All posts by Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl

Regaining Iceland for the Catholic Church in the mid-19th Century


“We left a country looking sterile (Faeroe) but we found ourselves in country totally arid. One would think of a desert.”


In the year 1551 the last Catholic bishop of Iceland Jón Arason was beheaded in the North of the country for refusing to convert to Protestantism and recognize the Danish king. With the beheading, the history of the Catholic Church in Iceland came to an end. For the next three hundred years, there ceased to be Catholics in Iceland. Things started to change on the 5th June 1849, when Denmark got a new constitution and for the first time religious freedom became part of this new constitution.

Due to the specific political situation in the nation, the provisions of civil liberties and religious freedom in particular that were found in the Danish constitution did not appear as attractive in Iceland as one could have expected. The political development at the national meeting of 1851 culminated in a clash between the Icelandic political elite and the Danish government representative; thus provisions of religious freedom did not materialize in Iceland until a new constitution was passed in 1874. As a consequence, decrees from 1786 and 1787 were still in force that stated that religious practices other than evangelical Lutheran was not allowed outside the larger villages/cities and any missionary work or preaching was altogether forbidden. At this time the Icelandic population lived in the rural areas and the limited permission for other religious practices was originally intended for foreigners.[1].

The political peculiarities of the Icelandic situation in the mid-19th Century made it difficult for new religious beliefs – and indeed some other liberal ideas – to gain ground in the country. But the lack of formal rights to religious freedom was only a partial expression of the situation. As Pétur Pétursson has pointed out in his examination of the secularization process in Iceland 1830-1930, there was a close connection between the existing conservative state church doctrine, often named after the Danish professor H.L. Martensen, the loyalty to the Danish king (as opposed to the Danish government) and politics of the early Icelandic struggle for independence. The Icelandic condition was characterized by a homogeneous culture born out of a predominantly rural social structure with church monopoly, where the clergy served as the main agents of the moral and social order and often also being the political leaders of their communities. The prevailing religious doctrine was conservative and still untouched by new ideals of rationalism or the intellectual turmoil that was being felt in Copenhagen at the time. However, this conservative standpoint – that was partly based in the unity of the crown and religion, the unity of the king and religion – found a rather strange bedfellow in the progressive and in many ways radical nationalistic demands of the intellectual Icelandic political elite. Or in the words of Pétur Pétursson: “Thus, even though based on different reasons, the Martensenian theologians and the fundamental Icelandic Nationalist supported the supremacy of the King and religious homogeneity as the basis of social order. According to the definition of the nationalistic leaders, the opponent of the Icelandic nation-state building was not the King, but the Danish Government and the Danish administration.”[2]

Iceland in the mid-19th Century did not constitute a fertile soil to sow the seeds of a new faith. The public and practically all social institution guarded, albeit for different reasons, the hegemony of the evangelical Lutheran church and all challenges to this hegemony were seen as a threat to national unity and the process of nation building.[3] Still, in spite of the official ban on preaching other religious beliefs that the Lutheran, it seems that the few persons that actually did practice other religious teachings throughout the 19th Century did receive any real punishment. Rather, both church leaders and the civil authorities seem to have tried to reason these people and steer them onto the right path. Indeed, in the middle of the century, only two attempts or challenges were made to the hegemony of the Lutheran Church.

One was a Mormon mission that principally originated in the 1850s in one converted individual in Vestmannaeyjar, just south of the shores of the mainland. This mission had some success in the islands, but the reaction of the church and Icelandic government administration was to attempt to isolate the “danger” by hindering its spread to the mainland, and put the Mormon deviation in a kind of “quarantine” (Pétur Pétursson 1990). However, the Mormon movement never really constituted a real threat to the religious and cultural establishment, as most of the converted people had their eyes and interests focused on Mormon colonies abroad and practically all of them emigrated to Utah in the USA during the latter part of the century.

The other challenge was the Catholic Church, which in the late 1850s sent missionaries to Iceland, to begin with a Catholic priest and an assistant. The proclaimed purpose of their stay in Iceland was to service the thousands of French seamen that were fishing for cod in Icelandic waters. In the mid-19th Century and indeed throughout the 1800s and into the first decades of the 20th Century, thousands of French seamen were fishing in Icelandic wasters, often experiencing harsh living conditions both in terms of material and spiritual wellbeing.[4] It seems that although the official and most visible purpose of the Catholic mission was to attend to the French sailors, the mission was to reclaim Iceland to the Catholic faith. But in spite of the construction of a relatively plausible strategy to this end, the Icelandic conditions and lack of support by the head of the mission Stepan Stephanovic Dzunkovskij made the beginning very difficult.

