This is part of an All Things Considered series that imagines a counterfactual history of World War I.

This summer marks 100 years since the start of World War I. Many argue that the conflict was inevitable — but what if it wasn't?

Without the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, there would have been no need for rulers in Vienna to threaten Serbia, no need for Russia to come to Serbia's defense, no need for Germany to come to Austria's defense — and no call for France and Britain to honor their treaties with Russia.

What would be the ripples of this counter-history?

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel put the hypothetical question to three historians: Ned Lebow, author of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!, Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace, and Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War.

Some highlights from their counterfactual history:

  • A multi-national successor to Austria-Hungary would have developed in Central Europe.
  • Czarist Russia doesn't become completely undone, so the Bolshevik party's October Revolution fails. Vladimir Lenin moves to the United States where he becomes a professor of Russian history at Columbia University. Having maintained his left-wing connections, he comes in contact with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and helps write the pro-union musical, Pins and Needles.
  • The Germany of the 1920s is not bled by the victorious and vindictive allies so the Nazis never come power. Europe would have been a more German-speaking continent.
  • Adolf Hitler — an aspiring artist and vegetarian — never goes to war and never enters politics. Instead, he becomes the manager of a company that produces alternative medicine.
  • Jews continue to thrive, and there is no Holocaust. The small Jewish settlement in Palestine continues, but without a flood of refuges it remains a minority community there.
  • Without World War I, there is no World War II and no Cold War. Science develops much slower — the U.S. doesn't put a man on the moon, there is no atomic bomb, and penicillin and antibiotics are slower to hit the market.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.


SIEGEL: Two shots fired a hundred years ago claimed two lives and an entire century. The bullets fired in Sarajevo in June 1914 killed the archduke, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. The assassination propelled the world into war. The war left millions dead. It shattered empires and it re-arranged power throughout the world.

What if the assassin in Sarajevo had missed? What if, like his small band of amateur co-conspirators, he didn't hit his target? It's hardly unthinkable. Moments before the murder, Franz Ferdinand's car made a wrong turn and it came to a stop right in front of the gunman. So, what if Franz Ferdinand had lived?


SIEGEL: What if the urgent cable that day had been a little less urgent?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Telegram to the editor of the New York World: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Police here report a gunman in custody after an attempt on Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary this afternoon. The archduke returned to Vienna to get prepare for next month's...

SIEGEL: Without the assassination, no need for rulers in Vienna to threaten Serbia, no need for Russia to come to Serbia's defense, no need for Germany to come to Austria's defense, and no call for France and Britain to honor their treaties with Russia. What would be the ripples of this counter-history? Well, that's the premise of what we'll explore in this segment of the program.

RICHARD NED LEBOW: World War I was the dominant event of the 20th century.

SIEGEL: This is Richard Ned Lebow. His book "Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!" inspires us to tell this counterfactual, perhaps playful history of the last 100 years. Lebow is a professor of International Political Theory at King's College, London. It is his contention that if the archduke had lived, no war would have occurred. That's a view Christopher Clark shares. He's author of "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War."

CHRISTOPHER CLARK: None of the European great powers was planning to launch a war of aggression on any of its neighbors.

SIEGEL: So to the extent that we can imagine a counterfactual history, it's not totally out of the ballpark to imagine a world in which the great powers of Europe didn't go to war in 1914.

CLARK: Absolutely and, strangely, when you look at what the men who made the decisions to 1914 - how they see the future - one thing that you can't help being struck by is how open the future seems to them. I mean it's only from our perspective, in retrospect when we look back, does that war appear to us inevitable because there is something about big events, which makes us believe in their unavoidability.


SIEGEL: The Austro-Hungarian Empire had two capitals: Budapest, and the more important one, Vienna. It was at the cutting edge of culture and science. Sigmund Freud was re-writing human psychology. Arnold Schoenberg was rearranging the musical scale.


SIEGEL: The Hapsburg family had ruled the empire for centuries with roots in the Holy Roman Empire. They were German-speaking Catholics ruling over a polyglot empire at the heart of Europe. Its leader in 1914 was Franz Josef, a man who had ruled the empire for 60 years.

Margaret MacMillan, author of "The War That Ended Peace," says that if there had been no war in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire might have survived and evolved into a different sort of union.

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Then you wouldn't have had an unstable Central Europe. You wouldn't have had a lot of quarreling states which helped to contribute to the outbreak of the Second World War.

SIEGEL: You might have had something like the League of Central European Nations or the Central European Union.

MACMILLAN: Absolutely, and people talked about it at the time. They talked about a more voluntary association and they talked about a common market, or a free-trade area. Which would've made a lot of sense if that had continued because as soon as you got these different nations established in the wreckage of the First World War, you got tariff barriers going up. You've got trade wars. And they all suffered.

