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A Wrong Turn, A Hundred Years Ago

Just over a hundred years ago, a car took a wrong turn. It happened to stop just in front of Gavrilo Princip, a would-be assassin. Princip took out his gun and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife from point blank range. This triggered a chain of events that would soon lead to the Great War. Millions died in the trenches, and the map of Europe was redrawn. In those few breathless minutes, history had taken a different, more sinister turn.

The First World War has been described as the calamity that led to all the other calamities. It was almost certainly the precondition to many of the horrors of the 20th Century. Without World War I, there would have been no World War II, the Holocaust, as well as no Rape of Nanking, and no Hiroshima and Nagasaki… Without it, there probably would have been no Russian Revolution, and therefore no Stalinism and Gulags, perhaps no Maoism and the Great Leap Forward, or the killing fields in Cambodia. And so forth.

Some people dream of being historically significant, of making a difference on a grand scale. For most of us, this is nearly impossible. Few of us have even a real shot at being a historical footnote, or a footnote to such a footnote. Princip was no Napoleon or Hitler, let alone a Mandela or Ghandi. But in that single fatal act, this very ordinary man made a massive difference. He acquired historical significance to a degree he could not have imagined. It is often said that it is easier to destroy than to create. It is certainly a sad fact about our world that one of the easiest ways for someone to become historically significant is for them to assassinate a major political figure.

What makes something historically significant? We have an intuitive grasp of this notion, but it is not so easy to explain what exactly such significance involves. One way to think about historical significance is in terms of making a difference: things are more significant if they make a greater difference—a difference, presumably, compared to how things would have been otherwise. But not every difference is significant. Suppose, for example, that by a simple act you could make billions of people eat their dinner starting from the left side of the plate rather than the right. In one sense, that would make a difference on a grand scale, but, amusing at it may be, this prank won’t make you historically significant. So the difference has to be one that matters, a difference in things we value (and disvalue): human flourishing, justice, suffering, death, and so forth. This is why, for example, the invention of the zipper is less important than the discovery of penicillin.

Some people want to be historically significant, but to be historically significant is not necessarily a good thing. The historical importance of Hitler and Genghis Khan vastly outstrips that of many saintly people. And whatever we may think about the morality of Princip’s act of assassination, it seems clear that its significance is profoundly negative: it triggered that sequence of horrific calamities. But, on second thought, things are bit more complicated.

Consider first historical determinism. According to this view, impersonal historical forces would inevitably lead to the same results, whatever individual actors choose or do. The Great War would have erupted even if the Archduke’s car had not got lost, or if Princip had lost his nerve. This view is no longer popular, but many still hold that some great war between the European powers was very likely to happen anyway, at some point in the beginning of the century. This would mean, however, that the assassination of the archduke was not remotely as important as it seems. Since the calamities would have occurred anyway, it did not really make much of a difference. Things would not have really been better otherwise.

There is also a potential problem in the other direction. One might reason as follows. What would have happened if Princip had not killed Franz Ferdinand? This depends on what very many other people would choose to do in the days and months and years that follow. Since people have free will, there is no determinate answer as to whether things would have gone better or worse. So we cannot say that things would have been better (or worse) if the assassination had failed. This way of thinking about free will, however, is admittedly rather extreme (even if people have free will in a strong sense, this seems compatible with making justified predictions about what choices they will make). And this view also means that we cannot really say much about the historical significance of pretty much anything. That’s implausible.

Even if we set aside such worries, it is admittedly incredibly hard to say how history would have continued if the assassination had failed. Let’s suppose that in that alternate history there would be no Great War. This would also almost certainly mean no Word War Two, no Holocaust, and, perhaps, no Gulags, etc. And wouldn’t it be an understatement to say that this would have been stupendously better?

But even if some horrific things had not occurred, that doesn’t yet mean that other, perhaps equally horrific (or, hard as it may be to imagine, even more horrific) events would not have replaced them. Even if the fragile balance of power, and the old world order, held on in the decades immediately following 1914, can we really say, with any confidence at all, how things would have been like in, say, 1947 or1983 in that alternate history? But if we can’t, can we really be confident that, on the whole, things would have been better?

