My father had studied in Denmark at a Teachers´Training College. When he returned back home – at the outbreak of the Great Depression – he started an elementary school for poor children. In times of high unemployment most families could not afford to send their kids to school.
My father conveniently forgot to collect the school fees. But to improve the lot of his pupils and their families, he became an active politician and a trade union leader.
When he had become the leader of the National Federation of Labour, he organized a general strike to have parliament adopt legislation on unemployment insurance and obligatory membership of every wage-earner in pension-funds. Those pension-funds are by now by far the strongest investment funds in Iceland.
It was said about him in the obituaries that he had very limited tolerance for injustice.
During my student days I was for a while chairman of the Radical Students´ Association of Iceland. As such I received, unexpectedly, an invitation to attend an international students´ conference in Warshaw on Peace and Disarmament – what else? This was in 1961. It was part of a Soviet initiative to split the West on the issue of nuclear disarmament. It was also the first organized event, east of the Iron Curtain, where representatives of non-communist organisations were invited. I was there with a group of students from the Nordic countries and British supporters of Bertrand Russels´ Campaign for nuclear disarmament.
The leader of the Soviet delegation, Alexandr Shelepin, the Komsomol-leader and later KGB chef, gave the key-note speech. It was a set piece of Soviet propoganda. I asked for the word – I was twenty two at the time. I must have caught our hosts unprepared, because I was given the word. My argument was that if the Soviets believed in unilateral disarmament, they should act on what what they preached. „After you, sir“, I said!
I had only spoken for a few minutes, when the microphone system was disconnected. Officers in military uniform came up to the podium and led me out of the hall. They turned out to be Polish secret police. Since I was a student of economics, they proposed to send me for a course on „socialist market economics“ in Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains. They said I should be safe there. This was an offer you couldn´t refuse!
Almost 30 years later, when I had become minister for foreign affairs of my country, there was a major CSCE-conference in Copenhagen with all the foreign ministers of Europe, plus USA and Canada in attendance. This was part of a series of meetings, laying the groundwork for new relations between East and West, after the ColdWar. This one was meant to be on human rights.
The newly appointed foreign ministers of the Baltic States, Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas, had been invited to plead their case for restored independence. Then the Soviets presented the host with an ultimatum: If they are not thrown out – we leave. The hosts capitulated. The Baltic ministers were shown the door.
The only foreign minister among those 37 present to protest was the Icelandic one. When I heard the news, I threw away my prepared text and spoke exclusivily on the Baltic issue. All the rest remained silent.
When I stepped down from the podium, a man jumped up in front of me, embraced me, and said: „What a privilege it is to be a representative of a small state, and feel free to speak the truth“. I had only taken a few steps towards my seat, when a burly heavyweight shook his fist at me and shouted: „There was not a word of truth in what you said in your speech about the Soviet Union“. This was the Soviet representative. I remember I thought by myself: „With the US representative, subdued but envious, and the Soviet one out of control – I am probably on the right path“ .
You know better than me, what happened in January 1991.President Landsbergis issued an appeal to the foreign ministers of NATO-countries to come to Vilnius and demonstrate their support for Lithuania´s right to restored independence – by their presence. Again, the Icelandic minister was the only one who responded and arrived on the scene.
In my recent book: „The Baltic Road to Freedom – Iceland´s Role“ I describe my feelings in those words:
„I shall never be so old as to forget those days, in the streets and squares of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. There I witnessed nations unarmed and virtually alone, ready to defy overwhelming military might, in the name of human dignity, freedom and self-respect. It was a privilege to be allowed to be with you during those unforgettable days“.
Now we know that this was one of the great moments – a turning point – in the post-war history of Europe.
Many years later, when I had left active politics and had become ambassador of Iceland to the USA, I was on a visit to the Icelandic emigré community in the Mormone State of Utah. You may not know it, but the Mormone church sponsors the greatest geneological data base in the world. It so happened that the head of this institution was of Icelandic descent. After my visit there they gave me a 660 page print-out of my geneological record, stretching back 32 generations into the past. In it I read that in the 10th century, my ancestors lived for three generations in Courland. You know where that is?
When I told this anecdotal story to my friend, Vitautas Landsbergis,he said: „There you have the answer to the question, where your limited tolerance for injustice comes from!“
(A speech given at a Gala dinner of the Lithuanian Bar Association, December 7th, 2018, in Vilnius on the occation of the 100th Anniversary of the Association).