- - Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Palgrave MacMillan, $27, 256 pages

One bullet: That’s all it took to make (or perhaps unmake) the 20th century. Just one hunk of lead, fired from a Browning pistol into the neck of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, begat World War I, World War II and the world as we know it today.

In “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I,” Richard Ned Lebow, a Dartmouth international relations professor, posits radically different trajectories for the past 100 years, had events played out only a bit differently that sunny day in June 1914. What if the pistol had jammed, or if the arm of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, had been unsteady? What if Ferdinand’s driver, after taking the wrong turn, had proceeded onward instead of stopping to back up? What if, after conspirators lobbed a bomb at him earlier that day, Ferdinand had sensed further danger and left Sarajevo?

Mr. Lebow proposes two plausible alternate histories, one better and one worse. In the improved scenario, world war is avoided altogether. With no assassination as pretext, Austria-Hungary does not invade Serbia. Ferdinand becomes emperor in 1916 when his uncle, Franz Josef, dies, and he enacts reforms, such as universal suffrage, that ease pressure within the empire. Germany begins to evolve into a constitutional democracy after the Reichstag demands, over the objections of a grudging kaiser, mutual cuts to military spending negotiated with Britain and France. The Russian Empire still breaks apart, but the Bolshevik revolution fails, and Communism never takes hold. European physicists, including Albert Einstein, sign a pledge not to work on a nuclear bomb, and one is never developed.

The worst plausible world, on the other hand, ends in nuclear holocaust. Conflicts in 1920s Germany between the kaiser and the Reichstag end in a military coup. Tensions rise as authoritarians in Berlin make friends with strongmen in Rome and Tokyo. The result is a decades-long multipolar cold war between democracies in the West (not including an aloof America) and a belligerent German bloc. Finally, when the British government mistakes a training tape in its radar system for an impending German strike, missiles fly in both directions. Ten million die instantly. Amid the state of nature that follows, in Mr. Lebow’s happy words, “survivors reluctantly begin to envy those who were vaporized.”

If this all sounds like a parlor game played by sauced tweeds at the faculty Christmas party, rest assured that it reads a bit like one, too. Mr. Lebow’s meandering narrative is sometimes difficult to follow, as he jumps, in a matter of paragraphs, among descriptions of his best world, his worst world, the actual historical world and potential forks that branch off from each.

Because history offers a finite cast of characters, Mr. Lebow is left to rearrange familiar actors in front of a freshly painted backdrop — which does offer readers some amusement. After the Bolshevik revolution is crushed, Vladimir Lenin emigrates to the United States and becomes a professor of Russian history at Columbia, though his students “dislike his tendency to award low grades and his inability to tolerate opposing points of view.” Adolf Hitler paints houses, sells kooky health products by mail and finds no amusement when people tell him that he looks like Charlie Chaplin. Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., more affectionately known as JPK, lives to become president, though the tabloids seem more interested in the dalliances of his younger brother Jack.

This approach, however, often fails to illuminate. To take just a single example: In one of Mr. Lebow’s storylines, Barack Obama, elected governor of Hawaii, makes a name for himself in the 1990s by pushing back against Republican internment of Japanese immigrants. However, without two world wars, it seems altogether more likely that Barack Obama would not exist. In both of Mr. Lebow’s scenarios, Britain retains control of its colonies much longer; for instance, Pakistan is not cleaved from India, and the people of the united Raj settle for dominion status, not independence. It is hard to envision how, in such a scenario, a young Barack Obama Sr. from the colony of Kenya might wind up in Honolulu.

“History is like a spring mattress,” Mr. Lebow writes. “If one spring is cut or subjected to extra pressure, the others will to varying degrees shift their location and tension.” Perhaps, in limited contexts, over short frames of time, but soon enough, unforeseen chaos — like the assassin in Sarajevo — intrudes. Such is the challenge of counterfactual history: Cascading shifts in antecedents would, before long, deny us a world we recognize at all. Yet we cannot help but remain firmly chained to our actual timeline and the great men who shaped it. So we end up muddled halfway between fantasy and reality, explaining how, if Carthage had burned Rome instead of the other way around, we’d be reading “Great Expectations” in Punic. Pure fantasy from whole cloth might get us closer to the truth.

This is not to say that Mr. Lebow lacks imagination. After describing his worst plausible world, he ponders whether scholars there, amid the glowing rubble, would play with their own counterfactuals. Could nuclear war have been avoided if the great powers had settled accounts before the invention of atomic weapons? Would a war early in the 20th century, maybe around 1914, have been better?

Somewhere, in some other universe, a young journalist is reviewing the new book “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Dies!” — and giving it a sparkling recommendation. How’s that for counterfactual?

Kyle Peterson is managing editor of The American Spectator.

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