Monday, December 26, 2016

Silent Night: Maxwell's View, Part 3

Maxwell's View, Part 3

The Maxwells were able to snag a taxi once they stepped out of the terminal, and within the hour they were in central Strassburg, arriving at the Hotel Weihnachten, one of many post-War hotels that had sprouted across the cities. It was a modest 5 stories, rather unremarkable in architecture. Not Art Moderne, but not Art Nouveau either. This was not the Grand Europa or the Congressional Palace Hotel that sat within walking distance of the Notre Dame de Strassburg and the Rohne Palace. That evening, once settled in their rooms, the family ate at the hotel restaurant, and rested up for a full day exploring the city.

            When the family awoke, they, like everyone else in the city, discovered a fine white coating of snow now bedecked the city. As they listened to the morning radio forecast while getting ready, they learned that the light snow fall would continue, but wasn’t expected to be a major problem for the upcoming festivities. As they finished breakfast at the hotel, they were greeted by Jack’s friend Lee Mansford.

            “Lee! It’s so good to see you!” Jack said, as he embraced his friend in the lobby of the hotel.
            “You too old chap. Welcome to my new homeland.”
            “Going native?” Jack asked with a smile.
            “Sed kompreneble.” Lee answered in Esperanto. Byron perked up, as he recognized the phrase and translated to his father, at which point they all chuckled.
            “And who are all these lovely people Jack?” Lee asked, gesturing to the rest of the Maxwell clan. Jack went through the introductions.
            “It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” Lee said, after shaking all of their hands. “Well, let’s be off! I’ve brought a taxi, and I’m ready to play tour guide!”

            In no time, the taxi was whisking the group off to the other side of Strassburg, where the Christmas Miracle Memorial stood. The journey took them through the heart of the city, and all of the Maxwells were glued to the windows, taking in the sights as Lee explained what they were seeing. They passed the large Miracle Plaza in front of the cathedral, the Palace Rhone, which was decked out for the fast approaching holiday, and then crossed the river and headed towards the “New City,” where the memorial was located, along with the Palace of Europe and the mass of buildings that housed the bureaucracy of the Congress of European States.

            The memorial itself was on the Europaplatz, opposite the Palace of Europe. it consisted of a central, 4 story rotunda, and three halls that shot off from the rotunda equidistant from each other. The rotunda itself contained the “Eternal Peace Tree,” an evergreen that some newspapermen quipped was the most looked after and protected tree in the whole world. Adorning the perimeter of the rotunda were banks of candles, lit by visitors as a way to remember those who were lost fighting for the Peace. The walls of the space were nearly floor to ceiling windows, allowing in beautiful natural light, and at night creating a beautiful spectacle as the candle light could be seen flickering from outside. As it was every Christmas, the tree had been carefully decorated with ornaments reflecting each nation that had joined the European Congress, and at the top a beautifully hand crafted angel watched over the visitors. The ceiling was painted in the constellations, and hanging from the ceiling were chandeliers in the artistic shape of snowflakes (these were changed out with different fixtures every year).

            Each of the halls was in honor of one of the three founding contingents of the Peace: France, Britain, and Germany. They had separate memorials to the fallen from each nation, as well as artifacts from each army, such as the standards from each unit, uniforms, and weapons from every day soldiers. Each hall had a tomb to an unknown soldier as well, which were each watched over by special honor guard units from the Congressional Army that were dressed in the uniform worn by each nation at the time of the War.

            It was both a hopeful and somber place, and the Maxwells were awed into reflective silence as they walked in. Jack and Samantha lit a candle and placed it in an open spot along the perimeter of the rotunda. Other visitors milled about, some standing, others sitting on benches, and still others at small altars offering prayers in remembrance of those lost in 1914. Jack had once read in an editorial printed in the Times that the Christmas Miracle Memorial was likely the most holy and sacred place for modern Europeans on the whole continent, maybe even more so than Rome. Jack wasn’t inclined to argue, as he took it all in.