In 1854 the Catholic Church founded the “North Pole Mission” with the intention to regain the Scandinavian countries, including Iceland, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands and the Polar region of North America for the Catholic faith. In charge of the mission was Stepan Stephanovic Dzunkovskij. He was a Russian aristocrat who had converted to Catholicism. After visiting different Scandinavian countries, he suggested to the Propaganda fide – the institution in Rome responsible for missionary work – to unite the Scandinavian countries to one apostolic prefecture.[5] An apostolic prefecture is an area designed for missionary work by the Vatican. Dzunkovskij was nominated as the prefect for the mission. He succeeded in finding six priests willing to work as missionaries in the North. One of them was the French priest Bernard. Bernard appears be the first Catholic priest setting foot on Iceland after the Reformation.

Some of Bernard’s letters from Iceland have survived. In one of his first letters, addressed to the head of the mission and dating 1st September 1857, written in “Seydesfjord” (sic),[6] Bernard describes with optimism the possibilities for his work. He starts the letter by letting Dzunkovskij know that father Oddenino, the Italian priest that came with Bernard to Iceland, had turned around and taken the same boat back to the Continent. He would consider coming back if they had at least a house to stay. Bernard was at the beginning not alone, “Olaf Gunlegson”[7] (sic) stayed with him for two months to teach him the basic of Icelandic language and to help him to make contact with the Icelandic people. Gunnlaugsson left then and, according to Bernhard, intended to go to the Catholic university in Munich and become member of the Propaganda fide. However, in September, Gunnlaugsson was in Rome where he published a memorandum for the mission in Iceland.[8]

Bernard pointed out in this letter the problems the mission was facing, like the Icelandic law forbidding the practice of any other religion than the “Lutheran and Judaism”, this is what the “syslemann (sic)” Mr. Thorstenson and Jonson had told him in an official conversation.[9] It might well be – he kept on writing – that it could be accepted to practice the Catholic rites for the Catholics. But he was told that he is not free to celebrate the mass openly.

The reason Bernard gave to the local population for being there were the French fishermen. Between 2000 and 3000 came each summer to fish around the cost of Iceland for cod.[10] He underlines that there are often cases of sickness and death and the “poor ones are without any help, and the dead ones buried right and left by protestant priests”. Already in his first letter the plan is mentioned to build a hospital for the seafarer, a hospital which would also justify their presence.

He was staying in Seydisfjord with Mr Poppe, representing the company Örum and Wulff[11] in Copenhagen; renting one room in the house. It was the only room he could find in the East of Iceland. He concluded that he has to focus on learning the language and getting a house for himself. He was scared celebrating publicly the service and trying to missionize since he might get stopped by the authorities. “If I have a house I would be free to do inside whatever I want”. He was also thinking about opening a school in the East of Iceland and starting to educate the youngsters, which also would allow him to interact with the local population. According to Bernard, there was no school in the East of Iceland and therefore the local population might be happy about it. He also explains why “Seydisfjord” was a good place for the mission, since there were enough people living there and there was a connection to Europe by boat, due to the fishermen and other vessels.

For the moment there was not so much to do for him, but he hoped to have building material sent to him the following Spring. He further thought that in Eskifjörd, as it is an open harbour where foreigners were allowed to settle, they should build a small establishment run by two or three good Catholics. So there would be two or three secular Catholics and two priests in the country. The secular could run the business with France exporting Icelandic goods and importing others from France. Wool, skin, fish oil, salted meat of sheep, eiderdown and more would do. Everyone would gain from this. The transport would not cost much, since there were all the French vessels coming each year anyhow. If the business worked out the priests could stay with them and would get in contact with the local people. He thought that Icelanders would welcome the idea, because having competition with the Danes would be only in their interest. He kepts speculating since there were six harbours in Iceland where foreigners were allowed to settle: “We could therefore invade the country not in a materialistic but a spiritual manner. I therefore ask you to send me the permission and the means to start this enterprise.” He concludes the letter from the 1st of September 1857 that there is no hatred against the Catholics and they should promote their mission in the eyes of the Icelanders “as a way back to the faith of their fathers.”[12]

After the winter, Bernard’s optimism had faded. In a letter from 17th May 1858[13] to Dzunkovskij Bernard welcomed the arrival of a second French priest Baudoin, but was nevertheless “disappointed” since he had asked for funding in order to build up something and to be able to live in Iceland, and Baudoin did came with nearly empty hands and had not received any sufficient financial means. He wrote further to Dzunkovskij that if they will not receive soon funding he will have to return in the Fall with the French fisherman. In his letter he pointed out what kind of defeat this would be and the satisfaction that would shine in the eyes of the protestants, trying to appeal to the pride of the head of the mission, since Dzunkovskij cannot want that “the protestants would applaud if they see a Catholic priest arriving and expressing his desire to build something for his Catholic compatriots and at the end he has not even enough to live on.”[14]

