World War One’s impact on Scandinavia

In 1918, the first world war ended in Europe, and it had claimed millions of casualties, the war also changed the face of the European map from being dominated by three big empires in the East, to a Europe with new states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Finland and The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (which before the War had been consisting of Serbia alone, but now included Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia as well as Bosnia.)Although these developments and consequences of the First World War are fairly well-known, this paper will look at the impact of the first world war in Northern Europe, and by this we’re not talking about the impact it had on Germany or Poland, but on the three kingdoms Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and what became the republics Iceland and Finland.

Between 1800 and 1914 the map of Northern Europe and Scandinavia changed drastically, with the states of Norway appearing, and Finland shifting from being a part of Sweden to becoming an integrated part of the Russian Empire. In 1914, the independent kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were all facing the question how to deal with the military conflict developing elsewhere in Europe. Scandinavia had over the course of the late nineteenth century grown more and more used to a certain element of imported goods to feed its populations. The Norwegian, Danish and Finnish Merchant navies were all heavily involved with the shopping of goods throughout the world. This meant that when the First World War broke out, the three Scandinavian kingdoms were faced with a problem of how to stay out of the war, and still maintain their economic interests. The three kingdoms Denmark, Sweden and Norway joined in a neutrality union, and attempted to maintain their neutrality throughout the conflict. This neutrality was not without complications, Norway and Denmark were heavily dependent on Britain and USA for most of its shipping orders, and to supply them with grain as well as being their main markets for some products. However, Denmark also faced another challenge, with a shared border with Germany, and a considerable Danish minority in the then German South Jutland, Denmark knew that it could not afford a repetition of the 1864 war against Prussia and Austria. Sweden, like Norway exported enormous amount of iron, steel and copper to Germany, which meant that these countries could not afford to cut its financial links with the German Empire. Sweden and Norway also shared borders with Russia, and had good economic links with the Romanov Empire. Norway could for example not afford to oppose Russia, as the Russian Pomor trade from Archangelsk kept the North Norwegian fishing villages alive through bringing grain to the Northern Norwegian counties who were unable to sustain themselves with corn, and the Russian traders bought some of the fish products which were produces along the coast of Troms and Finnmark County. With these important connections, Norway, Sweden and Denmark could not afford to go into the conflict on either side of the war, especially as the outcome of a war could have dramatic impact on the territories of these kingdoms, just like the Napoleonic wars had 100 years earlier. The Scandinavian kingdoms stayed neutral throughout the war, although external pressure caused Norway to lean more and more towards the British and American cause. This sympathy led to the mining of the Norwegian waters and a blockage of trade with Germany. Sweden on the other hand turned favourable to Germany b 1918, but this did not jeopardise the Swedish neutrality.

Even though the neutrality were maintained for all there kingdoms throughout the war, all the kingdoms experienced lack of resources, and increasing cost of living for the population and social unrest based on these things. The main impact of the First World War on Scandinavia did however come on the eastern and southern borders of it. Finland which since the Napoleonic war had been a part of the Russian Empire, were in 1914 drawn into the First World War against Germany. The Finnish navy and Merchant navy were damaged and its troops took part in the conflict on behalf of the Russian Empire. But as the war turned into revolution in Russia, the Finnish parliament first established a degree of extended autonomy in the spring of 1917, followed by full Independence in the fall of 1917. The Soviet takeover of Russian government initially was favourable towards an independent Finland, and the Finnish parliament declared it independent and elected a German Prince as its King. The outcome of the First World War in Europe, and the abdication of the German Emperor caused the German prince that was appointed king of Finland to withdraw, and the Finnish parliament declared the state a republic. Yet, the growth of Communism in Russia also impacted the working classes in Finland, and soon after the War a civil war broke out between the Whites (landowning farmers, educated middle class and the elite) and the Reds (the workers and landless farmers) this conflict resulted in open war and thousands of dead on both sided, and is still a taboo in Finnish society. The Finland soon became an internationally recognised state, and became a 1920 a member of the League of Nations.

When the war was over, a clause was added to the Treaty of Versailles, that Southern Jutland should be divided into two sections, which both should be allowed to vote over their future, to stay as a part of Germany, or to return to Denmark as they had been prior to 1864. The northern section of south Jutland, which had a Danish speaking majority, said yes to return to Denmark. Whereas in the southern section, although it contained the Danish speaking city of Flensburg, the majority vote were in favour of a continuous relationship with Germany. This created the current borders between Denmark and Germany. And still to this day, there is a German minority on the Danish side of the Denmark-Germany border, and a Danish minority on the German side of the same border.

The submarine attacks by German submarines on British and American ships lead to a massive destruction of the Norwegian Merchant Navy, and the loss of over 2000 civilian seamen, the loss of these ships gave the shipping companies the financial capacity to renew their fleet of ships, which would be instrumental in the battle against Nazism under the Second World War as it would help to deliver supplies to both the UK and the Soviet Union.

For Iceland, the years of War had given a slow economic growth as they could sell the fishing products to reasonable prices. Iceland regained its ‘independence’ in 1918. Iceland was with this a fully sovereign state which only shared its king with Denmark. Thus Scandinavia in 1918 had consisted of 5 different kingdoms, although the Finnish and Icelandic kingdoms did not survive long. Iceland became a republic as a consequence of the Second World War, and Finland following the German defeat in the First World War. Thus after the First World War, Scandinavia had, like much of Europe, seen its borders shift and new states appear. But most significantly did the Soviet Communism in Russia inspire the Socialist movements in Scandinavia which started years of social unrest leading up to the Second World War.