            After over an hour at the memorial, the Maxwells and their “native” guide crossed the square to the Palace of Europe for a tour. Thousands of tourists came each year to the Palace, to get a glimpse of the beating heart of a united Europe. Outside the neoclassical domed congress hall, the flag of every member nation fluttered in the light breeze on the left side of the entrance, moving farther away from the entrance in order that the nations joined the Congress: Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the five founders, followed by Alsace-Lorraine, Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Serbia, Greece, and Romania. Closest to the entrance, however, and on a flag pole taller than all the rest, flew the flag of the Congress of European States: a light blue field with a stylized laurel wreath surrounding a large E. There was endless discussion on creating a better flag, but so far nothing had been able to win enough consensus to replace the current design that had been adopted in 1917.

            The Maxwells and the other tourists in the group were shown the Great Hall, where the actual delegates met, along with the archives, the Hall of Honor (which housed statues of influential Europeans in the arts, sciences, and politics), and the deliberation chambers of the Congressional Executive Committee. Jack noticed that, for the twenty-fourth of December, the Palace seemed to be quite busy, with various staff members and he assumed mid-ranking officials buzzing about carrying papers and the like. He’d assumed that most of the staff would have headed home by now, so found the sight rather puzzling. He commented on this to Lee as the tour was wrapping up.

            “It’s the Germany crisis. The Kaiser has just two days after Christmas to veto the new anti-union bill, otherwise it receives unofficial consent and becomes law. And if that happens…” Lee allowed the thought to trail off, but the conclusion was obvious. If the new legislation became law, banning most trade unions, or their ability to conduct most forms of collective action, the ISLP would call for a Federation-wide General Strike. Not only that, it would put Germany in conflict with the Federation’s civil rights charter, which protected the worker’s right to form a union. Sanctions would follow on the heels of a General Strike. And if the German Junker’s tried to use force against the strike action in Germany, things could escalate quickly.

            The gloomy thoughts soon fled from everyone’s mind, as the tour ended and the group made their way back out into the Europaplatz. The light snowfall continued to come down, adding to the almost magical air of the city. As the group headed to a streetcar stop at the edge of the square, the church bells of the city rand out the 1:00 hour.

“Well, we should get you back into Old Town for some lunch, and then you have to visit the city Christmas Market, near the cathedral.” Said Lee, as they stood at the stop. In the near distance, a bell chimed, signaling an approaching streetcar that would take them back to Old Town.
“Oh a German-style Christmas market!” squealed Tabitha with delight. “I’ve read about those in my magazines. They’re supposed to be marvelous! Father, mother, can we go?”
“Of course!” Said Jack, and all the family beamed. The streetcar made its stop, and the family was soon on their way back to Old Town.

They found lunch in a small café within walking distance of the Christmas market. The street, a pedestrian only zone, bustled with people. In addition to the Christmas market down the street, most of the shops in the area were geared towards the Christmas-time tourists that descended on Strassburg. Everywhere evergreen garland, red ribbon, and fairy-lights abounded. Christmas music, mostly instrumental, played from radios and record players up and down the street. Live music could be heard distantly from the Christmas market. Inside the café, everyone was chatting away happily, the mood from the street clearly penetrating the eatery. As they finished their lunch, Jack quickly excused himself to use the loo, located in the back of the restaurant by the kitchen. On his way back to the table, he heard a radio with the news on and briefly paused as he caught part of the story.

“…unconfirmed reports that the Kaiser will sign the anti-Union bill into law the day after Christmas. The ISLP Chairman could not be reached for a comment, but the party communications director stated that the party congress was already planning to meet in emergency session on Friday, December 29th, to address the issue. Party members across the continent continue to call for a Europe-wide General…” Jack moved away and went back to his table. If the report turned out to be true, that Kaiser Frederick IV was going to sign the anti-Union bill, things could deteriorate quickly. It would be bad enough if he just allowed to receive unofficial consent by neither signing or vetoing the bill. However, the German monarch to officially attach his name to the law signaled much more support for the Junkers from Stadtpalast than previously believed. It could also lead to more radical action from the hardline leftists in Germany too.

Jack rejoined the group, and pushed the thoughts of the growing crisis to the back of his mind. It was now time to explore the Christmas market. The smell of evergreen, cinnamon, and other spices filled the air. People were bundled up but cheerful. Laughter could be heard throughout. Both Samantha and Tabitha were enchanted by the handmade wooden Christmas figurines. Tom found a Zeppelin mobile and was transfixed. Byron found handcrafted figurines from the Tolkien book, truly an unexpected find. They all enjoyed the baked goods and hot chocolate as they listened to the band play a medley of popular Christmas music. Sometime after 4 in the afternoon, the Maxwells headed back to their hotel and parted ways with Lee. They had special tickets to attend the Christmas Eve Mass at the cathedral as part of the Memorial Foundation’s trip package. Samantha wanted to make sure that they had plenty of time to get ready and look their best. The Foundation, in coordination with the Strassburg organizations that took care of the Christmas celebrations, had provided Jack with a special Christmas Army uniform to wear to the official celebrations on the 24th and 25th.