He once again reminded his superior the reason why he was in Iceland, i.e. to bring the faith in a country where no religious freedom exist “except for Jews and Lutherans”, so for the time he contented himself to studying theology, history of the Catholic Church and the Icelandic language in order “to destroy the prejudice which exist around me (…) and try to gain confidence around me”. He had no money and not even letters with a little bit of advice had reached him. He was not optimistic about succeeding with the mission if the circumstances will not change. He again repeats what he already pointed out in the first letter, that he was not trying to openly convert the people for the Catholic Church, because, as he wrote, it had been agreed that he would present himself in Iceland acting for the French fishermen. Therefore it was paramount that a building materialised as soon as possible.

He pointed out that some people already suspected that he was not only in Iceland in order to help his compatriots and that the Lutheran bishop in Reykjavik gave special instructions to his priests with warnings, while a small brochure had been printed in Eyjafjörd in 1857 by the protestant priest Hallgrimson in order to warn the people against the “wolves” coming to the countries to devour and reminding the priests and the authorities of their task.[15] And he further explained that an anonymous letter in Norðri (a monthly journal) came up with the idea that his coming to Iceland was a Jesuit move[16]. And he continued: “Nevertheless the syslemaner (sic) received me in the North”. The most important thing, he underlines once more, is to acquire a home. He explained further what was the best way to send him money and he asked if he could also get some religious books and leaflets, since he had nothing to give to these people here.

Dzunkovskij seemed not to have reacted to the request of Bernard, but he is however active himself in Copenhagen and tries to reach the influential Icelandic community there. In a letter from 14th May 1857 to the Head of the Propaganda fide in Rome he claimed that the president of the Icelandic parliament Jón Sigurðsson came personally to visit him and stated that “if they should speak about religion in the parliament he would simply say that if all Icelandic want to become Catholics, then he would applaud and imitate their example. Finally I also got all publication by the Icelandic literature society and was offered to become member.” [17]

The optimism of Dzunkovskij was not shared by Bernard. In August he still hasn’t received any funding and in a letter dated 20th August 1858[18] he recapitulated his experience. There is no address on the letter and it is not clear to whom exactly it is addressed, but the context might suggest a Belgian church member, since for the first time he mentions not only the French but also the Belgian fishermen. Again he talked about the big number of 240 to 300 boats in the bay with French and Belgian fisherman and the lack of living space, which could otherwise allow them to teach children and attract people. He explained that they welcomed in their one room “our poor compatriots, who were sick, and took care of them as far as we could. We offer to some of them the sacraments and bury their dead.”[19] At the end he pointed out that the ship owners in France and Belgium should support them to build up a home in Iceland, since otherwise thousands of Catholics, whom they were sending to Iceland, would be without spiritual and material help.

Still, nothing seemed to be happening and Bernard started to take the things into his own hands and decided to go to France in order to negotiate directly with the ship owners. In a letter from the 14th September 1858[20] written in Dunkerque, Bernard explains that he had left on the 24th August to France on one of the 13 boats leaving on that day from Seydisfjord. He also announces that he left Baudoin alone at his post. He reminds him again of their financial problems. He seemed to have a new plan, since he proposes now to buy a farm, which is on sale: “400 sheep, 7 cows and 10 horses, all Personnel would be available, even a small forge and a mill, with peat”. Peat, as he explains to his reader, is important in a country without coal and wood. He would need about 30,000 Francs in order to buy the farm. This would be around 60,000 euros today. The farm would be in the bay of Seydisfjord. He is asking for the money. He keeps on reminding how much they are needed there also for “our poor French fisherman” and their urgent needs for their bodies and spirits. He comes again up with the idea for funding a hospital in Iceland . He further points out in the letter that the French sailors should be better supervised, since their disorderly behaviour creates prejudices among the locals.

In a letter dated 7 September 1858[21] from Dunkerque, Bernard writes this time to the head of the Propaganda fide, the man superior to Dzunkovskij, and once again tries to explain the situation in Iceland and the need for the proper funding of the mission:

“What can we do living in a room rented from a Protestant in an unfree country. I told you my need for funding just in order to sustain ourselves, but I have nothing received so far since I came to Iceland and when abbé Baudoin arrived this spring he also brought nothing with him. I told you if we receive nothing we will be forced to return with the French boats at the end of the month of August. When the time arrived and we received no news, also not from T. Rv. Préfet apost..(this means Dzunkovskij), there was no means for staying another year. Also some other things are urgently needed, first of all wine in order to read the mass (all these things cannot be found in Iceland). On the 24 august 13 boats were in the Fjord and I was happy to take the offer on one boat where the captain was very ill and I cared for him. So I came here to find out what has been decided concerning Iceland.”

