What If World War I Had Never Happened?

Counterfactual History Imagines World Without Holocaust and Israel

Fateful Ride: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie on the day of their assassination, June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo.
Wikimedia Commons
Fateful Ride: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie on the day of their assassination, June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo.

By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Published May 03, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
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Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I
By Richard Ned Lebow
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

In the introduction to his new book, “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I,” Richard Ned Lebow discloses a poignant personal reason for his interest in counterfactual history. The professor of international political theory at King’s College dramatically recounts how, as a young infant, he narrowly averted being deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942, when his mother handed him over to a courageous French policeman, who proceeded to place him with a group of French Jewish women active in ferrying Jewish children abroad to safety. Lebow was eventually adopted by a Jewish family in the United States, where he grew up and pursued a career in academia. Keenly aware that his life “could easily have ended in 1942,” he has long been interested in how history might have been different.

Lebow’s study arrives exactly one century after the eruption of World War I. While most observers in the coming months will be focusing on the war’s origins and consequences, Lebow speculates on how its avoidance would have altered the course of history. In doing so, Lebow adopts a broad perspective, addressing not only how avoiding the war would have shaped world events, but also how it would have profoundly shaped the course of Jewish history.

“Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!” is based on the premise that if the Habsburg heir to the throne had escaped assassination on June 28, 1914, World War I never would have happened. In contrast to many scholars who argue that the war (or some comparable conflict) was probably inevitable due to the powerful forces of nationalism and imperialism, Lebow describes it as a contingent event that could have been avoided.

He persuasively argues that the relative willingness of Europe’s political and military leaders to risk war in 1914 would probably have disappeared a mere several years later. By 1917, Russia would have caught up to Germany and Austria-Hungary in terms of military preparedness, thereby eliminating the temptation of the latter powers to exploit their waning advantage against the former via preemptive military action. Had the Archduke been able to live long enough to succeed his father, Franz Josef (who died in 1916), the newly-crowned Emperor, a man long committed to peace with Russia, would not have permitted any future diplomatic crisis to escalate into war.

The consequences of avoiding war in 1914 would have been countless. Lebow outlines them not in one, but two, separate scenarios: the first producing a “better world,” the second a “worse world.” He explores both in depth, each of which hinges on the role of “Germany’s political development… as the principal determining factor.” (In the former, the country turns to democracy; in the latter, it doubles down on authoritarianism.) Readers interested in global history and international relations will appreciate many of the geopolitical details of Lebow’s competing scenarios, the first of which posits a more multi-polar, peaceful world, the second of which envisions ongoing international strife culminating in a European nuclear war.

Readers with an interest in Jewish history, however, will be intrigued to discover how Jewish life unfolds in these respective worlds. Not surprisingly, the two most important consequences involve the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.


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