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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

Stuff Happens and Sometimes It Changes World History

Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrived in Sarajevo in late June 1914 unaware that a squad of six assassins was already waiting for him. The assassins were equipped with bombs and revolvers and each also carried cyanide powder to commit suicide once their deed was done. Few onlookers expected the day’s tribulations as the archduke’s motorcade rolled into Sarajevo. The streets were decorated with Habsburg black-and-yellow flags and the day’s weather was superb. The guest’s security detail was light, undoubtedly irresponsibly so. The archduke must have felt safe, so much so that he brought along his wife on the day of their wedding anniversary.

The first hitman took up position near the Ćumurija Bridge, preparing to throw his bomb at Franz Ferdinand’s vehicle. At the last moment, the assassin aborted his attempt, sensing someone approaching from behind. The motorcade continued uninterrupted. A few moments later, a second assassin broke his bomb’s detonator and threw it in the direction of the archduke’s phaeton automobile. This time, the bomb exploded but it missed its intended target. Instead, it injured several officers in the car immediately behind the archduke. This was undoubtedly the right moment to call off the day’s festivities but Franz Ferdinand surprised his entourage by first insisting on helping the wounded, then by continuing with the official program, and finally by planning to visit the injured in Sarajevo’s hospital.

Franz Ferdinand’s insistence on finishing his visit gave the remaining assassins an opportunity for a do-over. Three froze with fear when the cavalcade passed by. They all failed to complete their attempt. But Gavrilo Princip, the man who would ultimately kill Franz Ferdinand, kept his cool despite the unexpected sequence of events. Upon hearing the explosion, Princip first assumed that the assassination had succeeded but then he noticed the archduke’s ornate helmet in a departing vehicle. Taking advantage of the ensuing conflagration, Princip took up position along Franz Joseph Street via which the motorcade was scheduled to depart Sarajevo.

Franz Ferdinand must have been shaken by the assassination attempt but remarkably, he too kept his cool under tense circumstances. Even as he insisted on finishing the official program, he agreed to a few alterations. Most importantly, the archduke was convinced to avoid Franz Joseph Street during his impending departure because this was where any remaining assassins would likely be positioned. Unfortunately, the adjustments were not relayed to the drivers who continued into Franz Joseph Street, ignorant of the changed itinerary. Upon entering the wrong street, the driver of Franz Ferdinand’s car was promptly informed. He stopped the vehicle and began reversing slowly. This is when Princip approached the car and fired two shots. The archduke and his wife were dead and the events that would set off a destructive world war were inexorably set in motion.

A suspect is arrested in Sarajevo following Franz Ferdinand's murder.

Considering how close the archduke and his wife were to escaping their hitmen truly boggles the mind, especially in light of the gargantuan consequences of their successful assassination. The events in Sarajevo led Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. Russia came to Serbia’s aid by mobilizing its army. This triggered the German Empire’s invasion of France through Belgium. The result was a disastrous world war that killed millions. Imagining that all that could have been averted had the archduke’s driver been properly briefed and avoided Franz Joseph Street inevitably rattles even those who are generally uninterested in world history. But Franz Ferdinand’s misfortune is not the only example of how consequential seemingly random moments can be. In fact, the events leading up to the Second World War (which itself is unlikely to have taken place the way it did without Franz Ferdinand’s assassination) provides another striking example.

One particular moment from early November 1923 keeps me up at night each time I think about it. Years before he turned to electoral politics to further his political prospects, Adolf Hitler attempted a violent power grab. In a Prigozhin-like move, Hitler and his goons staged a coup in the Bavarian capital Munich. Poorly planned and executed, the 1923 putsch failed after it became clear that the Bavarian security forces were less inclined to support the Nazis than Hitler had hoped. In a last-ditch attempt to save the putsch, Hitler and his supporters marched towards the Bavarian Defense Ministry. En route, they met soldiers loyal to the government and exchanged fire with them. Four state police officers and sixteen Nazis lay dead in the wake of the standoff. Dodging bullets, Hitler managed to make his escape through the ensuing street battle. The future German dictator had just committed treason and he had to run for his life.