He is waiting in Dunkerque for money, since he even does not have enough funds to return to his diocese in Reims or Anvers, where he wants to spend the winter before hopefully going back in the [22]spring to Iceland.

It will take until 1903 before his dream is realised and a hospital is built for the French sailors.

churchGB1 copy

The French hospital in Fáskrúðsfjörður, source Wikipedia







[1] Þórunn Valdimarsdóttir, , „Til móts við nútíman in: (ed.) Pétur Pétursson and Þórunn Valdimarsdóttir Kristni á Íslandi Alþingi 2000 (vol 4).,

[2] (Pétur Pétursson, 1990, p.111)

[3] (Pétur Pétursson, 1990; Þórunn Valdemarsdóttir, op.cit.)

[4] See for an account of the french seamen in Iceland : Elín Pálmadóttir: Fransí biskví – Frönsku Íslandssjómennirnir, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík 1989

[5] Franz Kalde: Diözesane und quasidiözesane Teilkirchen, in: Joseph Listl / Heribert Schmitz (Hg.): Handbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts, 2. grundlegend neubearbeitete Auflage, Regensburg 1999, S. 420ff., insbes. S. 423.

[6] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. I (1855-1869). All the letters are written in French and translated by Markus Meckl. The letters have been obtained by the Catholic Church in Iceland from the Archives of Propaganda de Fide.

[7] Ólafur Gunnlaugsson,(1831- which might have been the first Icelander converting to the Catholic church after reformation. He did so in 1856 and supported the mission at the beginning.

[8] Saga published the memorandum which Gunnlaugsson wrote in September 1857 in Rom for the mission, Saga, 1975, pp. 227-239.

[9] Since 1855 was it allowed for Jews to settle in Iceland, but not before 1906 a Jew would settle in Iceland. See: Markus Meckl, Island, in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart, hrsg. Wolfgang Benz., S. 164-165.

[10] The french writer Pierre Loti describes the lives of these fishermen in the novelle: Pecheur d‘Islande, 1886.

[11] A Danish trading company.

[12] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. I (1855-1869).

[13] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. II (1855-1869).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Letter from 17th May 1858, Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. II (1855-1869).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. I (1855-1869).

[18] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. II (1855-1869).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. II (1855-1869).

[21] Skjalasafn kaþólsku kirkjunnar 1. A. II (1855-1869).

“Karlson” – A Stasi “Kontakt Person”. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy



Iceland’s geographical position gave this small nation a special strategic importance in the political and military chess game between east and west during the Cold War era. Placed in the mid Atlantic, Iceland constituted an important post for the NATO defence forces and surveillance activities. This importance can be seen in the presence of American troops at a NATO base in Keflavik from 1951 until 2004. The military base and the NATO alignment created stark divisions among the population and was one of two major cleavages that characterized Icelandic politics throughout the post- WWII era, especially during the Cold War. The other cleavage that marked Icelandic politics of the time was the left-right dimension. The four traditional parties of the Icelandic party system ranked in a different order on these two continuums, with the right wing Independence Party allying with the Social Democrats in its support for NATO and the military base, while the centre agrarian Progressive Party supported NATO membership but joined forces with the Socialist Party in the opposition to the military base. The Socialists however were stern opponents of both the base and NATO membership, while they expressed sympathetic views for the People’s Democratic Republics in the eastern bloc.[1] Left wing socialists held up ties with their sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, while bourgeois politicians cultivated their links with western or mainly American liberal democracy.  The political discussion was framed in terms of the Cold War and the press, which throughout most of the 20th century was a party press, continuously suggested that the political motives of their opponents were conspicuously linked to or derived from either the interests of Soviet or Eastern European communism or US capitalist imperialism.

