At Thingvellir Freedom is Relative!

posted in: Þingvellir | 0

– Stefán Erlendsson writes:

A particularly striking example of the deep-rooted immorality and corruption characteristic of Icelandic politics is the way Althing [the parliament] has handled the nation’s most sacred place, Thingvellir. The decision of the Thingvellir Committee to grant chosen friends of committee members, their relatives and other favourites permission to build summer houses within the national park shortly after its establishment and in the decades that followed is a shame. This deed constituted a grotesque misuse of power and unjustifiable discrimination on behalf of the state, to which the general public in Iceland has been subject ever since. “A more nationalistic corruption is hard to obtain,” as journalist Ásgeir Sverrisson put it in an article that appeared in Morgunblaðið newspaper at the beginning of this century.

Conservation of Thingvellir

In 1928 Althing passed a law stating that “Thingvellir by Öxará River and its nearest vicinity shall be preserved as a sacred site of all Icelanders” and affirmed: “the reserve shall be under the protection of Althing and always remain the property of the Icelandic people. It must never be sold or mortgaged.” According to the law, which took effect by the beginning of the year 1930, “no interfering with the ground, construction of houses, roads, electricity lines or other building is allowed…in the protected area or on the land belonging to the farms Kárastaðir, Brúsastaðir, Svartagil and Gjábakki, without the permission of the Thingvellir Committee.”

Looking back on the comments of those Members of Althing who contributed most effectively to the law making shows unequivocally that the purpose behind this legal clause above all was to authorise the Thingvellir Committee to prevent the building of summer houses in the area that demarcated the national park and the four farmlands that were preserved on its account. For example, Jónas Jónsson from Hrifla, who was among the foremost initiators of the conservation order, mentioned the only summer house that appears to have been at Thingvellir at the time in the parliamentary discussion and observed: “Although a lot could be said about the private house in Fagrabrekka, it has helped to open the eyes of the general public to how one should not build in the environment of Thingvellir.” In the discussion in 1928 Jónas also said: “The intention of those, who do not want to spoil the appearance of Thingvellir, is, that the nature and its excellent handiwork from time immemorial comes into its own at its best state possible.”

Another major spokesman of the preservation act from 1928, Bernharð Stefánsson, commented in the discussion: “In addition, one could imagine constructions in the vicinity of Thingvellir, which did not belong there….Constructions of that sort, even if good in themselves, do not fit in this ancient and sacred place. Likewise, although they are not in the þinghelgi itself [the sanctified area in which thing assemblies were held], if they are close enough to be within sight from Thingvellir, then they are a sacrilege. If there is any place in this country, where the nature should be left completely intact, and without man-made changes, then it is Thingvellir.”

 The summer houses in the national park

Jónas from Hrifla was the chairman of the Thingvellir Committee from the beginning in 1928 until 1946 and put the committee under his own jurisdiction in the Ministry of Justice. After Jónas began work on the Thingvellir Committee he made an about turn and in a newspaper article published by the end of the year 1930 he aired the view that nothing stood in the way of building a few summer houses south of Hotel Valhalla and King’s House that had been moved west of Öxará River. It would in no way change the appearance of Thingvellir. And the outcome was that plots for building summer houses alongside the lake by the so called Valhallarstígur Path and Rauðukusunes Peninsula were apportioned without being advertised and permission was also granted to rent summer house plots in the farmlands on the west side of the national park. A quarter of a century later there were over fifty summer houses in this area. Then people started requesting plots in Gjábakki farmland on the east side of the national park. The farmland was privately owned and protected according to the law from 1928. The owner did not want summer houses on his land and was not up for negotiation. But the Thingvellir Committee was authorised to buy the farmland or expropriate it which was done in 1947. Farmers continued living there well over a decade but when sheep farming stopped the farmland was fenced in. At the time two summer houses had already been built in Gjábakki farmland and one of them was owned by Gísli Jónsson who had sat on the Thingvellir Committee.

In 1966 the committee decided to give permission for the construction of more than 30 summer houses and apportioned the building plots without advertising them as before, mainly in Gjábakki farmland. Now things had gone too far and in the wake of harsh criticism the Thingvellir Committee realised that the situation was hopeless and withdrew the apportionment of the plots and most of those who had received plots in Gjábakki farmland returned them. On account of this, extensive apportionment of plots for summer houses in the national park was terminated.

There are occasions that the Thingvellir Committee has decided to remove the summer houses beneath the Hallur Slope [alongside the lake to the west] and Gjábakki farmland or that the national park used its option to buy them in one way or another. It has even gone so far that summer house owners were informed of the committee’s intentions via mail but nothing has been implemented yet. Most contracts for the land were originally 50 years long but in accordance with a policy approved in 1988 it was decided that new contracts should only be 10 years. According to a policy from 2004 the national park is supposed to use its option to buy summer houses when they are up for sale and take over the plots when leases run out. This policy has still not been enforced. In many instances the houses are old and worthless but the plot and the location are worth a fortune. Yet the land is in fact the property of the nation. The authorities are possibly liable for extensive damage but it has not been tried out so far.

Today there are 94 summer houses within the confines of the national park.

A summer house under construction by the waterside of Lake Thingvallavatn.
A summer house under construction by the waterside of Lake Thingvallavatn.

