1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 18
Once they left the building, a contingent of CoC activists closed in around them. Others stayed in place, guarding the building.
Looked at from one angle, the level of protection being provided to Gretchen was excessive. Here in the heart of Magdeburg’s working class district, no large group of enemies would dare to move in force. Not unless an army had already taken the city, in which case a relative handful of security guards would be a moot point.
But conflict had a psychological as well as a physical component, which Gretchen had come to respect as the struggle continued. Spartacus understood that also, and Gunther Achterhof practically worshipped at the shrine of what he liked to call “psyops.” He was addicted to such Americanisms.
Partly, Gretchen had come to that understanding on her own. Mostly, though, she’d come to it from years of watching Mike Stearns.
Gretchen had suspicions concerning Stearns. His willingness to compromise with the enemy readily and easily was something that rubbed her the wrong way, and always had. At the same time, as the years had passed since the Ring of Fire and her rise to prominence as a leader of Europe’s principal revolutionary organization, she’d become a great deal more sophisticated. The girl whose aspirations toward striking back had once been limited to sliding a knife into the brain of a mercenary thug was now a young woman who’d commanded the defending forces of a major city under siege and had negotiated with two princes — one of them a king now — and an arch-duchess.
One of the things she’d learned from Stearns was that aggressive negotiating — understanding that “negotiating” was a concept much broader than the formalities involved — could often preclude the need for violence altogether. Or, at the very least, reduce the scope of that violence.
So, when she walked in public, Gretchen’s stride was sure and confident. So, too, were the strides of the men guarding her. So, at such times, Gretchen’s expression was equally sure and confident. And the expressions of the armed men at her side were downright belligerent.
Who could say? Perhaps when his spies reported, an enemy would be moved to negotiate rather than fight. And perhaps, even if he did choose to fight, he would enter the conflict with his self-confidence already frayed.
What still bothered her about Stearns was that she was not sure when negotiation stopped being a means for the man and became an end in itself. There was an insidious dynamic at work. A ruling class had several ways to maintain its domination. One, of course, was brute force. But another was co-option, absorption, seduction. Offer a rebel — usually a man from the lower classes — a prominent place in society. Offer him status; titles; positions — and, of course, a munificent salary. All the things, in short, which he’d never had and whose absence had been, at least in part, the motive for his rebellion.
How long does such a man remain a revolutionary? In his core, not simply in the trappings and appurtenances?
To be sure, most of Europe’s dynasts and noblemen still shook their fists at Mike Stearns and reviled him publicly and privately. But how much did they really fear him, any longer? How much, in their heart of hearts, did they really worry that a man who’d borne the title of a prime minister, bore now the title of a major general, and could easily obtain a loan to buy a mansion for his family, was still their mortal enemy?
The Swedes did not, obviously. The Swedish king Gustav Adolf’s relationship with Stearns might be ambivalent, and the Swedish chancellor Oxenstierna might often be downright prickly. So what? They were still willing to let him wield a great deal of power and influence, and never failed to treat him with respect.
So how long would he last? Gretchen simply didn’t know. Neither did Spartacus or Gunther Achterhof or any of the central leaders of the Committees of Correspondence. To the lower classes of the Germanies, including those of them who adhered to the CoCs, Mike Stearns was “the prince of Germany.” The leadership of the CoCs did not demur publicly. But, more and more, they were beginning to wonder. Might the day come when they would be calling him “the traitor of Germany?”
But Gretchen let none of those inner worries show on her face, as she moved through the crowded streets of Magdeburg.
“Stop looking nervous,” she said quietly to Tata, walking at her side.
The girl grimaced. “I’ve never seen so many people. And it’s so crowded.”
Actually, it wasn’t very crowded — for her and Gretchen. As packed with people as the streets were, on such a fine midsummer day, they gave way for Gretchen and her entourage. Willingly, too, not because they were worried the guards might get rough. Still, even for a girl from a small city like Mainz, Magdeburg would be startling. No city in the Germanies was growing as rapidly as Magdeburg. Its population was already equal to London’s and would soon surpass Paris.
“It doesn’t matter what the reason is,” said Gretchen. “Never look nervous. Our enemies might be watching.”
Spartacus and Achterhof were waiting for her in one of the back rooms of the city’s central Freedom Arches. This building had served for almost a year as the more-or-less official headquarters for the Committees of Correspondence — everywhere, not simply in Magdeburg. It would no doubt retain that position, even though Gretchen’s new apartment building would sometimes double as an informal headquarters.
The building was located next door to Magdeburg’s original Freedom Arches, which was still in operation and which still resembled a tavern. The new Freedom Arches, on the other hand…
The first time Melissa Mailey laid eyes on the thing, she’d rolled her eyes. “Oh, swell. It’s a cross between the Bastille, the Pentagon, Chateau d’If and the Lubyanka . Who was the architect? Frank Lloyd Rack? Mies van der Thumbscrews?”
When informed that the architect had actually been a city employee and one of mayor’s top assistants, she’d been a little dumbfounded. Why would such a proper gentleman as Otto von Guericke lend his assistance to such a project?
She’d asked Guericke herself, three days later, at one of the soirees hosted by Mary Simpson.
“You see the CoCs as a force for revolution, Melissa. Which you mostly support, albeit with some reservations. But I am in charge of a city — the largest, fastest growing and most commercially and industrially dynamic city in the Germanies. In some respects, in the entire world. And from my standpoint, the Magdeburg Committee of Correspondence is a tremendously stabilizing force. I hate to think what the situation with disease and crime would be, were it not for the CoC patrols. Not to mention — I am first and foremost a scientist, don’t forget — that they have an almost mystical faith in science and invariably support any initiative the city undertakes for scientific education and progress.”
She must have had a surprised look on her face. Guericke had shaken his head. “Melissa, I am often at political loggerheads with the Committees of Correspondence. By and large, however, I think they are a force for good. And regardless of anything else — whatever may be the delusions of the Crown Loyalist party — they cannot be ignored or shuffled aside. That being so, I think it is entirely in my interest to give them institutional validity. Yes, I know that from a purely architectural standpoint that new headquarters of theirs is something of a blocky monstrosity. But it helps them feel secure, and I find a secure CoC quite a bit easier to negotiate with than one which is edgy and apprehensive.”
He’d gotten a wry smile. “However politically radical you Americans may be in some respects, Melissa, you enjoyed a sheltered life as a people. There was nothing in your history equivalent to the aftermath of the Peasant War, when the aristocracy butchered a hundred thousand farmers after their rebellion was defeated. That was only a century ago. Many of those people sitting right now in the CoC headquarters on October 7th Avenue are the direct descendants of those slaughtered folk. If you were to inquire among the members of the Ram Rebellion — some of whose representatives you can now also find in that same building — the number would be even higher. It would not take much of a provocation for the CoC in Magdeburg to launch a violent uprising. That uprising would succeed rapidly here in the city, be sure of it. Whether it would spread across the USE or be crushed is harder to gauge because there are so many variables involved. But either way, it would be a bloody business. I’d just as soon avoid it, if we can.”
He hadn’t sounded very optimistic.