It was in this circumstances that in the fifties and sixties young left wing people sought to undertake their university education in the Eastern block and more often than not the Socialist Party in Iceland (SEI) was in one way or another the go-between in arranging for such student positions. Many of these left wing students kept contact with each other even though they did not study in the same place or country. At a point in the late fifties these students had formed an organisation, SÍA, Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga Austantjalds (The Society of Socialist Icelanders in the Eastern Bloc) that had considerable influence within SEI, the Icelandic Socialist Party.[2] In 1962 members of the youth organisation of the conservative Independence Party managed to get hold of – in fact steal – some of the internal correspondence of the SÍA group and subsequently the correspondence was published letter by letter in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið along with some political explanations from a right wing standpoint. The correspondence was also published by the Conservative youth organization, Heimdallur, in a special booklet labelled the “Red Book”. Remarkable as it may sound, the correspondence between the Icelandic students in SÍA shows a great deal of criticism of the socialist system as practiced in the Eastern bloc, though in general of course their views were very sympathetic to the People’s Democratic Republics. From the standpoint of the conservatives in Iceland the purpose of the publication of the SÍA correspondence was to show that the students in Eastern Europe, along with the Socialist Party of Iceland, were plotting a communist takeover in cooperation with their communist allies in the east, even though they knew that the system was not working well and had all sorts of flaws.[3] This whole affair exemplifies the frenzy and the tone of the political discussion in Iceland during the Cold War and the suspicion that was created around the students that studied in the Eastern Bloc.

The legacy of heated feelings of the Cold War has in many ways survived the Cold War itself. The demand for some sort of reckoning or historical rectification has frequently come up, particularly in relation to the publication of documents that have become accessible after the fall of communism. This has been felt in Iceland mainly at a general political level but its implications have also been personal – putting the spotlight on the individuals that supported communism and in particular those who studied in the Democratic People’s Republics, not the least the German Democratic Republic. This paper will examine to what extent demands for a historical reckoning are relevant by looking at a particular case that can be found in the Stasi archives. By conducting a case study of this kind, a light is shed on important factors that tend to be lost in the more ideological and normative public political discussion. The case examined is the one of a young student who became a Stasi informer in the early 1960s, know as “Kontakt Person Karlsson”.


“Kontact Person (KP) Karlson”

According to the archives of East Germanys State security service (Stasi) one Icelandic student cooperated with the Stasi while studying in East Germany.[4] His name was Guðmundur Ágústsson, who after returning to Iceland became a bank manager. In 1959 he arrived as a young student via Vienna in East Germany, where he first attended a language course in Leipzig before taking up his studies at the University of Economics in Berlin-Karlshorst. Later his sister followed him to East Berlin.

On the 9 February 1963, four years after entering East Germany, a note is found in the Stasi files concerning “making contact with the person”.[5] Before this remark in the files, the Stasi had already gathered information about Guðmundur Ágústsson , since a report explains that he seemed to be “open towards our problems”.[6] In this first description of Guðmundur Ágústsson to be found in the files, his appearance is described as “modest and dutiful”, also his “perfect moral conduct” is underlined,[7] contrary to the one of his sister who, according to the report, is “in some cases very impulsive”.[8]

According to the minutes of the first meeting between the Lieutenant Koch as representative of the Stasi and Guðmundur Ágústsson, Koch explained to the Icelandic student that lately pubic disorder in East Germany was increasingly initiated through West Berlin and therefore it was necessary for GDR “to take measures against the enemy’s intentions. In order to do so we have to involve foreigners, and since we knew that he [Guðmundur Ágústsson] was a member of our brother party SEI, we have turned to his person”.[9] According to the minutes Guðmundur Ágústsson answered positively to the request of the Stasi; he agreed to visit West Berlin and establish contacts with students there as well as to report on activities at the University of Economics where he studied.

Guðmundur Ágústsson was, according to the Stasi files, one of 25 Icelandic students studying at the time in the GDR. All were members of the SEI. They all came to East Germany through the mediation of the SEI or the Federation of Icelandic Trade Unions. During their first meeting Lieutenant Koch asked Guðmundur Ágústsson not to talk with anyone about his contact to the Stasi and they agreed to use the codename “Karlson” for him. After this meeting the Stasi run “Karlson” as a “Kontakt Person” (KP) in its files. “Kontakt Persons” were individuals used by the Stasi, sometimes without their knowledge, but also, as in this case, people who knowingly cooperated with the Stasi. “Karlson” knew, as the documents indicate, that his interlocutors were working for the Stasi.

