In the 1960s, the world transformed for both better and worse. Those who lived through it saw the advent of the civil rights movement, the horrors of modern warfare, an increasingly liberal attitude to sex and drugs, presidential assassinations, moon landings and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This week in our Forgotten Iceland series, we look to how Iceland appeared throughout the 1960s in this wealth of amateur and historic film footage.

As is to be expected, Iceland’s experience of the 1960s differs drastically from that of its international counterparts. Still hosts to an American military presence, and caught in purgatory between a sweeping new liberalism and stoic tradition, the sixties in Iceland are perhaps better described as turbulent rather than swinging.

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Culture in Iceland in the 60s

That’s not suggest that music—rock ‘n roll, particularly—was not an essential and growing part of the culture. On the contrary, bands such as The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans and The Kinks all paid Reykjavík a visit, and The Beatles were, naturally, staple listening for the country’s youth.

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This cadre of British bands inspired musicians at home, with such outfits as Dátar and Hljómar (Known as Thor’s Hammer abroad) leading the movement. While many have dismissed such acts as mere-Beatles clones, they were instrumental in ensuring Icelandic culture remained contemporary in the world.

In 1960s, a cultural shift was made in that more Icelanders now lived in Reykjavík than in the countryside, a trend that coincided with the influx of job opportunities found in the city.

1966 saw the first broadcasts by Icelandic state television. RÚV (Ríkisútvarpið) had been established in large part thanks to the local Icelanders’ ability to intercept programming intended for US soldiers at Keflavík Air Base.

Fearing the heavy cultural influence that such shows would undoubtedly have on the population, it was agreed by those in authority that Icelandic broadcasting focus on national issues, delivered in the mother tongue.

The Island of Surtsey Formed

1963 saw the raw, volcanic power upon which Iceland sits erupt in the form of a new island off the South Coast in the Westman island archipelago.

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It was the cook of the Ísleifur II trawler that first became aware that something was amiss when he spotted a pillar of billowing black smoke. The captain, thinking the smoke was coming from a ship fire, ordered that the crew investigate. Upon getting closer, they saw spewing ash columns erupting from the ocean’s surface. By 11:00, this ash was reaching up to several kilometres in height.

The eruption lasted until 5 June 1967 when the island, Surtsey, reached its maximum size, 2.7 km2 (1.0 sq mi). Erosion has since diminished it to approximately 1.3 km2 (0.50 sq mi). The island was named after a mythological fire giant, Surtur, and intensely studied during its formation by scientists.

Today, Surtsey is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is estimated that the island will exist above sea level for the next century, before disappearing back beneath the ocean surface.

Population Growth & Trouble At Sea

In 1968, the population of Iceland reached 200,000. Kristján Eldjárn was elected President, and the fishing industry suffered a near fatal collapse after herring populations ceased to bounce back in Icelandic coastal waters.

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While two species managed to recover—Icelandic summer spawning herring and Norwegian spring spawning herring—the Icelandic spring spawning herring has not been seen since.

As part of policymaking at the time, moves were made to devalue the krona, while simultaneously ceasing subsidies to the fishing industry. These subsidies had, over previous years, exceeded 40% of the Icelandic government’s total expenditure.

Regardless of this, banks were still left in the hands of the state and power was still held by an elite few, leaving an attempt at economic liberalisation somewhat incomplete. It would not be until 1998 that an Icelandic bank was privatised.

Civil liberties moved in the right direction, however, with Iceland participating in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ratified in 1967. Whilst this might seem an obvious step, it demonstrates how far the government’s position had come since secret dealings in the 1950s that forbade black servicemen from being stationed in Iceland.

The progressive thinking of Iceland in the 1960s was a far cry from today’s default openness, but the following decades would bring us closer to our modern thinking. However, at the end of the sixties, a decision was made that would come to impact not only Iceland’s environment, but also its political discourse for years to comes.

Aluminum Smelters in Iceland

In 1969, Iceland opted for a new approach to strengthening its already healthy—though fishing dependent—economy. In the years proceeding, Icelandic ministers had openly advertised the hydroelectric capabilities of their country, marketing it as prime real estate for foreign industry looking to power their plants on the cheap.

Rio Tinto Alcan, a “global leader in aluminum”, was the first company to build a smelter, operating it from Straumsvík, near Hafnafjörður. It was to be the first of a growing, and visible trend; one that demonstrably proved the landscapes of Iceland would no longer be free of the consequences of rapid modernisation.

Mega-dams, steaming geothermal plants, and infrastructure would, ever so slowly, become as much a part of the scenery as waterfalls and mountains. While the next smelter would not be until the 1990s, Rio Tinto’s positioning set a dangerous precedent, collectively informing the Icelandic population that their government was looking to sell what they held dear… their country, their traditions and their livelihood. 

Ever since, a deep and enduring connection to the environment has been at the forefront of Icelanders’ collective conscious. While this value is still held in esteem today, the lessons of the sixties have taught this island’s people to be vigilant, and unstirring in their commitment to keep Iceland’s countryside from further damage.

If you enjoyed our piece showcasing film footage from the 1960s in Iceland, perhaps you would like to check out our other Forgotten Iceland articles, including Forgotten Iceland | Historical Films of 1920s Reykjavik, Iceland During WW2 | Historical Film Footage and Iceland in the 1950s | Old Film Footage.