Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! By Richard Ned Lebow: Book review - counterfactual Great War history that plays game of 'what if'

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The great thing about "counterfactual" history is that anyone can play. If Gordon Brown hadn't been caught making those remarks about a "bigoted woman" might he still be PM? If Hitler had invaded England in 1940 would we all be speaking German? If the judge in the Rivonia trial had sentenced Nelson Mandela to death rather than life in jail?

Fascinating, irresistible stuff. After all, who among us has not asked, say, what if I'd married somebody else, or what if I'd tried harder at school, or tried a different line of work? Of course, as with proper history, the alternative course has to be, well, plausible. It's not much use wondering how life might have been if one had been born a New Guinea tribesman, or married Princess Anne or split the atom.

So is a world without the First World War plausible? Richard Ned Lebow's Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! tries hard to convince us it is. His interest in the "what might have been" is poignantly personal; as an infant in 1942, he says, "I was saved by an ordinary French police officer to who my mother handed me before being pushed into a freight car and shipped to Drancy and Auschwitz."

Lebow offers two possible worlds. The pessimistic one sees the great powers of a century ago evolving into nuclear powers and at war through a series of misunderstandings in 1975, with the death toll of 1914-18 instead achieved in four minutes. In a sense this is just the Great War postponed.

The "optimisitic" scenario is more intriguing. It sees Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary each meandering towards some sort of democratic constitutional monarchy, and granting independence to the Poles, for example. In this world, Adolf Hitler would have wound up running a successful mail-order business for alternative medicines (his second great interest in life); Richard Nixon would have become a TV evangelist (though caught spying on rivals) and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, or "JPK", elder brother of "our" JFK, would become first Catholic president of the US (Joe having not died in the Second World War that didn't happen). Prince Harry would be marrying Elizabetha, the Kaiser's neice. Europe would have retained all the artists and scientists lost in the 1930s, though science and technology would be less advanced, absent the impetus of two world wars, as would women's rights and the status of ethnic minorities.

An intriguing world, then, but convincing. It is perfectly possible that if the Archduke's chauffeur had not taken a wrong turning, or if his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, had gone home rather than hung around after his first attempt on the archduke's life failed he would have survived, become ruler and been more wary of war with Russia. War might not have come in 1914; but it would have, sooner or later.

What is implausible is that Franz Ferdinand and his counterparts would have been able to manage the massive forces of nationalism that defined and explained almost the whole of the 20th century, from the two global conflagrations and the Holocaust, through to the break-up of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda and, right now, the threat of the same in South Sudan. As John Lennon once sang, you can "imagine" a world without countries or religion – but the evidence of human history is that, sadly, it will never be a plausible one.