Hitler and two of his companions managed to reach a car and speed away through the medieval streets of Munich. But they were not out of the authorities’ reach just yet. Hitler clutched his left shoulder and his accomplices worried that he was shot. Worse still, the car in which they set off for Austria started to break down. The vehicle came to a stop less than fifty kilometers from the Austrian border. Always the reckless gambler that he was, Hitler got a lucky break when he needed it most. It turned out that he was not shot, his shoulder was merely dislocated. What is more, the Nazi car broke down a few miles from Staffelsee – a scenic lake surrounded by several picturesque villages, including a hamlet called Uffing. Hitler’s close friend Ernst Hanfstaengl had a home in Uffing and Hitler got an idea. Perhaps he and his accomplices could hike to Hanfstaengl’s home and seek refuge there. After several hours of hiking and hiding in the nearby forest, Hitler’s party made it to a villa and Hanfstaengl’s wife let them in. Hanfstaengl himself had fled to Austria following the coup attempt, leaving behind clothes that Hitler would wear during his brief visit. And Hitler’s visit to the Hanfstaengls’ villa was short indeed. Once the news of Hitler’s whereabouts spread, the authorities surrounded the Nazi leader’s refuge. Hitler became suicidal, sensing that all was lost. At the last moment, Hanfstaengl’s wife convinced the future dictator to spare his life and Hitler gave himself up. Perhaps the most evil person that has ever lived made it through the coup attempt alive and he was going to stay in Germany. It did not have to end that way. Had the Nazi car not malfunctioned, Hitler would have with all likelihood reached Austria. His influence in Germany would have been severely curtailed and his political future would have been uncertain at best.

I have spent the last couple of months reading detailed accounts of the events that led to the two world wars. I have been struck by how consequential seemingly random moments appear to be. There is no doubt that both world wars happened to a large extent due to structural forces. The purported causes of World War I are often abbreviated as MAIN: militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. Through a general European war was undoubtedly more likely due to these critical forces, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination provided a powerful trigger without which the tensions of pre-WWI Europe probably could have been defused. Similarly, WWII is hard to imagine if Hitler had spent the 1920s hiding in Austria, missing his chance to electorally capitalize on the Great Depression.

I am not a professional historian and I am in no position to give anyone advice on how to read or write history. That said, I am hardly alone in pondering the role of chance in world history. Two thoughts in particular seem worth exploring. First, if chance appears to have such enormous impact on crucial world-historical events, could the course of world history be a lot more haphazard than we commonly realize? Most historians I have spoken to are reluctant to imply that history is guided by some predictable logic as Marx’s dialectical historicism once famously (and tragically!) assumed. That said, books claiming to have discovered the patterns according to which history unfolds remain very popular. For example, Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, while carefully argued, suggests quite explicitly that a general mechanism of history might indeed exist. Is the role of chance in shaping crucial historical events another nail in the coffin of historicism?

Second, the momentous role of chance in history brings up the importance of counterfactuals as a crucial tool of historical analysis. Counterfactual reasoning entails speculating about alternative courses of history, asking intriguing “what-if” questions. For example, what if Gavrilo Princip missed his shots and Franz Ferdinand left Sarajevo unharmed? In my experience, counterfactuals are shunned by most professional historians who are reluctant to speculate about things that never happened. But if things could have easily turned out very differently, then it is tempting to ask what such alternative reality would have looked like. This is more than just a historiographical obsession. If millions of lives were lost due to random events, it is really disturbing. So, one has to ask, does chance really play as decisive a role in world history as the examples above suggest? And if it does, should “what if” analyses be rehabilitated as a legitimate tool of historical analysis?

I think the answer to the first question lies in realizing that any alternative history that could have reasonably happened would have inevitably included moments that would appear to us as random moments of enormous significance when viewed through the rear-view mirror. Seemingly accidental developments that indeed shaped the course of history are undeniable but their perceived singularity is a fallacy produced by our brain’s inability to grasp unrealized events. We tend to obsess over the archduke’s assassination not because of the mere tragedy of the event itself. We did not know the poor fella and there were surely many others who perished under inauspicious circumstances in 1914. The reason why Franz Ferdinand’s death remains so disquieting more than a hundred years later is because it produced world-changing consequences. Similarly, Hitler’s 1923 escapade remains tragically fascinating because the future dictator went on to wreck the world and kill millions. There were several coup attempts in Weimar Germany, some led by far-right and some by far-left radicals. None succeeded but nearly all hoped to establish a dictatorial regime of some sort. We focus on Hitler’s botched putsch precisely because Hitler ultimately succeeded at capturing power and later used it to horrific ends. It is cognitively challenging to acknowledge the possibility that other potential dictators may have perished during the other coups. We are acutely aware of Stalin’s crimes but we can only speculate about what Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s equally brutal competitor, would have done had he seized power following Lenin’s death. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a moment when the world came closest to a nuclear catastrophe. The reason why relatively few people know about it is precisely because the world narrowly avoided an Armageddon. The despair of tragedies that actually took place is almost always stronger than the gratitude for disasters averted.

