Book Review: Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow

archduke franz ferdinand livesOne point of divergence that has always fascinated me is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. His death sparked a global conflict that is directly responsible for the some of the darkest chapters of the 20th century (the rise of Communism, the Armenian genocide, the spread of fascism, World War II, the Holocaust, nuclear war, etc.) along with some of its brightest moments (human rights, the spread of democracy, the information revolution, decolonization, etc.). I like to imagine what the world would be like if Franz Ferdinand (who had plans for Austria-Hungary if he ever became emperor) lived, but I have always been hesitant to propose a timeline without a World War I. It is controversial to say World War I could have been avoided. Most historians would say the conflict was inevitable, but they do after all have the benefit of hindsight. The great thing about alternate history is that nothing is inevitable as long as you have the knowledge, the logic, and the imagination necessary to create a plausible world.

That is why I was excited to read Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow. Lebow has already made a name for himself as an expert in political science, but this is his first major foray into counterfactual history. I use “counterfactual history” because it is a scholarly take on the point of divergence discussed in the preceding paragraph. If you are looking for a traditional narrative, you won’t find it with this book.

Lebow argues that World War I was a surprise too many in Europe and highly contingent on the beliefs/policies of the rulers of the Great Powers at the time of the assassination. If Franz Ferdinand and his wife had avoided assassination in Sarajevo, Lebow speculates that by 1917, war would become unthinkable because this was the latest point at which the German high command would have believed they could have won a two-front war against France and Russia. Now, three years is a long time to avoid war in an already tense Europe, but Lebow points out several factors that would make peace a strong probability. Most of Europe’s leaders were extremely risk adverse and Franz Ferdinand himself was a foreign policy dove and would have followed a non-confrontational foreign policy in the Balkans with Russia when he ascended the throne. Meanwhile, international businessmen were benefiting greatly from the increasingly globalized world, while socialists, labor unions and other supporters of democracy were actively resisting the militant autocracies who Lebow believes were the most at fault for the war.

Accomplishing the goal of avoiding World War I is only a small part of the book. Lebow spends the remainder of his novel discussing what happens after Franz Ferdinand’s brush with death. Instead of picking one timeline that he believed was the most likely, Lebow wisely discusses two different extremes: the best and worst possible worlds. Both worlds depend on a domestic crisis that happens to Germany in the early 1920s between the army and the parliament. In the best possible world, the parliament wins out and Germany becomes a constitutional monarchy. Arms buildup between the great powers ends, a League of Nations-esque organization is created to keep the peace and a consortium of scientists prevent research into nuclear weapons. If this world sounds overly optimistic, it is, but Lebow does point out certain aspects of this world we might find abhorrent. Socially this world is behind ours. Antisemitism is still rife in Europe and blacks, who never left the South in large numbers because of wartime production in the North never happened, suffer through Jim Crow laws decades longer. Technology is also behind because the government funding of scientific endeavors brought on by the World Wars and the Cold War never happen (the funds instead go to improving the infrastructure of those nations).

Culturally, however, this world is more diverse. Although the United States remains the largest economic power, it lacks the cultural hegemony it gained in this timeline. Famous European artists and creators never had to flee their homelands meaning European cities like Paris and Vienna remain cultural capitals of the world. This was the most fascinating part of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!—Lebow managed to create a rich tapestry of alternate culture instead of spending an inordinate amount of time in politics like many alternate historians.

The worst possible world, however, hinges on the domestic crisis going the other way. The German army stages a coup, ridding Germany of any left-leaning, pro-democracy politicians. The period of arms buildup never ends and eventually escalates with the discovery of nuclear weapons. Tensions remain high in Europe with the Anglo-French alliance facing down German-led, autocratic Europe. The United States avoids getting involved as they are too distracted by the growing power of Japan, while Russia, hampered somewhat by their own domestic problems, tries to stay neutral as either side they join could tip the balance of power.

Lebow does not have much hope for this timeline staying peaceful and without the lessons learned from the world wars, there is no hesitation to avoid using nuclear weapons at the first signs of hostility. Although technologically this world is more advanced then the best possible word, it is still behind ours since the numerous, distrustful power blocs stymie the flow of ideas more effectively then the bi-polar Cold War our timeline experienced. The same can be said of the culture as most artists have to either practice self-censorship or flee to one of the few democracies that will let them in. Lebow concludes his analysis of both worlds by admitting the most plausible world is somewhere in between: a world where militant autocracies slowly give way to constitutional monarchies.

