Happy “What If” Day! This holiday season is so busy for everyone, and I am sure you are as surprised as I that it is that festive time of year again. Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday we were singing “What If” carols. And with all of the “What If” cards to rush into the mail, and of course, the “What If” tree to decorate, as well as those last minute “What If” day presents to buy, it is an exhausting season. Why do I always put off holiday preparations until the last minute?
What? You haven’t heard of “What If” day? It is such a pity; but of course, it is not surprising. For you see, “What If” day, sadly, does not exist. But…, it should.
103 years ago today, on June 28th, 1914, events took a turn off their genteel and well-worn path, and the future (our present) was forever changed. Few great hinge points of history have photographs of the very moment their axis turns, but this one has, and I have attached it to this post.
This faded, black and white picture — unremarkable if the context is not known — shows the last few seconds before the world that existed before was irrevocably and utterly shattered. That simple right turn birthed all of the horrors of the 20th century; from its horrific, civilization-melting genocides to its endless blood-soaked wars. Oceans of blood and mountains of corpses have been left behind in the wake of this turn. Everything from World Wars 1 and 2, the Holocaust, Communism, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cold War and even 9/11 can be traced back to this exact moment. The vibrations of this bizarre turn in the road continue to reverberate loudly — even unto our own day over a century later. For on this day, in Sarajevo, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofie were assassinated, and World War I commenced over a month later. And we all know what happened after that.
But…, what does this have to do with “What if” day, you might ask. Everyone, or at least those with a bare minimum of historical knowledge, knows that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and World War 1 commenced. What is so “what iffy” about that? The “What if” comes from the fact that it was all so incredibly accidental.
There are two schools of thought in the world of historical analysis. There is the “great man of history” folks, who believe that events are ultimately caused by the actions of single, very notable individuals. No Julius Caesar, no Roman Empire, for example. On the other side, there is the “great tide of history” people. They believe that certain events — such as World War 1, for example — are inevitable, and, given time, the results are inevitable, regardless of the players.
I propose another theory. Call it the “Bizarre Accident” theory. More things in life than we care to admit come about from circumstances that are amazingly trivial at first, but horrifically consequential later. The old “Butterfly Theory” falls into this camp. In case you are unfamiliar, this is the theory that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, currents are created that can, two years later, form into a hurricane in the Atlantic. World War 1, with all of the terrible ramifications, truly came about because of the most bizarre set of circumstances imaginable. Ones that, if we were able to replay the scenario over again, like some well watched DVD, we would never be able to recreate.
Consider the following:
1. The assassination that occurred on June 28th, 1914 was NOT the first attempt that day. In fact, it was the second. Earlier that morning, one of the terrorists had thrown a bomb at the Archduke’s car and it bounced off the passenger door and injured some of the officials in the caravan following behind. What are the odds of an assassination attempt being tried, and failing, and then another succeeding on the very same day? Pretty slim I would think.
2. The Archduke, obviously distressed at having someone trying to kill him (a perfectly rational response I would think) decided, after what must have been a very tense lunch with local officials, to cut his trip short and return to Vienna. First, however, he decided to visit the hospital and see the injured from the earlier attack. His driver, unfamiliar with Sarajevo and, having not gotten directions on the new safer route, made a wrong turn down a crowded street. Realizing his mistake, he stopped the car and quickly put it into reverse, stripping the gears and causing the vehicle to stall. As fate would have it, he was right in front of Moritiz Shiller’s café. This also just happened to be the restaurant where Gavrillo Princep, one of the conspirators, had gone to drown his sorrows in a beer after seeing the earlier assassination attempt fail.
3. Gavrillo emerged from the café, saw the Archduke and his wife sitting right in front of him, took out his pistol and fired the two most fateful shots in history.
One cannot think about the bizarre accidental nature of this event without pausing. The trip to Sarajevo was largely an add-on affair. It had not been planned for months, but, was a last-minute decision. The fact that all of world history, with all of the terrible consequences that emerged from World War 1, was mutated into a bloody horror show by a simple wrong turn boggles the mind.
What if the driver had gone straight to the hospital as planned and the Archduke had not been assassinated? Would World War 1 have occurred anyway? It is a good question. It is possible that it was all inevitable, but, what if it wasn’t? So much evil was unleashed in that conflict, it is hard to fathom an alternative world where it did not happen. Not only did millions die in that conflict, but, would Hitler have come to power if Germany had not fought (and lost) World War 1? As an additional thought project, consider the fact that if this spark of war had occurred a month later, or a month earlier, World War 1 STILL probably have been avoided. Having the assassination occur at the end of June, when, (then as now), Europe goes on holiday in July was a major factor in the war breaking out. Timing, as we all know, is a central factor in life.
No one wanted war in 1914 — no one! The alliances that were in place, however, largely went into automatic mode since all of the foreign ministers were on vacation. The Kaiser was on his yacht and the Czar was away hunting when everything switched onto autopilot during those fateful days in July. Austria threatened Serbia, Russia mobilized, Germany mobilized, France mobilized and so on and so on and so on. By late July, it was all too late. The dogs of war were barking too loud to stop and tens of millions died as a consequence.
But…, it did not have to be this way. We can all imagine a world where the two world wars, the holocaust and the horrors of communism never arose. And it is equally hard to imagine that such a world would not be infinitely better than the one we have. It makes one’s head spin. And, as a separate little nugget of trivia, and something that should be filed under the heading of “too weird to be true and sounds made up”, the license plate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car was A 111 118, or, as conspiracy theorists like to point out, A – Armistice 11/11/18. The truth often if far stranger than fiction.
So…, enjoy your “What If” day today! Oh…, and watch out for those unexpected turns. You never know where they might lead.