“Karlson’s” first job assignment consisted of establishing a contact with an Icelandic student in West Berlin, “with the aim of assessing if this contact could be further exploited”. In order to do so “Karlson” should find out, “with whom he [the friend] has contact”, and further, he should report about groups and “their participation in actions against the anti-fascist protective barrier” (meaning the Berlin Wall)[10] and evaluate the general mood in West Berlin. “Karlson”, according to the minutes, agreed to do so. But he did not agree to introduce his acquaintances in West Berlin to the Stasi.[11] The reason he gave was that in his opinion the friend “was politically not ready”.[12] However “Karlson” proposed approaching another Icelander in West Berlin who might be willing to cooperate with the Stasi. According to “Karlson” this was a friend who had gotten an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to become a lecturer. The minutes state that at this time it had not yet been decided whether the acquaintance would accept the job at the Free University or not, because in the words of “Karlson”, a “decision on this matter would be made by the SEI”.[13]

Five weeks later at the following meeting “Karlson” could not report much, because he had not traveled to West Berlin. However, he had by now learned that his friend would take the position at the Free University in West Berlin. Until the year 1962 the acquaintance had been working as a lecturer at the University of Greifswald. Both he and his wife were members of the SEI. “The KP estimated the [name blackened] as a very humorous and outgoing person, who sometimes because of his comical appearance, his physique and his facial expressions is viewed as ridiculous.”[14]

Furthermore, “Karlson” reported in this meeting that he had recently received another visit from an Icelander, but he was politically not organized and in “his political development not yet mature”. Therefore “Karlson” declined bringing him into contact with the Stasi. In addition the Stasi noted in the minutes of the meeting that the KP would “soon get his own flat on the basis of his collaboration and his political work.”[15]

In May 1963 Lieutenant Koch gave his first evaluation of his Icelandic spy:

The [Kontact Person] is honest in the cooperation, but had not yet been reviewed. He takes his tasks seriously, makes his own proposals and he is venturous. His [cooperation] is based on conviction.

Control: Regular meetings every 14 days in the CA [Conspiratorial Apartment].

Range of duty: Supply of suitable candidates for recruitment. Naming appropriate candidates, as well as being used on special occasions in West Berlin.”[16]

In the following meeting “Karlson” and his Stasi officer discussed mainly how to establish the actual contact with the Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. First of all, it was agreed that there was “no need to pretend to be a member of the press, but the KP should just contact him as an employee of the Stasi”.[17] “Karlson” agreed to organize the meeting. During the meeting they discussed three more Icelandic students living in West Berlin, but the minutes state that “Karlson” did not want to be the person who “arranges the meeting”.[18] Therefore they agreed on a different approach: while “Karlson” would celebrate the moving into his new apartment with the Icelanders from West Berlin, he would contact the Stasi as soon as his Icelandic friends would leave. On the way back to West Berlin the Stasi would have then the possibility “to address” the Icelanders at the checkpoint in Friedrichstraße: “this way the (KP) would be kept out from the conversation and the staff can safely carry out their own conversation.”[19]

At this meeting it was further agreed that “Karlson” would participate at the upcoming regional Social Democratic Party Congress as a member of the media and report to the Stasi about it. Furthermore he should monitor the preparations for the rallies on May 1 in West Berlin. One day before the first of May “Karlson” received specific instructions. In particular, he should find out where the loudspeaker van with the “inflammatory agitation” was stationed that was supposed to “disturb the activities on May 1 in democratic Berlin”.[20]

During this meeting the status of the recruitment of the Icelandic lecturer was also discussed. According to “Karlson” the Icelandic lecturer wanted to find out whether the people whom he would meet were “really from the Stasi”.[21] Furthermore, the Icelandic lecturer informed “Karlson” that the Senate of the Free University of Berlin had told him that they were informed about his membership in the SEI. They also warned him not to get involved with “Russian agents”.[22]

At the next meeting, on the 1st of May, “the Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ had returned from his excursion to West Berlin and shared his observations about the deployment of the police, the position of the radio car, the tribune and more, which were then immediately submitted to the headquarter.”[23]

According to the minutes of the meetings “Karlson” reported about his intended trip to England, France and Italy. The minutes end with the note that the next meetings will be arranged by phone. Although there are no further minutes of meetings to be found in the archives, one can assume that the contact continued, since a receipt exists for the 28 January 1964 with the note: “The Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ was given 50 DM for costs.”[24]

On 20th of November 1964, Lieutenant Koch closed the file, since “Karlson” had returned to Iceland. The file contains also the exact statistics of the border crossings by “Karlson” to West Berlin, and thanks to the collection of data by the Stasi, we also know that “Karlson” for example, on the 4th of February 1964, brought “2 nylon shirts; 2 pairs of women’s stockings, 20 PCs. cigarillos (Intershop); 250 gr coffee and 1 kg bananas”[25] from West Berlin to East Berlin.

The Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin refused being recruited by the Stasi. On the 19 December 1963 one meeting had taken place between the lecturer and the Stasi at Café Sofia in East Berlin. At this meeting the Icelander stressed the “security of his person”. He said that “if the contact should become known it would have serious consequences for the party and him.” He also pointed out in this context the “unprofessional work of the security organs of the Soviet Union concerning the radar station in Iceland, where arrests had been made and which greatly damaged the reputation of the Soviet Union and caused great dismay for the comrades of the SEI.”[26] Lieutenant Koch was not very optimistic about a possible cooperation, since the Icelandic lecturer said that he “does not want to have anything to do with the secret service”.[27] But at least the reader of the files learns that the Icelander was very “sloppily dressed”, wore summer shoes in December and “a grey suit, a red shirt and a blue tie”.[28]


“Kontakt Person Karlson” revisited

In Iceland a discussion of the relations between Icelanders, Communist parties and secret service organizations in the eastern bloc have regularly surfaced – not only throughout the Cold War but also in the post Cold War era. Several times the issue has come up whether some Icelander had been working for Stasi.[29]

In early February 1995 a documentary film, “Í nafni sósíalismans”, (In the Name of Socialism) by the historian Valur Ingimundarsson and the journalist Árni Snævarr was shown by RÚV, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Television. The film was based on some documents that the authors had had access to after the opening of the Stasi archives in Germany and it spurred some discussion in the Icelandic media.[30] The name of the banker Guðmundur Ágústsson came up, as it appeared that he had been a Stasi agent in the period 1963-1964. The documentary claimed that Guðmundur Ágústsson had the codename “Karlson” in the Stasi files, and that one of his missions was to recruit Árni Björnsson, who at the time was a guest lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin. Árni acknowledges in the film that he had had some encounters with the Stasi, but that he had not answered indirect requests for him to become an informer for the secret organization. He does however mention an incident when his nice had been visiting him and had gone to a theatre show in East Berlin. When she did not return, Árni Björnsson became worried and went to a border control gate to ask about her. There Árni was detained for a while, until a Stasi officer came and asked if he had not received a message from them some while ago. Árni Björnsson acknowledged that and asked about his nice. There were no news of the girl, but in light of the circumstances Árni Björnsson thought it would be wise to agree to meet with the officer two weeks later. He says that he met with a Stasi officer two weeks later in a coffee shop and that was the end of it.

On the other hand, Guðmundur Ágústsson, alias “Karlson”, had refused to talk to the makers of the documentary, so his side of the story appeared in a newspaper only after the film had been shown on national TV. In an exclusive interview with the newspaper DV, Guðmundur Ágústsson explains that he had agreed to do some trivial exercises for Stasi in order to secure his own peace and eventually a safe passage home for him, his German wife and their child. Guðmundur Ágústsson refers to his contact person at Stasi (Lieutenant Koch) as the “young man with the cigarette”. He tells of a “spy mission” to West Berlin in the following way:

I met the young man with the cigarette and he asked me if I could go over to West Berlin and check if there was a military truck convoy in a certain boulevard in the southern part of the city. I was also supposed to stop by the Wall there in the neighborhood and see if a big hole was being dug in the ground behind a hill. I went to these places, but there were no army trucks, no digging and no hole. So I stood there like a fool. I went back and told the young man that nothing was there. That was the last I heard from Stasi. I probably did not pass the test or possibly Stasi was just training the young man in talking to somebody.[31] 

Later in the interview Guðmundur Ágústsson reflects on the documentary value of the Stasi files about himself. “I understand that there is a large folder on me in the Stasi archives. I do not think I want to see it. But the documents are there and people must then remember that the text that is written there is just what a man with a cigarette thought about me. He might even have been trying to look good in the eyes of his superiors. I never wrote a single letter for them.”

As it is apparent by now, two parallel stories have been told of the same course of actions involving  “Karlson”. On the one hand there are the files written by Lieutenant Koch, whilst on the other there are the stories and experiences as these are remembered by both Guðmundur Ágústsson, the student, and Árni Björnsson, the lecturer. Much of the factual evidence comes forth in both stories, but the interpretation and explanations of what actually happened and what it meant is very different.
Whose truth? – a discussion

After the Berlin wall came down and the Stasi archives were opened the news came to Iceland that Guðmundur Ágústsson had been a Stasi informer in 1963-1964. More than 30 years later, in 1995, Guðmundur Ágústsson had to explain to the Icelandic press that by cooperating with Stasi he had “secured himself peace and a safe passage home with his German wife and child”.[32] And still just over ten years after the explanations in the DV newspaper, Árni Björnsson, who was the friend of Guðmundur Ágústsson that worked and lived in West Berlin in 1963-1964, came forth in the scholarly magazine Þjóðmál to explain his involvement with Guðmundur Ágústsson and Stasi. Árni Björnsson was reacting to another article in the magazine where he was named as a likely Stasi informant.[33] The title of Árni Björnsson’s article is “Stasi and I. What is the truth?” He does not takes issue with the Stasi files themselves or even the reports by the Stasi officer that approached him, but points out that they are based on the officer´s personal interpretation, social conditions and circumstances. He therefore asks whether that interpretation is necessarily the whole truth.  In other words, Árni Björnsson is suggesting a cautious approach in interpreting the files and documents that can be found in the Stasi archives.