Privilege and discrimination justified

The apportionment of the summer house plots in the national park has not drawn much attention except for the harsh response provoked by the Gjábakki affair. On that occasion Samvinnan magazine published a review of the summer houses at Thingvellir in 1967 on the initiative of writer Sigurður A. Magnússon who was the editor at the time. The magazine printed photos of most of the summer houses that had been built and mentioned the owners of 21 summer houses alongside the lake south of Valhalla as well as 25 “Gjábakki-Favourites” of the Thingvellir Committee. Jónas from Hrifla was asked in an interview what had caused him to change his mind since he adamantly fought for the preservation of Thingvellir. Jónas said that if he was still sitting on the Thingvellir Committee he would not have permitted the building of summer houses in Gjábakki farmland. He and other members of the committee “had been of the opinion that the area east of Öxará should be preserved, but allow the building of summer houses west of the river from Valhalla to the south along the lake on the west side. He said that the main reason for this was that he wanted “life” in the national park, but he also mentioned that it was good to have men of influence with personal interests at Thingvellir, so that they would join hands to protect the site from accidents if needed, e.g. in relation to a conceivable rise of the water level of Lake Thingvallavatn caused by Sogsvirkjun hydroelectric power plant.”

Jónas’s response implies that the summer house plots in the national park were not intended for everyone but only people of prominence. It also contains an ideological justification of the immoral and illegitimate discrimination that has been fixed at Thingvellir: A romantic idea of “life” in the national park and the position that a few chosen individuals in high places had been assigned a special role as protectors of this “sacred site of all Icelanders.”

The relativity of freedom or its various symbols

Since the apportionment of the plots at Thingvellir summer houses within the national park have been bought and sold. In the biography of Sonja Zorilla, a cosmopolitan lady from the Westfjords of Iceland, the author gives an interesting description of how these properties change hands. State architect Hörður Bjarnason, who was the manager of the Thingvellir Committee at the time, told Sonja about a summer house that was for sale by Lake Thingvallavatn at a good price and then negotiated the buy. Professor Alexander Jóhannesson built the house beneath the Hallur Slope shortly before the founding of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. Later it came into the possession of pharmacist Þorsteinn Scheving Thorsteinsson. Sonja then bought it from his relatives. This was in the year 1970. But she lived abroad most of the year and spent little time in the summer house. The manager of the Thingvellir Committee therefore saw to it that Sonja granted Madam Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, access to the house on certain conditions while she was away. At the time Sonja knew Madam Vigdís only by her reputation but their first meeting marked the beginning of a good friendship. Gradually Sonja lost interest in the summer house and finally she decided to get rid of it. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir then bought the house from Sonja in 1993.

By renting the summer house from Sonja Zorilla and buying it after that Vigdís Finnbogadóttir tacitly consented to an immoral system of privilege and discrimination that had been in existence within the national park for decades and contributed to its prolongation. The Icelandic Tourist Board captures the essence of the matter in a declaration from 5. July 1966 stating that the apportionment of the plots in the national park involved a “grotesque breach of public trust” and “measures that are bound to limit the citizen’s freedom of movement on their common land, which is not only unwarranted but appears to be illegal as well….” Two years after the purchase of the summer house Madam Vigdís went on an official visit to China where she had a meeting with the prime minister of the Chinese Republic, Mr. Li Peng, and agreed with him that freedom was relative. When Vigdís was back home she apologised for her performance and admitted that she had made a mistake. She explained that perhaps it would have been more suitable to talk about “different symbols” of freedom instead of its relativity. Let us leave it out of consideration here that the former president makes a category mistake; the relativity of freedom and its various symbols are different things. But through her conduct Madam Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has demonstrated that some are more equal than others before the law – that at Thingvellir freedom is relative! The summer houses within the national park on the other hand are a symbol of discrimination, privilege and corruption.

Civic culture and democracy

In most civilised countries this heritage would be considered a shame and purposefully eradicated. But in Iceland this story has hardly been noticed and instead of removing the summer houses the owners have gotten more settled in the last decades and enjoy privileges within the national park as before.

Sigurður Magnússon agent fought most adamantly against the summer houses at Thingvellir when the apportionment of the plots in Gjábakki farmland became common knowledge and, among other things, he wrote an inspired article published in Samvinnan magazine 1967 that contains what fundamentally matters. He said: “The equality of all citizens is an essential principle of democracy. In any genuine democracy everyone must be assured that all people are equal before the law.” When Vigdís Finnbogadóttir responded to the criticism of her performance in the China visit she observed that the Icelandic people knew perfectly well that she was strongly committed to the ideals of human rights, women’s liberation and democracy. But as Sigurður points out, “true democrats among persons in authority….are only those who do not give themselves a larger portion or another than they are entitled to according to the correct law, set a good example by honouring the rules they make for others to follow.” And he continues: “All those who depart from this path pose a threat to democracy regardless of how much they may praise it by word of mouth….” But the “most threatening of all in this disgusting case,” Sigurður concludes, is the “apathy and indifference” that has characterised the reaction of the general public or “what may be termed public opinion.”

This is true indeed: Shame on those who have unabashedly under the protection of mutual insurance and silencing settled down comfortably in the most sacred site of all Icelanders and enjoy privileges there. And shame on those who by their actions or inaction are responsible for this situation and its prolongation. But first of all, shame on us – the general public in this country – for tolerating this disgrace without complaint or doing something about it.

The author guides on horse riding tours in the Hengill and Thingvellir area and is a
substitute board member of the Nature Conservation Association of South West Iceland.