Another problem arises at a more fundamental level. Suppose that in that alternate history there are no world wars, no Holocaust, no atomic bombs. But suppose also that in that alternate history, instead of a cold war and European Union bringing relative stability to the second half of the 20th century, there is a constant smaller scale war and conflict throughout the century, leading, overall, to far more victims than had died in the actual course of history. Would that have been better than the actual atrocities that blighted the last century? I’m strongly inclined to say Yes, but it is not so easy to justify this view.

Let me end with a final complication that is perhaps more troubling. As Derek Parfit had pointed out long ago, very many factors can affect who comes to be born at any given time: which people meet, fall in love, and (usually) get married; when a couple decides to have a child, or is a bit careless; when they have sex; and so forth. And grand historical events obviously have a massive impact on all of these. If Princip had not shot Franz Ferdinand, and the Great War never took place, different couples would have met, and married; or the same couples would have conceived children at different points. And so forth. And therefore completely different people would have been born.

This means that after the assassination, the imprisoned Gavrilo Princip would be correct to say, ‘because of what I did in those few minutes, completely different people would come to exist in all of subsequent history.’ In other words, if Princip had not shot Franz Ferdinand, most of the people who were actually born after July 1914 would not have been born. This obviously includes many of the victims (and perpetrators) of tragedies like the Holocaust or the Gulags. And it clearly includes pretty much all of us. And therefore, even if that counterfactual history really would have been vastly better than the ghastly actual 20th century, it would not have been better for most of the people who had actually lived in that century. And, trivially, if the Archduke had survived, this could not have been better for any of us. We would not even exist.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for your interesting post, Guy. Just a couple of thoughts :

    “As Derek Parfit had pointed out long ago, very many factors can affect who comes to be born at any given time: which people meet, fall in love, and (usually) get married; when a couple decides to have a child, or is a bit careless; when they have sex; and so forth. And grand historical events obviously have a massive impact on all of these.”

    I wonder how many is “very many” factors that affect who comes to be born when ? I would guess that an imaginative counter-factually-minded person could come up with over a 1000 for any single person, but moving this up a generation or two (the factors that led to our grand-parents being born when they were) would lead us quickly into the millions.
    Unfortunately my brain isn’t capable of doing the statistics, but let us assume that Gavrilo Princip’s action constitutes one common factor amongst those millions for each of several billion people born in the last hundred years ….. is this really a “massive impact” ?

    As for wanting to be historically significant, I tend to agree with Marcus Aurelius : “People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.” But that’s perhaps just a personal preference …. and I would agree that it hasn’t happened to Princip yet

  2. Although a common theme in film and literature, the potential differences of even going a short way into the past to change events quickly become huge. It is a logic that can be applied every time you might look back and say “If only I had or hadn’t….” The simple fact is that you may has stayed with that girlfirend/job/country/whatever, and then been knocked down and killed on the road the next day.

  3. Interesting stuff. Perhaps we could measure our future influence in nano-Princips. I quite like Guy’s post because it fits with a sort of political inactivism that I find attractive (especially in other people).

    (1) Most actually existing people in the future wouldn’t have existed if we had done things differently, so doing things the way we did was right, for them. And they turn out to exist, so we care what they think. The alternative worlds that are possible today* but do not come to pass would create people who don’t get a vote since they never exist. So who cares what they think? [Yogi Berra must have said something like that, at one time or another..?]

    (2) My guess is that historically our most significant individual actions in terms of influencing the future has been as disease vectors. Right now, not so much (maybe sometime soon, though, depending…). What would the modern candidates be? Since we don’t (on average, currently) play much of a role in removing people from the gene pool, it would presumably be in mate-formation roles, since this stuff is closer to those reproductive decisions that are central to the (non)identity issue. So being a good wingman is one of the most important long-term qualities a chap can possess. Seems sensible. Orders of magnitude more important than your carbon footprint, that’s for sure. Also, I like the fact that rank-ordering your future influences would rehabilitate characters like Emma Woodhouse, who have too-long been unfairly derided as interfering, match-making busybodies, when actually she’s shaping the world far more than all those tedious earnest people who want social change. Best of all, she can’t get it wrong. [See (1) above.]

    *Imagining we are not historical determinists. If we are, then we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

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