December 31st, 1899
A warehouse near the docks, Sandviken, Bergen, Norway
There were places in Norway colder than a Bergen winter night with a breeze off the North Sea – the Russian border, for example; but they were mostly inland, and lacked the peculiar raw chill that came with wet air well below freezing. Geir suppressed the urge to stamp his booted feet to keep warm; this return to the city of his birth was not generating happy nostalgia, but there was no point in showing weakness in front of angry men.
“About time,” someone muttered as he entered the warehouse; it was unheated, but at least the walls cut off the wind. He ignored the remark, which probably hadn’t been meant for his ears – old, but still sharp. Privately he agreed with the speaker. The railroad across the Jotunheim would be a wonder when they got the kinks worked out; but on this particular night, the five-hour delay from snow on the tracks – snow in Norwegian mountain winter was apparently unexpected to the geniuses who’d built the railroad – had done nothing to improve Geir’s mood, or that of the people awaiting him.
“Right,” he said. “To be brief: Stand down. There will be no rising this century.” His attempt at a joke was met with stony silence.
The challenge came from Geir’s left; a large man, brawny with a dockworker’s physique, came out from between the crates to stand glaring belligerently at Geir and his companions. Geir quailed momentarily, and cursed the train, the winter, his old bones that would break in moments if it came to a fight – but he hadn’t risen to the top of the Movement by using his fists, after all. Besides, the two hulking Strike Guards behind him outmassed the dockworker, even if they were rather outnumbered.
“Sez the Central Committee,” he answered mildly; first the hard bad news, then the gentle argument. Argument was good, it meant nobody was fighting. “Which has studied the problem extensively.” Refer them to committee and lull them to sleep, that was the way…
“Fuck the Central Committee!” someone shouted, and there were nods of agreement. The dockworker sneered: “And have they studied the price of bread in Bergen? A shilling a loaf, and no work at any wage!”
“Yes, I know,” Geir sighed. He felt a moment’s sneaking sympathy for the exploiting capitalist swine; there hadn’t been any actual need for the violent strike that had sent the grain market into a panic. The Landsorganisasjon had been on the verge of getting the wage increase they’d been holding out for. If that damned half-wit hadn’t fallen asleep when he was supposed to be watching the oven, and if the idiot baker had given him his severance pay instead of kicking him out into the street… well, spilt milk; the trick now was to try to stop the Revolution from being prematurely ignited by the sparks. “We’ve taken a collection; there’s grain on the way, coming in on tomorrow’s train.” Which he sincerely hoped would not be delayed by the snow. “If it’s bread you want, you’ve only to wait; the workers look after their own.” Even when their own were being stupidly belligerent; but it certainly sounded good.
“It’s too late,” the dockworker said. “It’s gone too far. If we all go home now, we’ll be under arrest tomorrow; ‘treasonous conspiracy against the stability of the Realm’. You think the pigs are going to ignore twenty thousand rifles?” He gestured at the crates that surrounded them, and Geir blinked in consternation, the heavy smell of gun oil finally penetrating to the surface of his mind.
“Twenty -” he broke off, coughed, started again. “Where the devil did you get twenty thousand rifles?” And why hadn’t the idiots used that money to buy food, if they were so hungry?
“Spanish military surplus,” the dockworker smirked. That explained it – they’d gotten it for free from some Spanish government agency trying to destabilise an enemy by arming its malcontents, either in revenge for the last war or in preparation for the next one; or rather, they hadn’t paid in money but in promises of blood, which admittedly would buy very little grain on the free market.
“And how many machine guns and cannon did you get from your Spanish friends? And how much fucking ammunition? Twenty thousand riflemen is very nice right up to the point when someone, like say maybe the blackshirts” – the Norwegian Army still wore the black uniforms of its brief sixteenth-century triumphs – “with actual heavy weapons begins shelling you.”
“The People Will Rise,” the dockworker quoted. “The army won’t shoot at its class brothers.”
“Oh really?” Geir sneered. “You weren’t present at the May Massacre, I see. Too bad, you might have learned something. Like, for example, the sound grapeshot makes when it hits flesh. The Revolution will come; but not this century. We’re not ready.” Although twenty thousand rifles, he had to admit, did go a good way towards making them ready; he began to think about schemes for extracting the weapons from Bergen. “Rise against the state now, and you’ll set the cause back twenty years; and what’s more, not a flake of support will you get from the rest of the Landsorganisasjon. A radical splinter faction, we’ll call you; maybe we can limit the damage to ten years.”
“Ready or not, it’ll have to be tried.” There were murmurs of agreement behind the dockworker, but some discontent too; Geir’s news that there would be no support at the national level seemed to have cooled some heads. “We can’t hide this stuff!”
Geir was about to suggest a scheme by which the guns could, in fact, be hidden – he suspected his opponent, wanting the rising to occur, hadn’t actually thought very hard about the problem – but he was interrupted. A crackling as of fireworks, shouts, the shrill scream of a mortally-wounded horse – Geir hadn’t heard the sound of large-scale combat since 1856, but there was no mistaking it. “Satan i helvete,” he cursed. “What have you idiots done now?”
