Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I by Richard Ned Lebow

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I by Richard Ned Lebow

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A 'counterfactual', or alternative history of the twentieth century which visualises how it might have been if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 248 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 9781137278531

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On the first page of this book, we are given a summary of events from August 2014. Queen Elizabeth is hosting a reception for Prince Harry and his bride, a niece of the German Kaiser at Balmoral, while the governor-general of India is involved in preparations for the next Commonwealth Games. This brief glimpse of a fantasy world is followed by a swift resumé of the twentieth century, as everything actually happened, and of changes in the world order wrought by both world wars. Chapter two tells of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo in June 1914, the final catalyst which precipitated the First World War.

Side by side with this is an examination of counterfactuals, or alternative scenarios, the world of ‘what ifs’. Let us suppose for a moment that the bullets fired by Gavrilo Princip that summer day had missed the Austrian heir and his wife, and instead had killed Oskar Potiorek, the governor-general of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A major European war had looked increasingly likely for some months and the sabre-rattling Potiorek was eager for one, while the more far-seeing Archduke was firmly against, as he was aware that it would almost certainly result in the disintegration of the empire. Both men disliked each other, and it was partly Potiorek’s grossly incompetent attitude to security which had made it so much easier for the conspirators to target their illustrious guests in their carefully planned strategy.

Nonetheless Lebow, a political scientist and Professor of Political Theory in England and the US, marshals convincing arguments for the inevitability of conflicts sooner or later, but with very different consequences which would have left the world today a considerably altered place. The result is a slightly odd but intriguing mix of true history and fantasy. Inevitably the earlier part of the book is anchored more in reality, with a summary of what happened in the war, followed by theories on how the major powers and personalities of the era might have acted had war not broken out when or as it did. Naturally there are endless permutations on how the course of events could have altered but slightly. Suppose, as the author does, that the warmongers in Germany on one side, Russia and France were determined on conflict sooner than later. Suppose that they did not invade Belgium, and that Great Britain therefore remained neutral. Suppose that the more cautious Franz Ferdinand succeeded his aged uncle Emperor Franz Joseph in 1916 and prudently avoided entering the war on the side of Austria’s traditional ally Germany.

That of course is only the beginning. In succeeding chapters, Lebow constructs how events might have been in two representative worlds, one ‘best’, one ‘worst’. In each, he looks at how the major global powers may have developed. One intriguing scenario follows the implications for the Anglo-German arms race had there been a showdown between the German Emperor and his military staff on one side, and socialist opposition in the Reichstag (imperial parliament) on the other around 1920, culminating in an Anglo-French initiative to reduce arms spending in general, and a gradual transition to democracy and a constitutional monarchy in Germany. The result – no Weimar republic, no hyper-inflation and most importantly, no Hitler.

As time marches on, it is plainly a little more difficult to construct counterfactuals. Without introducing too many spoilers into this review, he ‘creates’ the Ascona Seven, a League of Nations formed in 1947 which includes the five major European powers, the United States and Japan. He has Winston Churchill advocating Irish independence and crossing the floor to join the Labour party. He has revolution in Russia in 1917 but it is a failure, with Lenin, Trotsky and the other ringleaders killed or imprisoned, although who the ‘strong man’ who assumes power after a period in which ‘an imperfect democracy’ struggles to survive, he does not speculate. He has a major European crisis in 1918, the United States becoming the world’s leading economic power by 1930, a cold war between the Germanic and Anglo-American populations, and a series of nuclear crises which ultimately lead to war in 1975. An alternative counterfactual is sketched in a few pages later, one in which a severe polio epidemic in Britain in 1972 claims John Lennon and David Cameron among its victims, and a German nuclear weapon explodes above a Royal Air Force base in Suffolk that same year. We also read that Richard Nixon might have become a Methodist minister and that Nigeria gives the world its first black Pope.

For anybody fascinated by political or social history, this is a stimulating book that will inevitably lead to some thought as to how the world could have developed, and how it could so easily have been a very different place today. The author assumes a fair level of knowledge on the part of the reader, without which it would probably prove heavy going. To call it ‘entertaining’ might not be strictly accurate, and I doubt if that was the intention. But as ‘alternative history’ for the well-informed, and at around 230 pages just the right length not to outstay its welcome, I would certainly recommend this.

To see how the century really evolved instead, we recommend Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder; and for an account of what actually happened in June 1914, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans. Hundred Days by Nick Lloyd will tell you how it all ended.

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