09/27/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Bit of Iceland's History

Iceland was remote, backward, and poor until after World War II. Discovered accidentally by Vikings, thousands of settlers came here in the ninth and 10th centuries. The country, like America, was founded by freedom-loving people fleeing a harsh king and unfair taxes. Icelanders established a national parliament in 930 -- considered the first of its kind. Shortly after that, while under extreme pressure from the Norwegian king, Iceland converted to Christianity -- so they've been church-goers for a thousand years.

Rather than wars, Icelanders weathered centuries of volcanic eruptions and harsh winters. A big census in the 1700s counted 38,000 souls...nearly all of them related to early Norwegian settlers. When tough times hit, Icelanders -- like so many Europeans -- packed up and moved to the "New Land" of America. Nearly a quarter of the population emigrated to Canada and the USA in the late 19th century. By World War I, there were more Icelanders in America than at home.

During World War II the Allies needed a mid-Atlantic military base, and suddenly the world took note of little Iceland. A humble land of 60,000 people living mostly in turf huts before the war, Iceland boomed in the postwar years. The focus changed from Scandinavia to Britain and the USA, and eventually English rather than Danish became the second language (Iceland was part of the Kingdom of Denmark from 1814 to 1918). And with relative prosperity (and aid from the Marshall Plan) came modern building techniques. Readily available materials shape the architecture of any region. Immediately after World War II there were lots of military surplus structures. Where there are no trees there is lots of sand -- so with the arrival of the first local cement factory in 1952 and cheap concrete, buildings began looking like what we'd expect.

Iceland's heritage is Viking, Norwegian, and Lutheran. Standing tall and proud, like the adjacent Lutheran church, is a statue of one-time resident Leif Ericson -- erected in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th birthday of Iceland's parliament. As part of the celebration, the United States acknowledged that Ericson (not Columbus) was the first European to reach the New World.

Icelanders are not proud of their humble past. Since people lived fairly primitively well into the 20th century, homes and churches were torn down with no regard for heritage and historic value, and today almost nothing old survives. Thankfully, the national museum in Reykjavik has a wonderful collection representing traditional Icelandic folk life and art.

While Iceland's magnificent nature is clearly impervious to any economic collapse, this rainbow over Thor's Woods seems to herald a promising future. Of all the European countries in economic crisis, Iceland had the biggest crash. In 2006 NATO pulled out. Suddenly 7,000 US troops were gone and, with them, much of the economy. Then, in 2008, Iceland's banking industry collapsed. With it fell the local currency, the construction industry, and the nation's confidence in its economy. Immigrants, imported by the formerly wealthy little country to do its dirty work, mostly returned home -- leaving Icelanders to take out their own garbage and wash their own dishes. With so much going down, the cost of living went up. Thankfully, in the past couple of years, Iceland has made a remarkable recovery and visitors will hardly notice the scars left by the recent economic implosion.