The book has a few flaws. Lebow only gives passing mention to the world outside of North America and Europe, but that is an issue many writers in the alternate history genre share and can be forgiven for the moment. His use of fictional biographies of real historical people is amusing, but it takes away from his analysis. Although some readers might want to know what Henry Kissinger or Barack Obama are doing in this universe, the likelihood of them even existing in either is entirely implausible. Once you factor in the over 40 million people who didn’t die along with the different paths people take without the war, it becomes increasingly unlikely we will recognize anyone from the last 50 years of our history. My own family history is highly contingent on World Wars and without them my paternal grandparents would be unlikely to meet and have the child who would one day become my father. Some of the fictional histories weren’t even that inspired. For example, Richard Nixon becomes am evangelical minister instead of going into politics, but still manages to have a career similar to the one he had in our timeline complete with a break-in of a rival minister’s office.

My biggest gripe of the book is the cost. Although I received a hardcover review copy, the price on the back is listed as $27. Not counting the index, the book is only 240 pages long. That seems rather expensive for such a short book, which is a shame because I think Lebow did an excellent job describing what the world could have been like if Franz Ferdinand lived. If you do want to read Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! (and with 2014 being the 100 year anniversary of his fateful death, this is as good of a time as any) I recommend getting the ebook or at least a used version of the hardcover, because we don not want to miss out on the most important message of the book: history is never inevitable.

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  1. The basic divergence is credible. Wars don’t happen because of ‘vast, impersonal forces’ or arms races; they happen because a quite small number of people, often only one, decide that they should or have to fight. In the case of WWI, it was about a dozen men in Austria and Germany who decided to push the crisis. The Austrians knew that war with Russia was very likely if they attacked Serbia, but were prepared to do so if Germany backed them. Germany did, though it knew that Russian mobilization (not attack, just mobilization) meant a general war.

    That was because Germany, unlike the other powers, didn’t have a mobilization plan: it had an -attack- plan. And only one plan, at that — an astonishing rigidity for the country that invented war-gaming and the General Staff system. The Germans kept substantial forces at full war strength opposite Liege, and once the switch was flipped they crossed the border -before- mobilization was complete. Their whole strategy for a quick victory depended on beating France before Russia could mobilize and attack. They could not wait or try to defuse the crisis once Russia started to mobilize, even though for Russia mobilization didn’t mean war. It did mean Russia was -ready- to attack quickly, and Germany couldn’t tolerate that.

    Franz Ferdinand hated the Serbs but was convinced that a general war would result if Austria-Hungary attacked them, and that a general war would destroy the dynasty and state. He wasn’t an agreeable man (Kaiser Wilhelm was one of the few people who actually liked him) but he was no fool.

    Killing him not only gave Austria a causus belli, but it removed the main Austrian player who was convinced that war was impossibly risky. Conrad, the head of the Austrian general staff, had been pushing for a preventative war for years, and the Foreign Ministry had come round to the same position. The assassination also convinced Franz Joseph that war was necessary (though he was reluctant) and brought Tiza, the Hungarian leader, on board.

    In Germany the general staff were also in favor of a quick war before the Russian “Great Program” was completed and made victory impossible, but Kaiser Wilhelm was a weathervane who agreed with whoever caught his ear last, and while wildly bellicose in his rhetoric actually feared war and had a tendency to bluster and then back down.

    The military got him to issue the “blank check” to the Austrians, and then got him out of town and deliberately kept him in the dark until it was too late.

    So yes, killing Franz Ferdinand did cause the war. And Germany was really to blame; it brought the war on, fought it with consistent radicalism, and had war aims that involved wrecking or destroying every other Great Power on the continent. Take a look at the “September Program”, or the treaties of Brest-Litovsk or Bucharest; they make the Versailles Treaty look like a Gandhian love-fest.

    The Kaiser’s Reich gets an undeserved good press because it wasn’t as bad as Hitler’s. It was still very, very bad.

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