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Some Causes of World War I and Historians’ Taboos is a scholarly journal article written by William M. Johnston considering the ‘What if?’ on World War I. He observes the of how Vienna dealt with World War I along with its counterfactuals and how things would be differently if a certain variable were to be altered (Johnston 77-84). Johnston is wrong in his theories of how World War I could have been prevented, there are too many flaws in his ideas and too much information is submitted for it to be prevented entirely. This can be noted by looking at the other factors that contributed to World War I and through research on Johnston.
Johnston’s piece is an unorthodox article, examining the counterfactuals of World War I and how it could have been prevented. It looks at Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and how variables could have been altered in order to prevent the war. Emperor Joseph deciding not to have a funeral ceremony for Ferdinand, the assassination not occurring, and family relations are all observed to see if they could have prevented the war (Johnston 78-80). If historians were to have looked at these counterfactuals in the past than we would have a better understanding of the past while it was still a big matter at hand. Unfortunately, the ‘What if’s?’ were not examined because of the unwritten taboo that counterfactuals and the fear of being known as a ‘conventional historian’ (Johnston 83-84).
Although Johnston presents a compelling argument, he has some errors in his ways. Johnston makes the variables of Archduke Ferdinand’s funeral sounds overly important, Ferdinand’s assassination by a Serbian terrorist is more important than his funeral because the assassination is what caused Austria to declare war on Serbia (Johnston 79-80). Two other major causes of World War I that he submitted are the rise of Nationalism and the increase of alliances. In the 1800’s nationalism, ‘the belief that loyalty to a person’s nation and its political and economic goals come before any other countries’’, became widely known (The Cause of WWI). Nationalism made European countries being weakened because national groups were fighting for independence and caused tension before the war between groups. It also stimulated support for military and its improvement so that the country could reach its goals. Alliances were formed around the world between different countries for a sense of security. Alliances could easily force a nation to war, normally winning because of the strength of the two nations that formed an alliance and would typically agree on matters, passing acts due to a majority vote. Other flaws come from Johnston himself and how his life influenced his work. Johnston does more studies in European history and has done pieces on Vienna, so it is likely that he would focus on the European factors more than other and make it seem more important (Faculty). Also by noting Johnston’s time period, late twentieth century, it is known that he did not witness the decision made by Emperor Franz Joseph to not have a funeral for Ferdinand, therefore he does not know that the reasoning was ‘personal dislike’ (Johnston 79). The last fault in Johnston’s work is that the ‘What if’s?’ are strictly just that, time cannot be turned back to test out these theories, meaning that it will never be known whether or not World War I could have been prevented with his theories.
In conclusion, William Johnston’s argument that World War I could have been prevented by altering factors concerning Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination is at fault. Other underlying factors are too major not to have caused the war even without the assassination. Johnston also allows his life impact his work by focusing too much on the European factors and not on the others, making them seem less important. Without knowing this, generations from the twentieth century on would believe that the World War I could have been prevented by one slight change. Further examination could be done to prove this by looking at Johnston’s other pieces of literature. Other investigation can be done to support Johnston’s work including the impact that the assassination had on the European citizens or through artifacts concerning Emperor Joseph.
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