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What if he wasn’t killed?
Posted at: Apr/03/2014 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Historical Insights,
In June of 1914 two shots were fired in Sarajevo killing Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife. Much like a series of dominos ready to fall in sequence, one thing led to another. In response to the assassinations, rulers in Vienna threatened Serbia; Russia came to the Serbia’s defense and Germany came to Austria’s defense. As the tiles continued to topple, France and Britain jumped in honoring their treaty with Russia. As history often turns on small events, it is an interesting question to ask “what if the bullets had not been fatal?”
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife propelled Europe into World War I (WWI). The consequences of WWI and its treaties created the environment for the rise of fascism in Europe and ultimately World War II (WWII) which concluded with the onset of the cold war. 10’s of millions of lives were lost and the map of Europe was significantly redrawn. As war often does, the technology of the day took major leaps forward in support of advancing arms and warfare. How different might things have been without these wars?
Raising children gave me the opportunity to early on experience a deluge of “what if” questions. As a parent, encouraging curiosity is important, but eventually the “what if” questions venture into the realm of ridiculous and as a result such questions are soon discouraged. Nevertheless, as the 100th anniversary of the assassination approaches it seems like a good opportunity to explore an alternate history.
Telegram to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Officials report that a gunman is in custody after an attempt on Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary this afternoon. The Archduke survived with only a minor injury. The Archduke is expected to return to Vienna to recover from his wound at his estate….
Big events such as war often seem inevitable due to their scale, but in retrospect, it is easy to envision that WWI might have potentially never happened.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire had two capitals at the beginning of the 20th century: Budapest, and the more important Vienna. Vienna was at the cutting edge of culture, science and new views. Sigmund Freud was re-writing the entire field of psychology. Arnold Schoenberg was rearranging how the musical scale was used with the twelve-tone technique and the use of motifs without including a dominant melody.
While the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russians were not planning for war, the same could not be said of all their neighbors. While not strategically planning on aggression, Germany had no desire to be caught flat footed and had already gone through multiple iterations of the Von Schlieffen plan. The Von Schlieffen plan presumed that if Germany was attacked, they could respond rapidly and aggressively on two presumed fronts (France & Russia) taking the battle to their enemies. Concurrent to all this, England, France, Spain and other European countries all had colonies in Africa and India where they were continually jockeying for advantage politically and sometimes militarily. While the majority of England’s ground forces were dispersed to the far corners of their global empire, they continued to maintain naval superiority in most of the world’s oceans that would impact their trade routes.
The Hapsburg family had ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries with roots going back to the Holy Roman Empire. They were German-speaking Catholics ruling over an empire of 6-8 languages at the heart of Europe. Franz Josef had ruled this empire for 60 years. One of the most common themes in the European papers of that era was the discussion of “free-trade” and “common markets.” There was a great deal of voluntary association between the various countries of Europe at that time, partially driven by the open immigration that led to pockets of nearly every nationality in all the major cities of Europe.
As stated earlier, without the assassination, the rulers in Vienna would likely not be threatening Serbia. Russia would not be stepping up to defend Serbia and Germany would not have therefore been prompted to defend Austria and all the other defensive treaties of the time would not have been acted on. Here is where the counterfactual world starts to take shape.
With no WWI, Tsarist Russia, despite its internal issues does not completely fall apart. Germany does not lose a generation to war. More important, Germany in the 1920’s is not bled by the repressive and vindictive terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Without the economic pressures on Germany after defeat by the WWI allies, Fascism remains a fringe movement and the Nazis never come to power. With no war to isolate the Germans, Europe would have been a more German-speaking place. Additionally, the culture and insights of the German universities which were beginning to thrive in 1914 might have been very significant across the entire continent in perpetuating a sense of mutual understanding and trust.
Natural alliances that we see in 2014 would have started forming 100 years earlier. Germany was the biggest land power in Europe. It had the biggest army. Britain was still a great empire and had the largest navy in the world. And so, it was a very nice congruence of interests and powers. Germany and Britain were each other's largest trading partners. They shared a lot including religion; the majority religion in both countries was Protestant. Their royal families, of course, were intimately related with royal cousins on the thrones of Germany and Britain cementing the alliance.
There would of course have been open educational exchanges between the two partners of this powerful Anglo-German alliance. A lot of British young men were already studying at German universities in 1914, and these numbers would have only grown. In the same spirit, many Germans would be coming to Oxford and other British universities. In 1914, there were already four British Cabinet ministers who had graduated from German universities.
