What would have happened if Gavrilo Princip had failed to assassinate Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914? Historians would say that all the Great Powers were armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight so they would have found an excuse to have a war anyway. It is more interesting to think about what would have happened if Germany and their Austro-Hungarian allies had won.
In 1914 the Germans came within a hairsbreadth of capturing Paris. Their strategy on the Western Front was based on the Schlieffen Plan, originated in 1905 by the Chief of the German General Staff, General Alfred von Schlieffen. This envisaged sending virtually the entire German army through neutral Holland and Belgium aiming to the west of Paris thus encircling the French army and separating them from any British intervention. In the end the Germans fudged it and sent valuable divisions to East Prussia to fend off the Russians and to Alsace to hold any French advance there. So had their full strength been available in Northern France it is a fair supposition to say that they would have captured Paris and knocked France out of the war in a couple of weeks.
Then what would have happened? The French sue for peace, the British with their expeditionary force pinned against the Channel coast and not much to fight for would probably have done likewise. The Germans pack their well equipped and disciplined troops into trains and send them east to demolish the Russian Bear. It would all have been over by Christmas.
In the short term we British would have been spared the horrors of the Somme, Poppy Day and a lot of poetry. These are not the only pluses. In the treaties that the Kaiser would have dictated, France and Britain would have been compelled to cede vast swathes of Africa to Germany. Belgium might have become a German province and the Congo a German colony (no bad thing!). Perhaps Hong Kong would have been added to the German concessions in China, perhaps Saigon would have been renamed New Berlin.
More importantly A. Hitler “Painters & Decorators – Estimates Given” of Vienna might have prospered and Lenin would have stayed in Zurich to change his library books. So we would have had no Nazism, no Russian Revolution, no Communism, no Holocaust and perhaps the Germans working with their Ottoman allies would have made a better fist of the Middle East than the British and French.
So at some point at a meeting round a table in an office in Berlin amid the water jugs, pencils and minutes of the last meeting a group of staff officers, some perhaps suffering hangovers, one perhaps agreeing to anything so that he could get back to his mistress before teatime, made the fateful decision to dilute the Schlieffen ‘Punch’. The fact that history turns on such individual and personal moments is fascinating. I recently read an account of the meeting at which Lenin and the Bolsheviks agreed the date of their ‘putsch’ in October 1917. It went something like this:
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin): Order! Order! Right comrades can I take the minutes of our previous meeting as read? All those in favour?
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin): We have apologies from Sergei, who has had to take his droshky in for a service. Ok on to item 1 on today’s agenda. From now on I would like to be known simply as Lenin. OK?
Bolshevik 1: Really. Why’s that then?
Lenin: It’s stronger, simpler and it’s what I want. OK?
Bolshevik 2 (at far end of the table): Did he say linen? Why does he want to be called linen?
Bolshevik 3: I’m not sure. Did you say linen? Why do you want to be called linen?
Lenin: Not linen! Lenin. OK!
Bolshevik 3: Alright. Alright keep your hair on! You’ll have to speak up. We can’t hear you down here.
Bolshevik 2 (to his neighbour): Careful he’s touchy about his hair. But Lenin. Why Lenin? Perhaps it’s an anagram.
Bolshevik 3 : El inn? Neil N? No I can’t make anything out of it.
Bolshevik 4 : I think you mean acronym don’t you.
Bolshevik 2 : Oh do I? What’s an acronym then?
Lenin: Gordon Bennett!
Bolshevik 2: Who’s Gordon Bennett?
Bolshevik 3: He’s that mad English bloke that does car racing and ballooning. Hence the expression.
Bolshevik 2: Oh right.
Lenin: Item 2 on the agenda, the date of the October Revolution.
Bolshevik 1: I propose we have it in October.
Bolshevik 2: Seconded.
Lenin: I propose we have it next Tuesday.
Bolshevik 1: Ah. Tuesday’s tricky for me. I promised Natalia that we would go round to her mothers
Bolshevik 2: And its little Sasha’s school play that day.
Lenin: Tuesday! The proletariat’s destiny is on Tuesday! It has to be Tuesday!
Bolshevik 3: Don’t we have a Five-a Side booked against the Mensheviks?
Bolshevik 4: I’ve got tickets for “Battleship Potemkin” on Tuesday.
Lenin: Tuesday! Tuesday! I insist on Tuesday.
Bolshevik 2: Are you sure Comrade Linen? Will we get the turn out? There’s a lot going on on a Tuesday.
Lenin: Right! It’s going to be on Tuesday and anyone here who doesn’t like it can fucking well piss off. OK!
Bolshevik 1: Tuesday it is then.