The Magazine

Houses of Cards

One shot, and Europe descends into catastrophe.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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World War I, the great wrong turn of modern history, began with a wrong turn. It was made by the driver of the open car carrying the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife on their visit to Sarajevo in June 1914. The driver stopped the car, intending to turn around, right in front of Gavrilo Princep, the young Serbian-trained assassin who had been dejectedly walking home, having failed to get a clear shot along the official route. A few seconds later, the royal couple were mortally wounded; a few weeks later, Europe was at war; a few years later, the Bolsheviks were in power in Russia, followed by the Fascists in Italy, and the Nazis in Germany—all owing their success, or even their existence, to the effects of the slaughter of 1914-18.  

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

Little things can have vast consequences. Pascal remarked that the world would be a different place if Cleopatra’s nose had been a little shorter. Historical determinists don’t like these whimsical contingencies. Marxists were always starting sentences with “It’s no accident that .  .  .” But history is a multiple collision. 

The Great War is a textbook illustration, but The Lost History of 1914, an engaging, anecdotal exercise in “counterfactual” history, avoids sounding like any sort of textbook. It’s a collection of the crises, distractions, almosts, and what-ifs that occupied the years and months preceding the war in each of the major belligerent countries (except Italy and the Ottoman Empire). It’s nicely written—Beatty, the author of books about James Curley’s Boston and the Gilded Age, has a gift for epigrammatic phrasing—and it’s arrestingly illustrated with contemporary photographs, drawings, and, best of all, caustic political cartoons. 

Beatty sets out to sabotage the prevailing view that the war was inevitable, given the feverish colonial rivalries and territorial resentments of the European powers, the interlocking alliances, the military buildups and hair-trigger mobilization plans, the German fear of Russia, the British fear of Germany, the Russian fear of its own increasingly radicalized populace, and so on. I would say he succeeds, though unevenly. Not all his what-ifs are equal. Most of them probably wouldn’t have derailed the war.  

But that initial wrong turn really did matter, and not just because the murder in Sarajevo was the immediate catalyst of the Great War. It’s because Franz Ferdinand himself was the most forceful opponent in Austria-Hungary of war with Serbia or its patron, Russia. He isn’t easy to be wistful about: He was brusque and bristling, but he wanted to reform the ramshackle, multiethnic Habsburg Empire (apparently inspired by the federalism of the United States, which he had visited), and he wanted external peace so that he could be free to carry out his plans. 

Beatty also wonders what might have happened if the life of Franz Ferdinand’s uncle could have been, like Cleopatra’s nose, a little shorter. Emperor Franz Joseph, who had been on the imperial throne since 1848 and nearly succumbed to bronchitis in April 1914 (he finally died in the middle of the war, in 1916, at 86), wasn’t eager for war himself but, frail and lost in the past, he couldn’t restrain his generals, the most bellicose of whom, Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, wanted a march on Belgrade to impress his mistress, the wife of a Viennese beer baron. 

Franz Ferdinand had twice intervened before 1914 to stop Conrad from provoking a war; as emperor, he would have cashiered him. But what about the German General Staff, which David Fromkin (in Europe’s Last Summer, 2004) fingered as the real culprit in the march to war? Spooked by the growing strength of Russia and its plans for a military railroad through Russian Poland to the German border, the Prussian officer corps was itching for preventive war. Beatty, however, thinks the Germans couldn’t have risked it without their only reliable European ally, and Franz Ferdinand would have taken all the Austrian divisions off the board. 

While the other contingencies preceding the war weren’t as crucial, they make good reading. Great Britain was on the brink of civil war and army mutiny in and around Ulster because of the Liberal party’s Irish Home Rule Bill, due to pass Parliament in the summer of 1914. Even if you’ve read George Dangerfield’s classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England, the gaping fault lines opening beneath seemingly placid Georgian England come as a surprise.