After they were all dressed, they went from their hotel to the Grand Europa, where the city was throwing its annual reception dinner for veterans and their families. That hotel was an exquisite building, clearly Art Nouveau in style, built in the 1920s as the first of several luxury hotels in the capital of Europe. Following the dinner, the Maxwells, along with most of the dinner attendees, made their way to the Notre Dame de Strassburg Cathedral, where the Christmas Eve Mass was held every year. They entered from the West Entrance, with the north tower soaring to its peak of 466 feat, one of the tallest churches in the world. The Cathedral’s façade was lit in red and green, the lights highlighting the sculptures and flourishes that adorned the high gothic architecture.

The service itself was conducted by Pope Benedict XVI, the successor to the “Peace Pope,” Benedict XV, who had passed away in 1922. Benedict XVI was a much younger man, having been only 52 when he was elected pope twenty-two years prior, and appeared to be very spry and in good health for someone in his early seventies. The current Pope, a Frenchman, had made history as the first non-Italian pope in exactly 400 years (the last having been Adrian VI, elected in 1522 and born in what was now the Netherlands).  Most expected that, barring any unforeseen tragedy, the current leader of the Roman Catholic Church would live on into the 1950s or even 1960s, likely to be one of the longest serving popes in modern history.

The Maxwells were not Catholic themselves, though Jack had been brought up High Anglican and the service felt very similar. He could see his wife holding back a small amount of disdain for the whole affair, as she’d been brought up Methodist and since had become rather secular. But even she seemed to be caught up in the historic moment, celebrating 30 years of the Peace of 1914. And whatever she may have thought about the service itself, she was clearly enraptured, as they all were, by the Strassburg Memorial Choir singing  Silent Night, along with other carols, throughout the service.

After the service, the attendees joined the crowds of people outside, and at the stroke of midnight, special red, green, and white fireworks lit up the sky. That had started at the 10th anniversary in 1924, and had since become a favorite part of the Strassburg Christmas tradition.
The following day, the family woke up for the special hotel Christmas breakfast, and then dressed and headed to the New City, where the Maxwells had special seats with other veterans to watch the Christmas Day Peace Parade as it made its way past the Christmas Memorial and the Palace of Europe. Jack had been offered a place to march with other veterans in the British contingent, but chose to stay with his family. The celebrations started at 10 that morning. The snow had stopped the night before, and the sun shone down on the city brilliantly, glistening off the snowfall and all the decorations. The parade lasted well over two hours, with floats, bands, and special Christmas Army units from the original founding nations, in addition to other contingents from other members of the European Federation. That evening, Jack and Samantha attended the Christmas Memorial Ball at the Congressional Palace Hotel. He wore his special uniform, she wore a dazzling light blue dress that sparkled with stones and lace. It had been an extravagant gift for her, and he’d beamed that afternoon when she’d opened it. “You can thank your sister, Trudy. She helped me pick it out and have it mailed here for you as a surprise.”

The next day, the Maxwell family packed up their bags and prepared to return to Britain. They made it to the airport on time for their noon flight that would go straight to London, this time on the R138 Londoner. It flew more direct routes, and wasn’t quite as luxurious as the Strassburg Limited that they’d traveled on earlier. Still, Tom insisted on exploring the ship before takeoff, which Jack obliged. Later, after takeoff, Jack settled into his seat and began to read a copy of the Strassburg Internationalist, that city’s premier English-language newspaper, and probably the biggest English-language newspaper in Europe that wasn’t produced in the UK. The headlines weren’t promising. It was now confirmed that the Kaiser was going to sign the anti-Union bill, either sometime that day or the next. The move was already being condemned by prominent ISLP members in France, England, and Germany itself. A General Strike was all but a foregone conclusion at this point, thought that would likely only make the situation worse. Sabers were rattling for the first time since 1914. 

No comments:

Post a Comment