Rewriting history? Trying to stop a world-changing assassination (Column: Bookends)

Two days hence but in 1914 came possibly the most inept assassination in modern history, which may well have remained a farcical incident but for its consequences — not only a long and ruinous war that engulfed and changed the world, but a further century of violence. Given what is at stake, it is not surprising that there have been many attempts — in fiction — to save Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort that fateful summer day in Sarajevo.

Britain may well have now signalled its intention to turn its back on Europe after centuries of involvement, but its engagement in the continent’s affairs cannot be so easily forgotten. In half-a-dozen odd prominent stories of attempts to save the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, almost all involve British protagonists.

Only in one case, it is a trio of rebel Russian intelligence agents that tries to stop the assassins, while in one, a set of amateur British agents sent across Europe in a desperate bid to unearth and neutralise an effective opponent may have ended up helping to cause the assassination (Robert Wilton’s “The Spider of Sarajevo”, 2014).

And though the Master Detective – Sherlock Holmes himself – has so far not been involved in this case (in print at least though some related characters appear in a movie), he, decades back, foiled a similar plot (in Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven Per Cent Solution”, 1974) and warned of such an incident in the future.

But before taking up these tales, it is necessary to note the view that the Archduke’s assassination only served a pretext for World War I. With growing competition among leading powers, and the continent already divided into sets of opposing alliances, and secret treaties of what each country would do for its allies, war was already inevitable, and if not the Archduke’s case, some other such event could have triggered it.

But, on the other hand, it might be possible that had it involved countries other than increasingly moribund Austria-Hungary, with its belligerent generals like Franz Conrad von Hotzendorff, and cocky, fanatically irredentist Serbia, with its military intelligence chief, Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who was a law unto himself, wiser counsels may have prevailed and a wider conflict prevented. But then counter-factual history is a tricky subject, so let us remain with the present issue.

The earliest dealing with the episode was Dennis Wheatley’s “The Second Seal” (1950; chronologically third of his Duke de Richleau series but seventh in order of writing).

A nostalgic depiction of ante-bellum Europe, it sees de Richleau, an exiled Frenchman and now a naturalised British citizen, undertake a perilous mission in Vienna and Belgrade for British intelligence. Having a link with Dimitrijevic, he soon learns about the plot, and killing the Serbian spy chief and two of his aides, rushes to Sarajevo to foil it. He arrives on the day itself, but though managing to stop one assassin, cannot prevent the other. (The real Apis and his aides were executed by the Serbian government three years later)

The same plot, though with a protagonist much lower in the social pecking order, is in Alan Bardos’ “The Assassins” (2016) but this I am yet to finish. One highlight however is a cameo by Leon Trotsky, whom the protagonist Johhny Swift meets in Vienna.

Subtly different is Ben Elton’s “Time and Time Again” (2015) where an ex-army officer, Hugh Staunton, in a vaguely dystopian Britain of 2025, is sent back in time by a group of Cambridge dons (acting on posthumous instructions from Sir Issac Newton) to avert the ruinous World War I by saving the Archduke. But he also must instead eliminate the ‘militaristic’ German Kaiser, Wilhelm I. He achieves both aims but what this leads to must be read in its chilling entirety. There are twists galore but the message is clear – changing history may not always be a wise step.

A non-British perspective is provided in Stephen Miller’s “A Game of Soldiers” (2006). (Tsarist spy agency) Okhrana investigator, Inspector Pyotr Ryzhkov, tasked with protecting holy man Rasputin, in St Petersburg, probes the murder of a girl prostitute, despite his superiors’ disapproval. But the trail leads to a Russian oligarch funding the Serbian government, and our Dmitrijevic, and others, trying to drag in Russia for their own machinations.

When two junior ministers who back Ryzhkov are killed in a blast, attributed to terrorists but arranged by the conspirators, Ryzhkov and his associates, Konstantin Hokhodiev and Dima Dudenko, proceed on their own to Sarajevo in the last week of June 1914 to prevent the assassination.

There could be more but the assassination itself was chancy – out of the six assassins armed with guns and bombs, only one could react as the Archduke’s car passed but failed, and had it not been for the vehicle later taking a wrong turn and then stalling, the royal couple would still be alive. This how history works.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at



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