In February 1935 I had a Communist Revolution. In October it was overturned by a reactionary one, just barely in time to prevent me from converting with a Communist government.
The most interesting question, in studying a historical event, is often “What were these people thinking?” This is not usually meant as a put-down; in the general run of things, the question does not express a sneering contempt for the idiots who would make such a mistake, but rather a genuine curiosity about the thought processes of people very different from ourselves. That is, after all, one important purpose of learning about history: To understand different ways of being human, and perhaps pick out the best bits. If we want to study people like ourselves, there’s no shortage – just walk outside.
In the case of the February Revolution in Norway, however, the general rule does not apply. When it comes to the Communist coup that established the world’s shortest-lived People’s Republic, the traditional phrase has its usual tinge of exasperated wonderment: What the devil were they thinking?
It is true that the initial takeover went smoothly, quite unlike the chaos of the New Year Putsch. So far, at any rate, we can follow Landsorganisasjonen. There had always been a revolutionary strain in the Norwegian labour movement, a radical wing that did not merely sneer at the gradualist approach of Geir Randall but actively prepared for The Day. In 1912 their rising was delayed by internal disputes, and in any case the fighting was then in the Baltic and nowhere near so intense as in the Great War; between the obvious fact that the regular army had a lot of guns, and the compromises worked out by the government of national unity, the revolution petered out. In 1935, however, there was a new generation of radical young hotheads, and every heavy weapon the MacRaghnall regime could lay hands on was in Africa, wearing out its barrels in the second conquest of the Sahel. This time, when the long-stored rifles were broken out of their underground caches, and the men who had fled conscription – commonly called “our boys in the woods” – came out to fight for the streets, there was no artillery to crush them. Bergen, always a stronghold of the Socialists, was under the control of the Provisional Councils within the first day; in Copenhagen the streets rang to rifle fire for a week, but the scattered resistance of a few veterans’ associations, rifle clubs, and policemen could not hold back the tide.
So far, so good; Olav MacRaghnall, King of Denmark and Emperor of the North Sea, fell in the vicious street-to-street combat in Copenhagen, and the administrative machinery of the state – in effect, at this point, the recruiting and logistics departments of the African army – decided to take orders from the only people with guns, even if only rifles, rather than allow a minor contretemps like the long-awaited Revolution to interfere with the flow of men and materiel to the Sahel front. But – and this is where the eye-rolling and exasperated sighs come in – what were Landsorganisasjonen going to do next? The army of Norway had not been defeated; the Morocco Offensive had driven it back over hundreds of miles, but had not shattered its integrity as an army – and in any case the counteroffensive was, in February of 1935, already well into the Atlas range; it was the armies of Islam that were in danger of disintegration. An intact army, far from its homeland, is no breeding ground for Communist sentiment; its generals – still, in 1935, members of the Norwegian septs, and in any case unlikely as a class to be sympathetic to egalitarian ideals – had near-complete control of what its soldiers read, and cracked down hard on anyone who so much as distributed a pamphlet they didn’t like. The enlisted men, likewise, were unlikely to feel much sympathy for the “boys in the forest”, who had managed to avoid the risks they bore daily. And even had this not been the case, a functioning army is, among other things, an instrument of coercion; its hierarchy exists partly to make men do what they would rather not, and to make it difficult for them to coordinate resistance. An army of three million men, undefeated by the massed artillery of Islam, would hardly notice the effort involved in throwing out a few Party militias from the seats of government; all that was required was to bring it home. Moreover, the distributed structure of MacRaghnall rule meant that the death of King Olav was no great break in the dynastic continuity; in particular, the Kings of Norway and Sweden commanded, respectively, Army Groups Algerie and Morocco, while the King of Scots – traditionally the title held by the direct heir to the overarching title of Emperor – commanded that VII Corps which broke the Atlas fortifications and opened the path to the sea. These men were not likely to quietly acquiesce in the seizure of their patrimony by the proletariat, and as heads of large bodies of armed men they had the means of doing something about it.
The leaders of Landsorganisasjonen cannot have been unaware of these facts; what, then, did they intend to accomplish? Unusually for a Socialist organisation, it appears that their goal was to continue the war. In particular, they wanted crushing terms – effectively, complete annexation; not only of Spain but even of the Asian powers and the Inca. Except for Spain, this was probably beyond the ability of the Northern Alliance to deliver, but reason matters little in a Crusade; Geir’s dream of a Final War that would end all wars lived on, even after more than a decade and an ocean (*) of blood. The Communist leadership believed, presumably, that the men in the field would agree with them, and not overthrow a government that would insist on harsh terms – at least not until the peace was imposed, presumably by dictation in the shattered streets of Bombay. Since that would have taken years or decades, they may have believed that, by then, they would be firmly entrenched (perhaps literally!) and have heavy weapons of their own to resist any military readjustment of the politics of Norway.
