Iceland Visual History Blog

The Icelandic Doctor Who Performed Testicular Transplants

April 8, 2015• BY

During his studies in Vienna in the 1920s, Icelandic physician Dr. Jónas Sveinsson discovered a remarkable new form of treatment: Rejuvenation. According to Rejuvenants, ageing could be combated in different ways, but mainly with the uncanny method of transporting testicular tissue between patients, or from other primates to humans.

Dr. Jónas moved back home and became a local physician in the village of Hvammstangi, in rural Northwest Iceland. Once there, he commenced a series of experimental surgeries on the inhabitants, starting with dogs before moving on to common peasants.

The American Soldier Who Travelled To The Year 900 In Iceland

March 12, 2015• BY

What if a modern person travelled back to Viking times? In 1956, the American science fiction author Poul Anderson pondered exactly that in his short story “The Man Who Came Early,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Poul Anderson, who had Danish roots, was one of the better-known writers during the golden age of science fiction. One of his recurring themes was the deeply paradoxical questions surrounding time travel. For instance, if time travel is possible, how would a modern man fare in the past?

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) "was an American science fiction author who began his career during the Golden Age of the genre and continued to write and remain popular into the 21st century. Anderson also authored several works of fantasy, historical novels, and a prodigious number of short stories. He received numerous awards for his writing, including seven Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards." - Wikipedia.

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) “was an American science fiction author who began his career during the Golden Age of the genre and continued to write and remain popular into the 21st century. Anderson also authored several works of fantasy, historical novels, and a prodigious number of short stories. He received numerous awards for his writing, including seven Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards.” – Wikipedia.

This was, obviously, not a new concept. Writers like Mark Twain (‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’) and L. Sprague de Camp (‘Lest Darkness Fall’) had both written stories about modern time travellers in “primitive societies.” But while these stories tell tales of success for the modern person in the past—Mark Twain’s Yankee tricks and fools the court of King Arthur—Poul Anderson’s story is in fact their antithesis: his Yankee finds himself utterly helpless in the Viking society of Iceland.

The story follows an engineering student known as Gerald “Samsson,” who was drafted to serve in Iceland during the Cold War. During a violent thunderstorm in Reykjavík in the 1950s, the American GI travels one thousand years back in time. He wakes up to find himself lying on a cold beach in a strange place, seemingly far from the city, the last place he remembers being. He walks for a while until he sees a group of men, armed with swords and spears, collecting driftwood.

The story is presented in the first person, told by a Viking Age Icelander named Ospak Ulfsson. He is one of the men Gerald meets at the beach.

The newcomer shook his head, as if it had been struck. He got shakily to his feet.

“What happened?” he said. “What happened to the city?”

“What city?” I asked reasonably,

“Reykjavik!” he groaned. “Where is it?”

“Five miles south, the way you came—unless you mean the bay itself,” I said.

“No! There was only a beach, and a few wretched huts, and—”

“Best not let Hjalmar Broadnose hear you call his thorp that,” I counselled.


“Did the Soviets nuke Iceland?”

Ospak and his men are stunned by the visitor, who they think must be a marooned sailor from a shipwreck. But the time traveller, who is wearing a green uniform from the 20th century and a metal helmet engraved with the Roman alphabet letters “MP,” thinks World War III must have started. “Did the Soviets nuke Iceland?” he asks.

Eventually the Viking chieftain Ospak invites Gerald to stay in his house. The soldier had learned Icelandic as part of his training at the army base and is therefore able to exchange words with the ancient Icelanders. Ospak wants to be kind to this strange guest but is unsure where he is from. Gerald tells him about the United States, the land of free.

There is a great panic among the Vikings when Gerald shows them his gun and shoots a horse.

He drew his gun, put the end behind the horse’s ear, and squeezed. There was a crack, and the beast quivered and dropped with a hole blown through its skull, wasting the brains—a clumsy weapon. I caught a whiff of smell, sharp and bitter like that around a volcano. We all jumped, one of the women screamed, and Gerald looked proud. I gathered my wits and finished the rest of the sacrifice as usual.