SIEGEL: So, our counterfactual world is starting to take shape. With no World War I, we imagine a multi-national successor to Austria-Hungary in Central Europe. Maybe not the happiest country in Europe, but not a fratricidal one, either.

We handed this hypothetical ball to historian Christopher Clark and he ran down the field with it. With no World War I, he figures Czarist Russia doesn't come completely undone. No World War I and Germany of the 1920s is not bled by the victorious and vindictive allies, the Nazis never come power. And Christopher Clark reasons the role of Germany and German would have been greater.

CLARK: Europe would have been a more German-speaking place that the cultural authority, the German universities which was quite extraordinary before 1914, might well have survived.

SIEGEL: And Margaret MacMillan says a different natural alliance would have formed.

MACMILLAN: Germany was the biggest land power in Europe. It had the biggest army. And Britain was a great empire and had the biggest navy in the world. And so, it was a very nice congruence of interests and powers. They 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.

There were exchanges between universities. A lot of British young men went and studied in German universities. Four British Cabinet ministers had graduated from German universities. And Germans came to British universities. German Rhodes Scholars came to Oxford, for example.

SIEGEL: No world wars and those royal cousins on the thrones of Germany and Britain would symbolize a powerful Anglo-German alliance.

In his book, Richard Lebow lets his imagination run with the world that didn't experience the Great War. In his counterfactual history, one Austrian veteran of the war - an aspiring artist and vegetarian - never goes to war, never enters politics, never rouses a rabble that was never reduced to wheelbarrows full of worthless paper money. Instead, Adolf Hitler pursues another career path.

LEBOW: Stymied as an artist, no chance of a political career and, of course, no military experience by virtue of their being no World War I, he looks elsewhere and ends up becoming a manager of a company that produces alternative medicine.

SIEGEL: And with Hitler re-imagined, flogging herbal remedies and aroma therapies, the Jews in Germany would continue to thrive, as Margaret MacMillan says they were thriving.

MACMILLAN: Jews in Germany were among the best integrated in Europe. I mean a lot of German Jews were no longer practicing their religion. The chief rabbi in Germany, in fact, before 1914, was very worried that Judaism would eventually disappear in Germany because so many Jews were becoming integrated, losing their faith or converting or simply becoming atheists.

SIEGEL: In this counter-historical world, there is no Holocaust. The small Jewish settlement in Palestine continues, but without a flood of refugees it remains a minority community there. Without the First World War, Russia remains prosperous. And so, says historian Lebow, the Bolshevik Party's October Revolution fails.

LEBOW: Lenin comes to the United States, where I imagine him assuming the position of a professor of Russian History at Columbia. And while he does this, he of course keeps alive contacts with left-wingers. This naturally brings him into contact with the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. And the ILGWU is famous outside the labor world for having produced the musical "Pins and Needles." And Lenin becomes one of their writers.


CAB CALLOWAY: (Singing) I'm on a campaign to make you mine. I'll picket you until you sign in one big union for two. Lah-lah-ti-do...

SIEGEL: So a little more hot jazz, a lot less cold war. In fact, as Margaret MacMillian imagines it, none at all.

MACMILLAN: We wouldn't have had the United States facing an utterly inimical ideology.

SIEGEL: So, no system of mutually-assured destruction, no divided Europe.

MACMILLAN: I think if Russia had remained in some ways as a rather authoritarian monarchy, it would have been moving in a direction which would have brought it much closer to the United States. So I think we would not have had a Cold War, certainly not a cold war in that form.

SIEGEL: And with no World War I, no World War II and no Cold War, this counterfactual world would know none of the occasional benefits of the Cold War.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

MACMILLAN: Putting a man on the moon was very much a gesture. And it was to show that the United States had a science superior to that of the Soviet Union. And I don't think we would have that.

SIEGEL: More generally, without being harnessed to the mobilization for victory in world wars, science would have had a less dramatic century, according to Richard Lebow.

LEBOW: In the absence of World War I, things develop much more slowly. We don't have safe aviation until much later in the 20th century. We don't have a polio vaccine until maybe 20 or 30 or 40 years later. Penicillin and other antibiotics came online in the '40s. This might have not happened until the 1960s and, of course, the information revolution is even further delayed.

SIEGEL: And perhaps no atomic bomb. We'll have some more counterfactual history tomorrow in the second and concluding part of this exercise. In the meantime, we invite you to imagine one aspect of the past century - politics, science, music, literature, anything - and how it might have been different if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had lived in 1914. Go to and click on Contact Us and write a short description of the counterfactual slice of history that you think would've happened. Put no World War I in the subject line, please. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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