Norwegian Encyclopedia online, The History of Denmark,

Norwegian Encyclopedia online, World War One,

Norwegian Encyclopedia online, The History of Sweden,

Norwegian Encyclopedia online, Norwegian History from 1905-1939,

The Everyday Life of an Icelandic Outlaw in the Sagas

Early Icelandic jurisdiction had very few methods of punishment for its criminals. Not only were there no prisons, but there was also no person with the power to do something like inflict the death penalty. The main options of punishment were either fines or outlawry.

Outlawry was the exclusion of the criminal from society and the protection of its laws. Other people were also forbidden to help the outlaws in any way. There were two kinds of outlawry; ‘lesser outlawry’ which lasted for three years, and ‘full outlawry’, which continued until the outlaw had killed three other outlaws, which does not seem likely. Full outlawry essentially meant banishment from Iceland altogether, or death for the outlaw, seeing as they were not only struggling to survive alone, but also usually being hunted down for revenge in most cases.

It was actually fairly common for an outlaw to still be helped by their family and friends, seeing as it was not easy to prevent them from doing so. Other than family and friends, it was often one of the local chieftains (goðar) who would protect them in return for them essentially becoming a slave, or being used to kill off their enemies.

The type of life an outlaw would have led attracted the attention of later saga writers. Sagas such as Grettis Saga and Gisla Saga, unlike other sagas, focussed on one character, and in this case they were outlaws. They portrayed the outlaw protagonists as somewhat heroic, but also not entirely likeable. However eventually the reader is encouraged to sympathise with them. In these sagas, the majority of the narrative is about the hero’s life as an outlaw, giving us some insight into how their lives could have been. However, it is important to bear in mind that these Sagas have the tendency to exaggerate some dramatic and tragic aspects of outlawry. For example, the fact that an outlaw is highly likely to die sooner rather than later, leads these stories to make this a focus point, and there seems to be a requirement for there to be an avenging party hunting the hero to kill them, creating a dramatic build-up of action and tension. This type of situation may have only really occurred in extreme cases, because an outlaw would probably be more likely to die from causes related to their isolation, rather than killed for revenge, especially considering that they may have been impossible to catch in many cases, if they had travelled far enough, or even to another country.

The overall point that should be taken from looking at outlaws in the sagas, is that, although they may give us insight into how the life of an outlaw could have been, it might not give us a complete picture. It would not have made for a particularly interesting story if the protagonist was a completely unlikable criminal, who perhaps murdered and raped people, was made an outlaw and struggled to survive before freezing or starving to death alone. This would probably have happened to many outlaws, but this does not make the sagas entirely unreliable. They can still be highly valuable sources for information, as long as you know to keep in mind, that they are primarily stories.

The Legend of The Kraken

The Kraken is a legendary giant sea creature that was said to have lived in and around the coasts of Scandinavian countries. Tales of mythical sea monsters resembling a kraken would probably have existed since people first sighted a giant squid. Kraken have been depicted in a number of ways, primarily as large octopus or squid-like creatures, and it has often been alleged that the kraken might have originally been based on sailors’ observations of the giant squid. In the earliest depictions however, the creatures were more crab-like, and also possessed traits that are associated with large whales rather than with giant squid. Some traits of kraken resemble undersea volcanic activity occurring in the Iceland region, including bubbles of water; sudden, dangerous currents; and appearance of new land.

By looking at the characteristics of different descriptions of the kraken, it is quite easy to see how natural occurrences other than sea creatures have influenced the legends and stories. For example the 13th century Old Icelandic saga Örvar-Odds saga tells of two massive sea-monsters called Hafgufa (“sea mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”). The hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the kraken. In other sources, the kraken is told to usually appear, and attack vessels in patches of thick mist at sea, particularly around Iceland. The mist is also told to be created from the kraken itself, with the mist smelling awful, likened to rotting fish coming from the krakens stomach. This can most likely be explained by further volcanic activity under and around Iceland, explaining the cases with the foul-smelling mist. Other elements of a kraken attack include pulling apart ships with tentacles, or it simply lying in wait, appearing to be an island, and allowing for ships to flow into its mouth in the obscuring mist. These can also be explained; with the attacks form the creature’s tentacles perhaps really being the undersea volcanic activity mentioned earlier, creating sudden bubbles of water, and large dangerous waves and currents that would pull a ship apart in severe cases. The mentions of a kraken appearing as an island and allowing ships to sail into its mouth most likely also come from volcanic activity, with small islands being pushed above the surface of the water fairly frequently in the high activity volcanic area of which Iceland itself was made from. Overall, it is fairly simple to see how stories of a horrific and deadly sea creature emerged from such occurrences. With the combination of sudden, deadly currents of water, unexpected pieces of land popping up and the sightings of large creatures in the water, all obscured by a strange, disgusting smelling mist, it’s no wonder that the Scandinavian seafarers of the time thought something ‘supernatural’ was happening in their waters, Especially when ships went missing or were found wrecked and deserted.

Although the term kraken is first found used in the 18th century, as mentioned above, the most iconic representation of the creature comes from Icelandic, and other Scandinavian writings. But similarly sized and feared sea creatures have been around far longer than that. Examples of this include the Greek legend of Scylla, also paired with the Greek legend of Charybdis. These creatures, although having a more established mythological background relating to the gods, may also have similarly real origins as the Kraken. For example, Charybdis was said to swallow a huge amount of water three times a day, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater. This can be explained  simply by dangerous currents of water as well.

Although fictional and the subject of myth, the legend of the kraken continues to the present day, with numerous references existing in popular culture, including film, literature, television, video games. However the supposed original culprit for the stories of this gigantic creature, the giant squid, seems to have been trying to prove the reasons for fear of the kraken. On at least three occasions in the 1930’s they reportedly attacked a ship. While the squids got the worst of these encounters when they slid into the ship’s propellers, the fact that they attacked at all shows that maybe the legend of the kraken doesn’t seem as ridiculous as may have first thought.