In believing that the army wanted the harshest possible terms, Landsorganisasjonen were surely correct, at any rate as regards Spain; to dictate peace across an Atlantic disputed by the Incan Navy, or across the Indian Ocean, was something else again and probably not a project seriously contemplated by military men aware of the realities of combat. In believing that the decision was in the hands of a Norwegian government, whatever its ideology, they erred. The compromise peace hammered out at Versailles, in defiance of the wishes of all the lesser partners in the Northern Alliance, stripped Spain of much of its African empire but left with its sovereignty and independence intact; Inca and the Asian powers were not touched. The reasons for this sudden shift in Russian policy – up until 1935 Muscovites had been speaking of sowing cities with salt and the phrase “one with Nineveh and Tyre” was frequently heard – remain obscure, but at any rate it is clear that decisions about war and peace were going to be made by the ally with the largest army – not by a ragged Communist party with perhaps fifty thousand rifles. If anything, the coup may have worked against its intention by scaring the living daylights out of the political-commercial elite in Moscow; their army was also out of the country, and their Communist underground did not concern itself with minor matters of war and peace, being too busy promising to hang a capitalist from every lamp-post when The Day finally arrived.
As it turned out, however, these considerations of unvanquished armies and geopolitical machinations were irrelevant. It is clear that Landsorganisasjonen‘s regime was doomed no matter what they did; but it was not the return of the MacRaghnall armies from Africa that toppled them. The October Revolution was a genuinely popular rising against the disruption of War Communism layered atop the existing strict regulations. To support three million men in arms, Norwegian society had twisted itself into a tangle of extraction machinery that sent as much as 10% of GDP – or more, depending on how one counts the hypothetical economic output of young men conscripted to fight – to spill blood and iron into the African deserts. Collectivisation of farms and nationalisation of the few industries that hadn’t already been classified as critical to the war effort was a classic camel-breaking straw. More accurately, it was precisely the increment that was needed to flip a strained but orderly system into turbulence. The web of regulations, taxes, forms, rationing cards, and informal social sanctions that kept the war machine moving was already at the edge of what was possible; to keep the system in balance required the constant effort of a sitting army of bureaucrats, propagandists, ombudsmenn, committees, and managers, far larger than the peacetime standing army and, by 1935, approaching in size the three million of the African expeditionary force. But there is a limit to what can be done with typewriters and secretaries. At some point the regulations were bound to become too complex to be administered by the technologies of 1930, and chaos would inevitably result – not metaphorically, but chaos in the strict mathematical sense of a system crossing its border of turbulence and becoming hugely sensitive to small differences in initial conditions. In orbital mechanics the phenomenon may be observed in the transition from two to three bodies; in Norwegian politics the line between linearity and flux turned out to lie at collectivisation. In truth, almost any regulation might have done; by luck or skill the MacRaghnall government was skating very close to the line in support of its immense mobilisation, but staying on the right side of what was possible. One historian has whimsically suggested that requiring the bureaucrats to do jumping jacks for fifteen minutes a day, to ensure blood flowing to the brain, might have overloaded the system and caused the same collapse; whether or not that is true, farm collectivisation was far beyond the capability of any Norwegian government that wanted to maintain its mobilisation.
The second Revolution, then, was one of the few recorded instances of rural districts imposing their will on an urban regime; most of the farmers of Jylland picked up their shotguns and marched on Copenhagen. By then there was little left of the enthusiasm for Socialism the mob of Copenhagen had shown in February. Landsorganisasjonen called up the Strike Guards and the People’s Militia several times, in increasingly strident terms; in theory, fifty thousand fighting men just in Copenhagen. But what it actually ended up defending Arbeidernes Hus with was 137 female soldiers, the famous Second Company of the 1st Copenhagen Women’s Battalion. Raised a few months earlier to fight in Africa, the womens’ battalions had not wasted their time at rifle drill; the 2nd fought quite literally to the last bullet, surrendering only when their ammunition was exhausted. But for a movement whose anthem boasts that its armies of peasants and workers are the largest, it was a poor showing.
Task accomplished, the actual peasants who had fought the October Revolution turned around and went home; they had farms to run. They left behind something of a power vacuum in Copenhagen; the tiny Provisional Executive Committee visibly regarded itself as a caretaker government until the army, and the MacRaghnall kings, should come home. However, they did not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. By this time Spanish resistance in Africa was collapsing, and it was possible to extract regiments and divisions from the war. Well before the peace was signed, Sigurd IV was crowned Emperor of the North Sea in a cathedral surrounded by regular troops and MacRaghnall Guards.
(*) Technically, more like a rather small lake. Allowing each of the 20 million direct war deaths to have had five litres of blood, we get 100 million litres of blood spilt; men wounded but not killed cannot add much, since losing half a litre of blood is acutely dangerous. This is sufficient to fill forty Olympic swimming pools, but does not amount to an ocean.