Review: Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War 1, Richard Ned Lebow, 2014.
Professor Lebow’s book contains something to interest everybody and, as a total package, will probably satisfy few.
The veteran reader of alternate histories will get impatient with the length of the first chapter explaining the idea of counterfactuals and the place of contingency in history.
The reader interested in World War I will find too little following the “sharp agate point” (to borrow a phrase from Winston’s Churchill’s foray into alternate history) on which Lebow’s worlds deviate from ours.
The three alternate histories Lebow gives us when World War I fails to occur seem too little developed and too heavily emphasize the place of certain ethnic and racial groups in this world.
This is not to say Lebow’s work is implausible. Part of the fascination with World War 1’s origins is that it is filled with contingencies. Lebow starts with the Archduke surviving his trip to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. In depicting the consequent events, Lebow, a “political psychologist”, chooses to concentrate on personalities, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm’s and Franz Ferdinand’s. He argues that 1914-1917 were the danger years, that after that period the war, never inevitable, became less likely. In the academic language he sometimes lapses into, he concentrates on the agents, the people, of history and not the structure, the circumstances.
And the worlds he describes are plausible. He may spend, for my taste, too much time covering the fate of individual European Jews who don’t end up in America absent a Nazi regime to chase them out of Europe, but, if you’re going to talk about the development of classical music, science, and movies in the Western World, Jews are important. Likewise, I could have done without the disproportionate emphasis on the fate of American blacks in this world. Again, though, Lebow’s arguments are plausible. The development of jazz and civil rights in America would have been different absent our World War 2.
I’ll even forgive the rather frequent references to middle Americans rubes, monolingual, parochial, and bigoted.
But I did get mighty tired of hearing about repressive Victorian values, a clichéd notion Lebow assigns to our historical America as late as the 1950s. The claim that the Great Depression, which does not happen in Lebow’s best case possible world, led to greater movie censorship in America seems correlation and not casuation. (Lebow never actually mentions the Hays Code.) An even less believable claim is when Lebow links those persisting “Victorian sexual values” in his better world lead to a higher rate of HIV infection in America than in our world. On what model does this work?
In short, nuggets of interest here, but I was often bored.
That was the short, LibraryThing review.
Regarding the specifics of the rates of new HIV infections in America, the Henry J Kaiser Foundation says they’ve been largely constant in over a decade. Does Lebow really want to say that our sexual mores have been unchanged in that time, that they have some vestigial Victorian element? By his logic, our sexual mores have to have been unchanged in the past ten years. And what about Africa, hardly, during the time of the AIDS epidemic, a hotbed of Victorian morality?
Speaking of Africa, Lebow does deviate from a conventional liberal view of the world when he has, in one of his alternate worlds, Africans confronting their own contributions to their plight and not being able to blame Europeans.
While he concentrates on the differences in the development of physics, a more interesting scientific development to contemplate is how neuroscience and psychology would have developed without the convenient, illogic taint of the Nazis being available to discredit those pointing out the real, meaningful physical and mental differences that exist between ethnic and racial groups.
Finally, diversity is not the friend of a nation. World War 1 kicked off a century of separatist and nationalist movements. I find Lebow’s depiction of many of those movements damped down — be it India/Pakistan/Bangladesh or Central European countries — in his alternate worlds to be too rosy. As I type, one of those mosaics of accidental diversity is being invaded by Russia.
An index by title exists for other World War One related nonfiction.