In this counterfactual history, an aspiring Austrian artist and vegetarian never went to war and therefore Adolf Hitler never enters politics. With Germany currency never being reduced to worthless paper, there is no poor rabble willing to go down the path of fascism. It is more likely that as he ages, he finds no market for his art and becomes a salesman for a patent medicine company selling various elixirs and tonics of questionable value.
In this alternate history there is no Holocaust. The Jews in Germany were among the best integrated in Europe. Some were so well integrated that they had begun losing touch with their faith in favor of local culture. This is supported by a letter from the chief rabbi in Germany in 1914 expressing concern that Judaism would eventually disappear in Germany as Jews were striving for integration at the expense of setting their religion aside. Additionally, with no Holocaust, there would be no mass exodus of Jews from Europe to the small settlement in Palestine.
Predicting Russia in this counterfactual history is a challenge. The Tsarist leadership of Russia failed to implement many needed social, economic and political changes in the 19th and early 20th century that placed Russia well behind many of their European neighbors. Concurrently, without the pressures of WWI, the February and October Revolutions of 1917 might have been deferred for a decade. If the Russian revolutionary change could have been deferred long enough, it is still doubtful the Romanov’s would have been insightful enough to recognize when to cede some portion of their authority to a parliament or other democratic body. But without the Bolshevik Party's October Revolution of 1917, Lenin would likely have come to the United States to become a professor of Russian History at Columbia or Berkley. Relocating to American would put Lenin in close proximity to the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union where he would likely become one of their chief organizers. Being a radical thinker, he would still easily adopt the most noteworthy cause of his day to be a part of.
America’s future might not have been as bright during the 20th century. The abuses and cracks in the financial system that created the “Great Depression” had little or nothing to do with the world wars so the market crash of 1929 would likely still occur. Without the failures of WWI, there would be no WWII which provided the focus for the United States to pull out of a depression by creating a defense and military economy that supplied half the world.
With no world wars, it is doubtful there would have been a divided Europe and the “Cold War” that defined the post WWII European division. While avoiding the threat of “Mutually-Assured Destruction” (MAD) is appealing, the Cold War also spurred the development of a lot of great technology. The space race and the competition to place a man on the moon were direct outcomes of the Cold War. The desire to put a man on the moon might well have stayed in the province of science fiction writers for another 50 years. Much of our current satellite technology is a result of the Cold War; without which we would probably be launching our first communication satellites 20-25 years later. As one of many potential examples; the hook and loop technology we call “Velcro” was invented in 1948, but was not popularized for consumers until NASA started using it to secure tools in the Mercury capsules.
Commercial aviation advanced significantly due to the pressures of 2 world wars. Pressurized cabins, jet engines, radar and radar navigation all took giant strides during the wars. Without the competition to wage war in the air, aviation would likely not have reached the safety standards and thresholds of the late 1950’s until the 1980s or later.
In the history we know, WWI consumed a generous portion of Europe and concluded with an unstable Russia and a beaten down Germany. Russia responded with a series of revolutions and Germany came back with a vengeance driven by their fascist government. When the two world wars were over, the cold war was left to consume Europe for the last half of the 20th century. During the 20th century, millions of people died in Europe and the Pacific as a result of nationalism, egos and tremendously destructive weapons.
The notion of a counterfactual history is fun to write about, but may well be a misguided notion. As mentioned earlier, 2 bullets from an assassin’s gun set off a series of dominos. If such an isolated event could spur such a significant outcome, it is more reasonable to assume that Europe was a powder keg waiting to be lit. Think of the domino display where toppling one, successively topples many; in that same display, toppling any one of many dominos would set off large portions of the display. It is more likely that while no one in Europe was overtly arming to go to war, many relationships, treaties, old grudges and ethnic animosities were ready to boil over from a single incident.
Regardless of the spark, Europe was ready to explode and still carried the misguided notion of war being honorable and heroic. Napoleonic-era tactics would ultimately prove obsolete in the face of machine guns, poison gas and bombs raining from the sky. With time, history has a way of blending events together; as a friend of mine has repeatedly pointed out, it is likely that in another 100 years or so the era from 1914-2014 will likely be referred to homogeneously as the “second hundred years war.”
The premise for this kind of a counterfactual history is based on the notion that history turns on small and not so isolated events. While war should never be considered inevitable, it is naïve to ignore the other events going on in Europe. Our history is ours to create. We have a responsibility to deal with the small things and minimize the challenges and pressures associated with the bigger things.
A counterfactual history is a fancy way to say fiction, but our real history still affords lots of opportunities to learn and minimize the risk of a new disaster…. provided cooler heads can prevail.