The “what-if” historical genre rewrites the past as fantasy. Philip Roth, in his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, imagined a pro-Nazi United States after aviation hero and antisemite Charles Lindbergh had won the 1940 presidential election. The novel tapped into post-9/11 fears of death and dominance by an alien power. Forty years earlier, in 1964, the British film It Happened Here envisaged the wartime occupation of the British Isles by Nazi Germany. Had Hitler won the war, all Europe might now be a vast German colony; living space (Lebensraum) for Hitlerite Germany would be dying space for others.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!, a work of counter factual history, envisages a world in which the assassination of the archduke at Sarajevo in 1914 never happened. The first world war may not have broken out as a consequence; and the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires would have been left standing. Without Sarajevo, moreover, German aggression might not have been punished at Versailles, and Hitler would have had no cause for grievance. Without Hitler, in turn, European Jewry was allowed to prosper and grow numerous; Israel may not have come into being, however, as Jewry had no need of a salvation abroad.
In Richard Ned Lebow’s alternative history, Franz Ferdinand is crowned emperor in 1916 following the death of his uncle, Franz Josef. The Hapsburg empire under Ferdinand would have continued to unite Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Bulgars and Transylvanians, Jews and non-Jews alike, in the cosmopolitan lands of Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe). The double-headed eagle was seen to fly over the Hapsburg capital of Vienna as a symbol of monarchical tolerance; in the real “historical world”, of course, the tolerance was crushed by Nazi and Soviet intolerance.
Soviet Europe, with its grey, mono-cultural states cleansed of human variety, would have been unrecognizable to Franz Ferdinand and his walrus-mustached officials. By his murderous ideology, Stalin put an end to the region’s ethnic diversity of Jews, Muslims and Magyars. Lebow contends that the Bolshevik revolution itself might not have erupted in 1917 without Sarajevo and the conflict that ensued. Russia in 1914 was probably ripe for revolution, but Lebow wants us to reflect on an alternative, when Stalin was absent.
Two world wars would not be enough to repair the damage done at Sarajevo in 1914, when the equilibrium of Europe was shattered overnight. Looked at one way, Franz Ferdinand’s was the most successful assassination in modern history, as it resulted in a vastly expanded Serb-ruled state that was only finally dismantled in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. In Lebow’s alternative, Franz Ferdinand’s survival at Sarajevo forestalled the conflict in unforeseen ways. For one thing, it deprived the war party in Vienna of the pretext it needed to open hostilities with Serbia, so peace in Europe was maintained.
Throughout, Lebow stresses that minor events can have huge consequences, and huge events do not necessarily have huge causes. Thus at Sarajevo the Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip set in motion an “unintended chain of events” that culminated in carnage such as the world had never seen and Princip himself could not have imagined. The first world war, in Lebow’s view the “defining event of the 20th century”, killed and wounded more than 35 million people, both military and civilian, through poison gas, starvation, shell fire and machine-gun. Few had reckoned on such a long, drawn-out saga of futility and wasted human lives. The conflict was thick with forebodings of the second world war. The “ethnic cleansing” of Armenians in present-day Turkey during and after the first world war foreshadowed a new age of atrocity and diminished individual responsibility for it, says Lebow. Once people have been deprived of their humanity, it is much easier to kill them; all future dictatorships were to understand this.
Lebow has written a sharp if at times cliche-ridden work (“heated debate”, “stiff competition”) that many with an interest in the first world war will enjoy. As well as providing a “what-if” analysis of a world without the conflict, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! invites us to reflect in new and unexpected ways on the connectedness of things – and on the unpredictability of history.