In this fascinating and imaginative alternative history, Richard Ned Lebow, Professor of International Political Theory at King’s College London, posits worlds as they would have evolved without World War One. He describes two main worlds, a better and worse one.
He begins with a recreation of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, pointing out as he does so, some of the detailed occurrences which if they had changed, may have resulted in the survival of the Archduke and his wife. Such pivotal differences may have just been a change in the tempo of the traffic, anything that would have slightly altered the course of the car.
Working out from this is his main thesis; that history (including the course of WW1) is highly contingent, that is, dependent on an unimaginable number of small details, social and political trends and events, any combination of which could change the path of history. Twice he uses the analogy of a mattress. Press down on a point, and other springs adjust accordingly. History, then, is highly nuanced, to say the least. It isn’t the well orchestrated and structured symphony some would imagine, that can be analysed and its patterned movements used to predict with a measure of certainty.
In both Lebow’s better and worse worlds, WW1 is prevented and WW2 henceforth does not happen (no Versailles Treaty, no angry Corporal Hitler).
In the better world Germany undergoes a democratic coup against its military authorities. This succeeds and leads to a benign spread of democracy across the European continent. Russia is an authoritarian regime using the guise of democracy (no Bolshevik revolution, no Lenin or Stalinist rule), much as Lebow repeatedly stresses, like today’s Russia.
In the better world, peace, democracy, arts and sciences flourish, but there are drawbacks. Civil rights, social reforms and some technological and medical breakthroughs, in the USA and Europe, are slowed without the two World Wars giving the necessary impetus on medicine, technology and migration.
In the worse world, the coup in Germany does not succeed, and military authoritarianism entrenches and grows. This spreads and causes the rest of Europe to split into antagonistic power blocs. GB and France stand as isolated defensive outposts of democracy. This leads to a nightmare escalation of distrust between Germany and its allies, and Britain and France, and develops into a nuclear arms race. The unimaginable happens in 1976, a European nuclear war. These events are frighteningly well realised and grippingly written. Again, with this highly contingent understanding of history, it’s down to single technological error, a training tape is accidentally loaded into the early warning system, the grain of sand that brings the whole sand-pile down. Lebow gives a detail that some may find chilling and surprising; the estimated casualties of his European thermo-nuclear war are less than the total casualties of the two World Wars put together.
In both worlds the USA is an economic world powerhouse. It’s interested, but often not involved with the affairs of its democratic European allies. It is much more conservative and puritanical in the arts, society and politics.
Lebow goes into detail in his ‘what if’ worlds on the lives of leading figures. This can be entertaining. I loved the story of prosperity gospel mega -Church evangelist Richard M Nixon brought down by dirty tricks against a rival. Lebow also gives detail on imagined alternative trajectories of scientists, artists, composers, musicians and Hollywood stars, running parallel with their real lives and careers. This was my main frustration with the book, in these sections there is sometimes too much detail accrued, and the switching back and forth between real life and imagined life become confusing, especially when he tackles the lives of four physicists at once.
This book is a serious, accessible and compelling addition to the ‘what if’ genre of history. Lebow makes a passionate case for this ‘what if’ genre as serious history, for in exploring imagined alternatives, we need to delve deeply into the very stuff of history itself.