Apart from this impressive weapon, the US soldier is almost worthless in Viking Iceland. He mentions that his family owns no land and lives in a city. This plunges his social status, as in any rural society a landless man is a poor man.

Gerald thinks he can use his engineering education to modernise the Viking society. But as soon as he starts trying he gives up. He doesn’t know how to use the tools and the materials. Simple tasks like shaving and bathing turn out to be very complicated.


Man from out of time

Gerald and Þórgunnur, the daughter of Ospak, fall in love. This has disastrous consequences as Ketill, a young Viking from the next farm who is in love with the girl, challenges the American to “hólmganga,” a traditional Viking duel. When Gerald finds himself trapped in the duel and about to be cut down, he uses his gun and kills his opponent.

This makes the American into an outlaw. He flees to the highlands equipped only with his gun and a few bullets. The chieftain Ospak feels for his American friend and is deeply saddened by his demise.

Most men think Gerald Samsson was crazy, but I myself believe he did come from out of time, and that his doom was that no man may ripen a field before harvest season. Yet I look into the future, a thousand years hence, when they fly through the air and ride in horseless wagons and smash whole cities with one blow. I think of this Iceland then, and of the young United States men there to help defend us in a year when the end of the world hovers close. Perhaps some of them, walking about on the heaths, will see that barrow and wonder what ancient warrior lies buried there, and they may even wish they had lived long ago in his time when men were free.

A Nazi’s Disappointment With Iceland

March 11, 2015• BY

In the early hours of May 10, 1940, British forces launched Operation Fork, invading Iceland. One of their first tasks, upon disembarking in Reykjavík, was to arrest the German consul, Dr. Werner Gerlach. He was a fanatical member of the Nazi Party and had tried, under orders from the highest level, to win Icelanders over to the German cause.

The Nazi leadership had identified the Icelandic nation as a pure and brave “Aryan nation.” Dr. Gerlach became, however, extremely disappointed with Iceland and its inhabitants, which he deemed to be pathetic. “There is nothing left of the noble nation and its pride, but servility, lack of decency, toadying and humiliation,” he writes in his memorandum.

Iceland had been looked upon as a Germanic paradise of pure racial stock by the fanatical pseudo-intellectual circles inside the Nazi party in the 1930s. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and a leading party member, was very interested in mysticism and idolised the Vikings, who he thought were symbolic of the alleged racial superiority of the Nordic race. Dr. Bernard Kummel, a scholar close to Himmler, wrote a book on the “spiritual treasures” of the Icelandic people and encouraged Germans to seek these in Iceland.

British officers examining Gerlachs office in Reykjavik, on 11 May 1940. A painting of Gerlach is seen in the background.

British officers examining Gerlachs office in Reykjavik, on 11 May 1940. A painting of Gerlach is seen in the background.


Dr. Gerlach’s assignment was to encourage the mighty Icelanders to join the Nazis in the pursuit of racial purity and domination of inferior peoples. Gerlach, who was a respected physician and a long-term member of the Nazi Party, did not find any of the spiritual treasures promised by his commanders. Instead he only saw what he describes as a pathetic behaviour of savage and corrupted degenerates.

We know this because his memos on Icelanders have survived and are stored at the National Archives of Iceland. Werner Gerlach was released as a prisoner of war in 1941 in an exchange of Allied diplomats. He died in 1963. The Allies maintained control over Iceland until the end of the Second World War, denying Germany a chance to seize this “racially” and strategically important island west of Europe.


Telling Quotes From His Memos:

“It’s nothing short of arrogance, that these 117.000 souls, one third of them degenerate weaklings, should desire to be an independent state. Add to that that the cultural level is as not high as they say.”

“Icelanders are a great disappointment. The upbringing of children is pathetic. Schools are beyond the pale. The only school considered remotely acceptable is the Catholic school. In the others, the children learn only to argue. Lack of discipline. The director of educational affairs is a communist. The youth has no longer any idea of the sagas or Iceland’s history, no sense of family or race.”