There was, however, no grin of triumph on the dockworker’s face. “I – I don’t think those are ours,” he said, looking around in puzzlement. “All our guns are here, as far as I know.” His comrades variously nodded affirmation and shrugged irresolutely, unsure of what was happening.
Geir thought quickly. If the firing wasn’t from the workers’ rising that these idiots had been trying to organise, then what on Earth was going on? A foreign invasion was not strictly impossible, but it would have to get past the forts of Kvarven without a shot being fired, not to mention the patrols in the North Sea; and Europe was at peace. That left – someone else had had the same idea, and no-one to pour national cold water on the heads of local idiots. Geir’s eyes blazed with sudden decision, and he grinned.
“Right! Here’s what we’ll do,” he said. “Get out your Strike Guards, unions, buekorps, anyone who can so much as lift one of these damn rifles, down to the rævvediltere. Looks like somebody had the same bright idea you lot did, but they were more efficient about getting organised, which says a lot for you, doesn’t it? So, we patriotic citizens are going to turn out in strength to help maintain order in the streets of Bergen. And then” – the local Party mens’ faces were split by answering grins as understanding dawned – “who is going to examine where we got all these very useful rifles from, am I right? Besides, obviously we captured them from the hirdsmenn, with much tragic loss of life.” The Kristelig Folkeunion’s armed wing took its name from the personal guards of the MacRaghnalls. Geir couldn’t strictly speaking be certain that the reactionary party was behind the shooting – he had only a few minutes of crackling rifle fire to go on, and no convenient labels on the sounds – but who else was going to rise against the state, in sober, prosperous Norway of 1899?
Present company excepted.
The abortive New Years’ Putsch was a despairing last effort by men who felt, not their absolute power and wealth, but their relative privilege, slipping away from them. A radical wing of the Norwegian septs, the friends-and-relatives of the royal dynasty who claimed descent by more or less legitimate routes from one or another MacRaghnall, rose in arms against the Act allowing men owning houses worth forty riksdaler – smallholding farmers and petty bourgeois, in other words – to vote. Had they succeeded, they would have restricted the franchise to men of royal blood – that is, to the Randales, Ranvales, FitzRaghnalls, and other ‘R’ names that formed the patronage-and-support circle of the Norwegian septs. No doubt other privileges for the “Clan MacRaghnall” – Norwegian law, unlike Scottish, recognises no such organisation, but written law is not everything – would have followed, perhaps even an attempt at full domination of the Norwegian state by descendants, noble and otherwise, of King Ragnvald. As it turned out, however, the time for such a constitution, if it ever existed, had passed. Forty riksdaler was not impossibly out of reach for a skilled craftsman; even in Bergen, the stronghold of the reactionaries, poor men turned out by the thousands to fight for their hope of future votes. The garrison at Håkon’s Hall was overwhelmed and its arsenal seized, but this was the only success of the rebels, who soon found themselves besieged by a motley militia of union men and Strike Guards, and unable to move outside the ancient walls of the fortress without someone taking a potshot at them. The heavy guns of the KNS Kong Trond – obsolete, but formidable against a literally medieval fortress – settled the matter after three days of desultory street fighting; the rebels surrendered after three eight-inch shells crumbled the seaward wall of their headquarters. Elsewhere in the empire, where heavy naval units couldn’t easily reach, rebel units kept the field a little longer; but lacking any true base of support among the people, they tended to disperse when the nearest army unit arrived and it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a vast popular rising.
The main political effect of the Putsch, consequently, was to discredit the radically reactionary wing of the Norwegian septs; conversely, the labour movement gained prestige even among the petit-bourgeoise for the way their militants had turned out and fought the radicals to a standstill in the Bergen streets. Geir Randall, then leader of Landsorganisasjonen, was himself technically a member of the septs, but a lifelong opponent of ruling-class privilege. (Precisely how he came to be in Bergen on the particular night that his political opponents had decided on for their coup, and to have thousands of armed men ready to hand, is a fascinating question for the historian, but one that will likely never be answered.) It seems possible that some sour grapes may have been involved in Randall’s opposition: It is clear that he himself, in spite of his surname, had never benefitted from the patronage of the septs. But whatever his motives – and speculation on motives, especially discreditable ones, is the lowest form of historical writing – having a spokesman with a privileged name like ‘Randall’ was extremely useful for Landsorganisasjonen, allowing it to present itself as genuinely egalitarian and altruistic, not motivated by petty class interest. “Our boss could have got a good government job,” they could (fairly honestly) say, “but he’s not one of those; and he doesn’t think you should be either.” This public-spirited challenge to clean up the patronage networks of the Norwegian government caught the imagination of many sober, prosperous men who had never been out of work or set foot on a factory floor; it was on this foundation that the successes of the Socialist movement in the early twentieth century were built.
From Warp, Weft, and Twine: Labour Relations in Norway,
(C) 1983 Bergen University Press.
Some quick screenshots:
The New Year Putsch, an actual reactionary rebellion. Go away, reactionaries, it’s the twentieth century.
The only significant naval battle of the Spanish war:
I didn’t actually mean to sink the Incan transport fleet, they just got a bit in my way. Same with the Spanish “Caribbean Fleet”. Sorry about that, gents, but you ought not to take the seas in those cockleshells, they’re dangerous. Leave the sailing to professionals.