At least two lessons can be derived from comparing the two different accounts at issue. Firstly, it seems clear that Stasi did not necessarily ask its Icelandic informers to collect sensitive or hidden information, but asked for all sorts of public information, such as reporting about public student meetings and the curriculum of the Free University. This could make the Stasi request for cooperation look almost trivial to the student in question, so much that it would seem irrational to refuse such a small favour and risk being considered uncooperative by such a powerful organization as Stasi was then.

Secondly, the Stasi files give us a fragmented and indeed limited view of what really was going on. This is due to three main factors:

a) The nature of the reports to be filled out gives limited space for accounting for different and sometimes complex situations.
b) The evaluation and interpretation of the writer of the report is subjective and coloured by Marxist ideological phrases. Furthermore the reports are written by officers for their superiors and it can be expected that things that might be thought interesting for the secret police are overemphasized.
c) The fact that some of the files and reports may be missing limits their comprehensiveness.

In light of the latter point, an important lesson can be learned about the way in which documents and reports of official agencies not meant for publication, be they secret agencies or ordinary embassies, should be interpreted. To be sure, uncovering such secret files can provide valuable and important information, as recent WikiLeaks documents on embassies have shown, for instance. However, such documents call for careful consideration of the circumstances in which they were written and of the values and motivations of those who wrote the files. The limitation of the files makes them useful for political polemics, since they leave so much space for interpretation, but not for careful, detailed historical accounts of the past. And last but not the least, one may also just be stunned by their banality.



Guðmundsson, Birgir and Meckl, Markus, 2008, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

Knabe, Hubertus,1999, West-Arbeit des MfS. Das Zusammenspiel von „Aufklärung“ und „Abwehr“Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin

Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík

Snævarr, Árni and Ingimundarson, Valur, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík


[1] Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (1977) The Icelandic Multilevel Coalition System. Expanded version of a chapter in E. Browne (ed) Cabinet Coalitions in Western Democracies. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.

[2] Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík bls. 212-213

[3] Ibid pp. 214

[4] In the archives of the Stasi there are approximately 250 pages concerning Iceland. Among the material is one folder concerning the collaboration of an Icelander with the secret service. A complete overview over the material found is given in Icelandic in the article: Birgir Guðmundsson and Markus Meckl, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

[5] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 9.

[6] Investigation report, ibid. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 5

[9] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 10.

[10] Minutes of the Meeting, 20. 2. 1963, ibid. 13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 14

[14] Minutes of the Meeting for the 15.3.1963, p. 15-16.

[15] Ibid p. 16.

[16] Assessment of “Carlsson”, dated on the 7.5. 1963, ibid p. 18. In the documents one can find different spellings for “Karlson”.

[17] Minutes of the Meeting for the 19. 4. 1963, ibid. 19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 20.

[20] Minutes of the meeting, 30. 4.1963, p. 21.

[21]Ibid. 21.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Report from 6 May 1963, ibid, page 23.

[24] Recipt, 28.1.1964, ibid., page 27.

[25] BStU 12225/66

[26] Report of the 20 12 1963, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, p. 29 f. The matter the lecturer might be referring to here is an episode often called “The Hafravatns case” that came up in February 1963. Two deputies from the Soviet Embassy were expelled from Iceland for trying to recruit an Icelandic man as a spy. See: “Miklu fargi af mér létt”, Morgunblaðið 28th February, 1963 pp. 23-24

[27] Ibid. 33.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For a discussion of these connections between Icelanders and the Eastern Bloc see e.g.: Árni Snævarr and Valur Ingimundarson, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík; Jón Ólafsson, 1999, Kæru félagar, Mál og menning, reykjavík ; Rauða bókin :leyniskýrslur SÍA, 1984, Heimdallur, Reykjaví k; Helgi Hannesson, 1989, “Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga austantjalds og SÍA skjölin 1956-63”, Háskóli Íslands. Sagnfræðistofnun Ritröð sagnfræðinema, Reykjavík.

[30] See Morgunblaðið web page: and DV, daily on the 6th and the 7th of February 1995.

[31] „Fékk frið og heimferð fyrir konu og barn“, DV 7th of February 1995

[32] DV, daily newspaper. of February, 1995 pp. 1-2

[33] Árni Björnsson, „Stasi og ég. Hvað er sannleikur“. Þjóðmál II:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 28