“We need to reconsider our position on Iceland completely. We need to have scientists do what can be done, but other than that, this grovelling, which meets no kindness, must stop. Modern Icelanders do not deserve us, neither for their temperament, nor their significance, with the exception of a few.”

“Earlier than ten in the morning, there is no possibility of waking anyone, and women not earlier than 12. Men work irregularly. Unemployment. Men do not use their energy for working, but rather to not go to the dogs. Everything, which for us is unimportant, becomes a goal for them (swimming, table tennis). All Germans, that have stayed here long, are not all there, or are apathetic and dumb.”

“Films are almost exclusively American spy films of the lowest sort. The theatre company performs Sherlock Holmes for a whole month. Here, the dramatic subjects from the sagas lie untouched in the gutter.”

“The theatre company performs a German farce by the Jewish pornographers Arnold and Bach. The police banned the play because of its corrupting influence. Then they stage another premiere in front a full house, where a committee of experts and members of parliament are given access and it’s sold out. The press goes mad. Overwhelming enthusiasm and applause.”

“Musical life is of a very low standard here. There are one or two quite good painters, but there is a lot of pretence and junk. Sculpture – Einar Jónsson is half-mad but very Icelandic. Then there’s Ásmundur Jónsson, who is called a cosmopolitan. Clearly Jewish degenerate art. A book has been published on him.”

“Views on Jews – completely uncomprehending. An Icelandic student was asked by his fellows, when discussing the Jewish matters: “Would you marry a Jewish woman?” And he answered: “Yes, why not?” Even the director of the national museum will hand an ashtray to a negro in a red coat.”

“The Icelandic press is more British than the Times. When the Times confesses that the English have been forced to retreat, Vísir publishes the tall tales of the United Press about Allied victories. And then there is the foreign minister’s english-minded rag. You cannot point out enough that the Icelandic newspapers are fifth-rate English country rags.”

“Constant inconvenience day and night from crazy or drunk men – or both. All night, eleven o’clock, twelve, two, drunken Icelanders call and demand to talk with me. Awful alcohol abuse. Black death. Spirits. Alcohol and taxis. Drunken men out in the street. Smuggling.”

“No car tires to be found. Most cars are old, purchased from abroad. Fewer visitors to the swimming pool. No external stimulation. Men lose all standards. No fruits. We were going to buy a bed, in Reykjavík there were only two available. We were going to buy a sink, sinks have been unavailable for three weeks.”

“One thing is certain and must be clearly stated – there is nothing left of the noble nation and its pride, but servility, lack of decency, toadying and humiliation.”

Crossing The Volcanic Wasteland With A Camera And Polished Shoes

March 17, 2014• BY

Horace Dall (1901-1986) lived on a hill in Luton, England. He pointed telescopes towards the stars and photographed the planets of the outer region of the solar system. He was an optician and an innovator of scientific instruments.


But he was also interested in this planet and travelled all around the world with a camera. In the summer 1933, he made an impressive bicycle trip around Iceland. Travelling in Iceland was a different experience in the 1930s. Roads were bad and there was almost no infrastructure for tourists. A cyclist had to cross very difficult terrain practically everywhere, and especially in the mountainous regions.


Iceland’s Forgotten Zoo and the Toothless Wallabies

December 20, 2013• BY

Exotic animals are a rare sight in Iceland. Once upon a time, however, Icelanders could visit lions, monkeys, polar bears, orcas and other creatures at the Hafnafjörður Aquarium, which opened in 1969 and—despite the name—did not limit its menagerie to marine animals. Unfortunately, conditions for the aquarium’s animals were generally poor. This desolate scene was captured by a photographer for the newspaper Tíminn in 1988.

Historical hipsters

December 13, 2013• BY

Hipsters have been an Icelandic fixture for decades. Just consider these photos we found in an old family photo album of hip young people in Ísafjörður in the 1920s. We don’t know who they are, but they seem pretty happy.

