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A Comparative Analysis of the Secessions of Iceland & Norway

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 2830 words Published: 6th Aug 2021

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The nature of secessions and the measure of their eventual success is heavily dependent on context and the political climate from which they emerge. Academics such as J. R. Wood have developed the study of secessions into a complex set of theories and frameworks through which this political phenomenon may be explained, and their success evaluated. To further illustrate this, Norway and Iceland and their respective secessions will be analysed within the explanatory frameworks set by Wood as well as Horowitz, Smith and Pavković. However, this will be heavily linked with the historical and political context that shaped the ideals and attitudes of each ethnic group that was affected by these secessions, as this context is vital to understanding the sequence of events that either allow secessions to succeed or prepare them to fail. According to Smith and Pavković’s definitions of causal theory, the Norwegian secession is effectively relevant to all factors that constitute a causal secession, reiterated in its entirety by the history and nature of its union with Sweden. This will be elaborated on further throughout the paper, and will be contrasted against Iceland’s independence movement, which aligns with the notion of a non-causal secession based on Hechter and Pavković’s theoretical observations.

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To appropriately categorise Norway’s secessionist movement into a theoretical framework, it is important to understand the political landscape from which the movement emerged. Barton, of Swedish descent himself, noted that Sweden’s concept of nationalism involved taking credit for much of Scandinavia’s history and culture, especially with its kingdom being the cultural and spiritual centre of the region (2003). As a result, Norway was not appropriately credited for its contributions.

The ownership of Norway was transferred from Denmark to Sweden as compensation for the loss of Finland in the Napoleonic Wars, as was laid out within the Treaty of Kiel (signed on January 14, 1814) (Weibull, 1990). Unfortunately, Norway had little to no say in the transfer and reacted negatively: after a period of reluctant tolerance to Sweden and Denmark’s overstated power and influence over the region, on February 16 (just over a month after the Treaty was signed), Norway rejected the Treaty of Kiel and declared independence (Leiren, 1975). As a result, Danish Crown Prince Christian Frederik was elected regent of the newly sovereign state.

 His tour around Norway after the declaration was extremely well received, and was a sign that the general public had been dissatisfied with Swedish influence on Norwegian state affairs as well as that they had not been in agreement with the Treaty when it was signed (Leiren, 1975). Sweden was infuriated with Norway’s rejection of the Treaty – especially as Norway had initially signed and agreed to a peaceful union – and invaded shortly after. As restitution for the invasion, Sweden offered Norway a modified constitution: there would be one universal king and foreign policy between the two nations, the king would have jurisdiction over the Norwegian military, and a relatively independent parliament would take over state affairs with a liaison office in Stockholm.

However, in 1888 Sweden reformed its foreign policy and revoked some of the powers it had instated in Norway in 1814. This drastically affected Norway’s economy and restricted it in terms of making trade negotiations with commercial allies – all of which created tensions and set the tone for the formal secession in 1905 (Barton, 2003).

Unlike Norway, Icelanders were generally complacent with Danish influence and had effectively no issue with their host state for the majority of the time Denmark held its position of power. In fact, they remained loyal to their Danish king until the second quarter of the 19th Century (Anon, 1938). This was largely because, being a nation so distant from its host state, as well as being “relatively poor and sparsely populated”, Iceland could never have played a central role in political affairs (Hálfdanarson, 2000, p. 89). For this reason, Denmark allowed Iceland a certain degree of autonomy, complete with its own governmental processes – due to the vastly different language and culture, it was easier to maintain one language across legislative processes rather than to introduce Danish officials and language for this sole purpose. In fact, Iceland was so distant that it was difficult for Denmark to implement a single coherent administrative policy, its influence on Icelandic affairs being inconsistent at best (Hálfdanarson, 2000).

On a whole, up until their eventual secession, Icelanders were so positive towards their host state that when administrative regulations detrimental to their economy were implemented, they directed their blame at the Icelandic officials who enacted them rather than the Danish king who formulated them (Hálfdanarson, 2000). They generally kept Denmark out of their personal affairs, even when perhaps it should have been involved. Tragic events such as the volcanic eruption of 1783, which forced half of the population to emigrate from the island, were also difficult to blame on Danish rule; instead they led to the conclusion that Iceland was essentially uninhabitable due to its highly volatile natural ecosystem (Hálfdanarson, 2000).

As a necessary precursor to the secession, Icelandic nationalism had been evolving for decades. It was present before romantic nationalism had reached continental Europe, but its arrival caught on well with Icelandic people due to the existing sense of pride as a key element of their national identity (Hálfdanarson, 2000). As a result of the spreading concept, a group of Icelandic university students formed the nationalist movement which would eventually evolve into the spearhead of the Icelandic secessionist campaign. This movement primarily focused on how Icelandic society had somehow become a small community on the brink of extinction, when it was once a nation of “heroes, equipped to fight with sword and word” (Hálfdanarson, 2000, p. 90). Further into the 19th Century, they began to make the connection to Danish presence in Iceland. Primordialist nationalism and similar ideas surfaced frequently, with nationalists often citing that independence was their natural right (Anon, 1938).

Before the formal secession, a period of social uprising finally occurred within Iceland, aimed directly at Danish rule. It should be noted that with a small culturally unified people, division among Icelanders was rare on most fronts. Due to this lack of internal conflict, Danish rule became an easy target for rising monolithic Icelandic nationalism. The nationalist discourse therewith entertained a narrative that the foreign rule, its lack of understanding and accommodation for the economic issues Iceland faced, and its lack of interest in the country’s affairs were the cause for the apparent decline of Iceland over time (Hálfdanarson, 2000).