I once heard about a scam that exploits the cognitive tendencies described above. The story might be apocryphal but it neatly illustrates our ignorance of unrealized outcomes. Imagine you receive an email advertising a unique service – 100% accurate predictions of future football games’ results. This could be immensely useful if you are into betting or you just want to brag to your friends. To prove that the service works, the email mentions who will win a particular football game that is scheduled for the upcoming weekend. Then the game comes around and the prediction proves accurate. You are not too impressed. They could just be lucky. Then you get another email with a prediction for the next weekend. That prediction, too, turns out to be correct. This is becoming really weird you might think. Then another accurate prediction lands in your inbox. After a few weeks, you start believing that someone really invented a crystal ball that allows them to predict the future. How else could they produce so many correct predictions in a row?

The trick is that you may not be the only one receiving those emails. Imagine that the first email goes out to a 100,000 people. Half of those people receive an email predicting that team A will win, the other half is told that team B will be victorious. Assuming for simplicity’s sake that each game is a coin toss (a 50% chance of winning for each team with no ties allowed), the first weekend will produce about 50,000 correct predictions by pure chance. The scammers will then move onto emailing only those 50,000 people. They then repeat the same trick, ending up with roughly 25,000 correct predictions after two weekends. By the time they do this for five weekends, there will still be approximately 3,125 people who received five correct predictions in a row. Those people will be dumbfounded but only because they are not aware that nearly 100,000 recipients got the same email at the outset.

By focusing on seemingly random moments with momentous consequences, we make a similar mistake. We lead ourselves to believe that another version of history was at hand, one in which Franz Ferdinand lived and Adolf Hitler’s car did not break down before he reached Austria. But that alternative world would almost certainly feature other random moments, just different ones. In fact, a hypothetical version of history in which all events follow some underlying logic, as in Marx’s dialectical historicism, is infinitely more improbable than the world we actually inhabit. A world history without wild twists and turns is an illusion.

But perhaps the role of chance in history has other interesting implications, even if we have to accept that random events of colossal consequences would have inevitably appeared in any version of history. If millions perished in destructive wars in part because of inauspicious accidents, wondering about an alternative course of events may be more than just an exercise in futile speculation. It might help us avert future disasters by grasping just how consequential seemingly negligible circumstances can be. I would even argue that one of the most fascinating aspects of reading history is precisely the acute realization that things were not preordained before they happened. That said, many professional historians are wary of delving into counterfactual history and asking intriguing “what if” questions. They have good reasons for doing so. Let’s not forget that historians’ primary expertise is at providing reasonably comprehensive and accurate descriptions of what happened, not in forecasting of what could have happened. Speculation run wild can easily exaggerate the role of individuals at the expense of structural forces which even the most influential world-historical actors cannot escape. Keeping Franz Ferdinand alive would have likely produced a myriad of other changes that we cannot possibly foresee. With that in mind, is there a limited case for rehabilitating “what if” questions as legitimate tools of historical analysis?

I think so but one has to distinguish between two species of counterfactual reasoning. First, there are relatively innocuous counterfactuals that are implicit in trying to pin down some of the major causes of specific events. Whenever historians use words such “precipitated” or “triggered,” they are doing just that. They imply causality, implicitly suggesting that if a given event had not taken place, history would have looked different. I would even go as far as suggesting that one can hardly produce a historical account of anything without implying such causal links. But crucially, these kinds of counterfactuals look backward, inferring the present from the past, hoping to decipher how we got to where we are now. These counterfactuals hope to explain events that did happen and they are wary of bridging temporally distant events. They link Franz Ferdinand’s death to the July 1914 crisis rather than trying to explain WWI by reaching back centuries.

On the other hand, there is a more ambitious brand of counterfactual reasoning that starts by assuming a course of events that clearly never took place (Franz Ferdinand survives all assassination attempts, Adolf Hitler goes into exile in 1923), speculating about the possibility of events that never happened. This is what one encounters on Reddit and Quora forums where imagination runs wild. This brand of counterfactual reasoning looks principally forward, sometimes decades into an alternative future. It hopes to speculate about the future rather than to explain the past. This approach is a lot more problematic because the further one looks into the future, the greater the peril of ignoring the potential of unrealized events. Speculating about whether war would have broken out in 1914 if the archduke lived is something we are naturally driven to and we may even productively do so by employing the first, more conservative approach to counterfactual reasoning. Asking what Europe in the year 2023 would look like if World War I never took place borders on pure science fiction. The past is past and in this sense at least, it truly is dead.

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