The Graf Zeppelin Visits Reykjavík

September 15, 2013• BY

“On Thursday, July 17, at around 11:00 AM, the citizens of Reykjavík looked up at the sky in astonishment as the magnificent German airship Graf Zeppelin sailed towards the city. Slowly and majestically it approached, its grey body shining in the sunlight. It flew very slowly over the city in a circular pattern and its beauty captivated everybody who witnessed this great sight. It was a truly unforgettable scene as Iceland has never had a more distinguished airborne visitor.” (Fálkinn, August 1930)

Reading this caption today, it’s as if the small village of Reykjavík had been visited by an alien spaceship. In 1930, Iceland was still a very remote and obscure island nation struggling to keep up with the pace of modernisation in Northern Europe. Pessimism was on the rise as Iceland’s fragile economy had been severely affected by the onset of the Great Depression the year prior. Airplanes were an uncommon sight, so it must have been “a truly unforgettable scene” when that elegant German airship appeared above Reykjavík in July 1930.

The Zeppelins navigated the globe to demonstrate and test the airships. The Zeppelins transported passengers and mail on transatlantic flights in the 1930s before the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, and other political and economic issues, which hastened the demise of the airships. Iceland was visited a second time in 1931. TOP: LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin flying over the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson on Arnarhóll hill in central Reykjavík in July 1930. Photo by amateur photographer Ingimundur Guðmundsson.


roe-3520 zeppelin


Viking Life in the Storm-Cursed Faroes, 1930

August 9, 2013• BY

“The Faeroes [sic] remain practically unchanged by modern civilization and untouched by the tourist. Modern civilization can find no foothold on their windy cliffs; there life can exist only when modeled on ancient, primitive patterns. And so the islanders, forever wrestling with waves and winds, have little time for the tourist or his money. Like the giant battle fleet of some latter-day Thor, The Faeroes ride the stormy  Atlantic, straining each at its anchor.”


So does the Danish photographer Leo Hansen describe the Faroe Islands, in an article in the National Geographic from November 1930. In the article, Hansen writes about his frequent trips to the Faroes to take photographs, and introduces the magazine’s American readers to the islands’ culture and nature and the islanders’ struggle for livelihood. The article is illustrated with a treasure trove of Hansen’s own photographs, some of which you can see here below.


The captions are taken from the original article. Read the full article here (PDF document).


Celebrating One Thousand Years of Alþingi in 1930

August 8, 2013• BY

In the summer of 1930, 28-year-old Swedish photographer and scholar Berit Wallenberg travelled to Iceland where she spent a couple of weeks. She was a member of the Wallenberg dynasty, a prominent Swedish industrialist and banking family. The most famous Wallenberg is Raoul, who is believed to have saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, but Berit became well known in her own right, particularly for her archaeological research and work in the field of photography.


In a collection of 25,000 photos that she gifted to the Swedish National Heritage Board are the ones she took in Iceland on the remarkable occasion in June 1930 when Icelanders gathered at Þingvellir to commemorate the thousand-year anniversary of their national parliament Alþingi. Founded in 930 at Þingvellir (“the parliament plains”), Alþingi is considered the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world. Although parliament no longer convenes there, Þingvellir remains a popular tourist destination located about 45 km east of Reykjavík.

The Shock of the Century: Faroe Islands 1-0 Austria (1990)

August 4, 2013• BY

Faroe Islands shocked the football world when they beat Austria 1–0 in their first ever competitive international game in September 1990. The game, a Euro 92 qualifier, was played in Landskrona, Sweden because there were no grass pitches on the Islands. The goalscorer was Torkil Nielsen, a timber salesman and chess player from Sandavágur. Goalkeeper Jens Martin Knudsen had a great game and made a series of fine saves. His white, bobble hat was his trademark.


“I thought a lot about taking off the hat because I would have been the world’s biggest laughing stock if we’d lost 0-10, but it’s good to wear something on your head when you’re in a new world,” he later told Rund. “There are plenty of good ‘keepers in Europe, but they don’t wear hats so they’re not remembered. Maybe that was my good fortune.”