To further categorise the two secessions into Wood and Pavković’s theoretical frameworks, it must be noted how and why each secession reached a different result. As stated previously, socio-political context was a crucial element of the sequence of events that led to each respective outcome. Iceland, for example, had a very peaceful independence campaign. Those in charge of the nationalist movement strongly discouraged their countrymen from becoming violent in their protests, asking citizens to “remember that officials are assigned to uphold the laws, and the one who shows them disrespect when they act in the name of the laws, disrespects the laws, but with laws the land shall be built up, and by lawlessness destroyed.” (Siguðrsson, 1850). Complete sovereignty was main objective, but the nation was to attain it through sober dialogue and with legal means – not with open confrontation or a violent revolt against the Danish (Hálfdanarson, 2000). A common stereotype among revolutions, among works of fiction and otherwise, is for the working class to engage in a violent revolution to express their dissatisfaction with the political climate. This case study provided an example of the opposite.

Because of their civilised attitude towards achieving independence, Iceland maintained a diplomatically positive relationship with Denmark throughout the process of earning sovereignty. Denmark was, to an extent, willing to assist them in achieving autonomy, likely because they accepted the difficulty in managing it from such a far distance (Hálfdanarson, 2000).

In comparison, Sweden and Norway had a polemical relationship since before their union was dissolved, as has been evident by Sweden’s consistent disregard for Norway’s role in Scandinavian history. Although the Norwegian secession also never featured any form of political violence, the attitudes between both countries remained unconstructive and were fuelled by distaste towards their counterparts. In fact, neither have acknowledged any significance or importance in their relationship to their own national history or identity. Norway’s achievement of independence did nothing to eliminate this attitude, and only ensured the permanence of its severed ties with Sweden.

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Apart from the lack of physical violence in both secessions, Norway and Sweden also shared a need for an improved trade policy and economic liberty that their host states either would not allow, or could not offer. This is supported by Horowitz’s theory that secessions are the result of a need for economic freedom, especially when the restrictive body is the host state (Horowitz, 1985).

Finally, both had an aforementioned dormant sense of nationalism that mutated and evolved into independence movements as host states continued to disregard their social and economic needs.

To officially categorise both secessions into the frameworks laid out by various academics, it is sensible to begin chronologically with Norway. The Norwegian secessionist movement reached its climax in 1905 when the designated Norwegian cabinet resigned from parliament as a response to the Swedish king refusing them their own consulate (Pavković, 2011). As the king was unable to produce a new cabinet, they declared him unfit to rule Norway and announced the official dissolution of the union between the two countries. As the cabinet ministers represented Norway’s elite, the movement falls under Wood’s definition of a causal secession (Wood, 1981)(Pavković, 2007). The main reasons for this was the notion of historical determinism, or “ethnic revival,” and especially the failure of the host state to accommodate political demands (Smith, 1979). To further elaborate on Horowitz’s theory, the Norwegian secession could also be linked to a “backwards group” – a group which sought to detach itself from a host state that was not allowing it the economic freedom it needed to thrive independently (Horowitz, 1985). Norway’s economy was far more dependent on foreign trade, and Sweden’s foreign trade policy made Norway more sensitive to protectionist measures that had been implemented at the time. Furthermore, Norway had trading links and other potential commercial ties with the United Kingdom, while Sweden had closer links with Germany and did not make an effort to assist Norway in negotiations that did not match their own agenda. Finally, Norwegian politics had become increasingly liberal throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Meanwhile, Sweden remained politically conservative, consistent with its lasting absolute monarchy – a final factor which led to the decision to secede (Duerr, 2009).

In comparison, Iceland would be classified as a non-causal secession as the independence movement was led by the working class (Hechter, 1992)(Pavković, 2007), or individuals rather than an elite group – namely a nationalist party formed by students. Denmark agreed to allow them to secede as the cost to keep them was too great, and too difficult based on the geographical locations of both nations. Furthermore, Iceland needed economic freedom as Denmark did little to accommodate their success in terms of implementing trade policies that would benefit them specifically and allow economical progression. Iceland could also be considered a “backwards group”, maintaining that a major reason for the secession was the economic benefits that would come into fruition once total sovereignty was achieved (Horowitz, 1985). However, the extent of the positive relationship preserved between Iceland and Denmark is evident in the financial agreement that was reached as part of their negotiations. Denmark agreed to provide significant financial aid for the next three decades that would gradually decrease as Iceland’s economy evolved enough for self-maintenance (Hálfdanarson, 2000).

As has been stated throughout this essay, political context and a pre-existing climate heavily influence the outcome of secessions, and are arguably the most important factor in determining this outcome. Although both examples were of peaceful secessions, it is impossible to ignore how the relationships between nations are affected during the process. This can be used to elaborate that no type of secession, causal, non-causal or otherwise, can be assumed to hold certain characteristics (such as the nature of the relationship between host state and occupied state). Instead, these categories should act as explanatory theories, as has been outlined by the academics who developed them. Norway, as a causal secession, was a rare example of a case in which the host state was not able to offer a solution to the issue that led to secession. Iceland, as a non-causal secession, provided a case study in which an uprising, though led by the working class, was not violent or uncivilised as is often portrayed to be the archetype. Therefore, while both were non-violent, Iceland may continue to interact with Denmark in a positive manner while Norway and Denmark’s communications will likely have competitive undertones for generations to come.


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  • Pavković, A., 2011. Case Study 14: Peaceful Secessions: Norway, Iceland and Slovakia. In: P. Radan and A. Pavković, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Secession. [online] New York: Routledge. Available at: <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mqu/reader.action?docID=797517&ppg=429>.
  • Sigurðsson, J., 1850. Til I ´slend´õnga. Ny´ fe´lagsrit, 10, pp. 159–160.
    In the last sentence Sigurðsson borrows a proverb from an Icelandic saga, Nja´ls Saga, in order to emphasize his point.
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