A Counterfactual Anniversary: “What Ifs?” of World War I

With today marking the 100th anniversary of the event that precipitated the eruption of World War I – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 – it is fitting that today’s New York Times features several reflections on this historically pivotal day’s counterfactual dimensions.

The first, entitled “If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived,” is written by journalist Simon Winder, the author of the fascinating (and hilariously written) book, Germania, and most recently, its sequel, Danubia.

Unfortunately, the essay lacks Winder’s usual narrative punch.  The main problem is its misleading packaging.  Given the relative absence of speculative reasoning in the essay, I suspect that a Times editor decided to provide the snappy title, thereby capitalizing on the recent flurry of attention to the Great War’s counterfactual aspects (seen in Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!, National Public Radio’s recent listener poll about the war’s “what ifs?”, and Jack Beatty’s The Lost World of 1914: How the Great War Was Not Inevitable.

The most Winder offers by way of counterfactuals is to highlight the existence of alternate possibilities for the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (whose demise Winder bemoans) short of dissolution in war. 

Winder writes:

“There were many possibilities before 1914. One ingenious proposal was for a United States of Austria, which would have carved the empire into a series of federal language-based states, including small urban enclaves to protect (but also isolate) German speakers. This could have been achieved only by the destruction of Magyar imperialism, but Franz Ferdinand at different points seems to have seen this as worth risking.”

Winder goes on to speculate:

“We will never know if such schemes might have worked. But these are ghosts that have haunted Europe ever since — possibilities whose disappearance unleashed evils inconceivable in the stuffy, hypocritical, but relatively decent and orderly world of the Hapsburg empire.”

In other words, the nightmares of real history allow us to fantasize about what might have been.  Had the archduke lived, they might have been realized, which Winder confirms by showing how his death paved the way for Austria-Hungary’s reckless decision to go to war.  He writes that the assassins “could not have known…that Franz Ferdinand was probably the most senior antiwar figure in Central Europe, a man acutely aware of Hapsburg weakness, scathing about the delusions of his generals and a close friend of the German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm. The recklessness and stupidity of the Hapsburg response to the assassination — the ultimatum of humiliating demands served on Serbia, a response so crucial to the outbreak of the World War I — would not have occurred in the face of some other provocative outrage that had left Franz Ferdinand alive.”

As far as things go, this is counterfactually true, but not particularly insightful.  And it certainly is not much of an analytical pay-off for readers attracted to the article by its alluring title. 

That said, it may be a good sign for the popularity of counterfactual history if editors are increasingly tempted to exploit its appeal – even in the cause of false advertising.

It is all the more interesting, therefore, that the most insightful counterfactual observation in today’s Times comes from historian Max Hastings, who is quoted in Steven Erlanger’s title page story, “The War to End All Wars,” that “Germany could have dominated Europe in 20 years economically if only it had not gone to war.  “The supreme irony of 1914 is how many of the rulers of Europe grossly overestimated military power and grossly underestimated economic power.” 
This claim is probably true. Had the Kaiser’s government decided not to push for war in 1914 (and used economics as a tool of “war by other means”), it probably would have been more successful in the long run in promoting the Germany’s national interests.  Given the country’s political culture at the time, however -- especially the place of primacy enjoyed by the Prussian army – it was never going to be easy to have the latter stand down in the event of a military crisis.  And so Hastings’ “what if?” remains a wistful one.


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