano Katla, which had only ceased to spew forth fire from its depths a month earlier, and the severe cold of the previous winter, still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Much has changed in our attitudes towards the past and the history of Iceland in recent years. More voices from the past have fortunately gained an audience. History is focused much less than before on eminent men and notable leaders. All kinds of people who have lived in this country and on this earth have gained a voice and reshaped our history.
These hundred-year-old journal entries give us pause to consider the lives and conditions of people who lived at that time. To imagine as well the society where women forty years of age and older had only three years earlier gained the right to vote, and where decisions were made in a manner quite different to what we know today. Our society has truly changed in the space of a century. Its voices are greater in number and in variety than in Iceland in 1918, which is good, because the need is urgent for talent and ability in different fields, for ideas, diligence and ambition. In a small nation every individual makes a difference, which is why we should welcome the variety of voices contributing to our joint democratic project. It’s up to us to strengthen that democracy, not only by turning up at the polling station now and again, to slide an ever-lengthening ballot into the ballot box, but also through active discussion in different forms. Our task is to debate thoughtfully, express our minds and last but not least listen carefully to one another.
These days it is easy to let the outside world know of your opinions and thoughts. We need only to pick up our phone and the floor is ours. Just as the voices are more varied so too are the routes we have more varied to speak to our entire society, encouraging campaigners to place anything and everything on the agenda. But let’s not forget that it is still possible to communicate by that tried and true means, to sit down at the next kitchen table, or even out of doors, look each other in the eye and talk person-to-person.
These days we’re watching an advanced course in top-flight communication and cohesion, as the Icelandic men’s football team takes part in the world’s largest sporting event, the World Cup itself. In sport, the reality is clear on the surface: to win is always better than to lose, and in football you need to score more goals than your opponent. But underneath that there is much more: dedication, ambition and endless hard work all underlie success. The mind needs to be clearly focused on each task. It is no coincidence that the Icelandic team’s coaches have put their greatest emphasis on team spirit. Such spirit does not arise of itself and is one of the most valuable lessons sport can teach us. First and foremost, this is a message for future generations that those of us born here on this island can know few limits.
A hundred years ago no one probably would have dreamed that a sporting team from this almost incredibly small island nation could play world class football, the smallest nation ever to achieve such success. And we cannot really believe it yet: we swing between regarding all that Iceland has achieved as either incredible or as simply a matter of course. Not unlike Elka, we are seeking security and balance, we face challenges and uncertainty, with the forces of nature and weather always in our thoughts.
The past will continue to have many lessons to teach us. This autumn, for example, a decade will have passed since the economic collapse. Those events have tainted all our political agenda ever since, and perhaps all our existence as a nation. Understanding what happened and endeavouring to learn from the mistakes is important to avoid ending up in such pitfalls again. At the same time, it is important to assure ourselves that we have definitely put this behind us, and the shackles of the collapse have been removed.
On the 1st of December this year we will celebrate a century of sovereignty. Among the measures adopted by the Althingi to mark the occasion is an action plan for the development of language technology infrastructure for the Icelandic language. We look to the future and to meeting the challenges it will bring. Changes to the natural environment, communications or lack of communications between large nations in far-off countries, and technological innovations that will transform the future world of work – these are some of the challenges we know of. We need to set ambitious climate targets, be a voice for human rights and natural conservation, and prepare ourselves for the future challenges in how we work. The enormous advances already made in technology have begun to shape our lives, our society and our very selves.
Social media and search engines specifically programmed to do so have already influenced our political debate, primarily with statements that are limited to 280 characters. This fact has meant that deeper political debate is being pushed aside. What will this lead to? Will technological change contribute to still more disintegration of a political environment that is already characterized by the view that co-operation and compromise, which has long underpinned democratic society, is now a fault rather than an advantage? International co-operation is no less under attack, walls are to be erected between countries and ever more people appear to view obstinacy as a prime virtue.
The technological revolution affects not only politics; it will transform our entire society, not least industry and the labour market. Here in Iceland we have every opportunity of becoming actors in the technological revolution rather than waiting at the receiving end. History shows us that daring and vision have never been lacking in this country, and it is our responsibility to move ahead with the changes of the future, to ensure continuing prosperity and equality. However, this may not be the most complicated task: that will be to ensure that our humanity is not lost in this fast-paced revolution. The ethical issues we face must be dealt with, along with the question of what it means to be human. In approaching that task, we need to take advantage of human creativity and critical thinking; the ability to think independently will probably be the most important instrument for preserving just than humanity.
Festive days such as the 17th of June and the 1st of December remind us that we rest on the laurels of those generations that preceded us. We need to constantly seek ways to make our own contribution, to pave the way for a better society in Iceland. This is in fact a good country and a good society. We must never forget that we live here despite many a prophecy to the contrary through the centuries, because we have a good life here and despite everything – we care about each other. Which is likely most precious of all.
Fellow Icelanders, I wish you a happy 17th of June holiday!