Skip to Content

A History of Assassination

The recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey reminds us that this particular form of political violence is still very much in use. Both states and those without states (‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’) believe this tactic still to be useful in furthering their political agendas. Perhaps a brief historical perspective on the phenomenon could help us decide whether they are correct in their continuing belief of its efficacy.

We begin with what is still, probably, the most infamous example of this form of homicide in western Europe’s history – the assassination of Julius Caesar. Fearful of losing their power as a class in Rome a gang of patricians including Brutus and Cassius decided to end the meteoric political career of Julius Caesar. Under the banner of ‘saving the republic’ from a tyrant they stabbed him to death en-masse on the senate floor. Subsequently they were hunted down by Caesar’s hatchet man Mark Anthony who himself was obliged to commit suicide by Caesar’s nephew, later his adopted son, Augustus. Rome was then in the power of such successive madmen as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. This particular assassination, then, was an unmitigated failure and Rome became a totalitarian state dominated for centuries by megalomaniacs. Could they have been successful? Historically Rome followed many other cultures in evolving from some form of a republic into a monarchy and it would appear that they were defying economic and political necessity which, in the end, defines historical progression. Ironically, because of the assassination and the subsequent power achieved by his descendants, Caesar’s name was taken by the all of the rulers of Rome, and in its form of Czar and Kaiser together with the medieval title of ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ has been used ever since to designate political absolutism.

The term ‘assassin’ originated in Persia and later Syria and was used as a pejorative to describe a murderous Ismaili sect active in the middle ages. During the crusades the Franks encountered them and brought back the term to describe the similar internecine phenomenon in the West. The word may well have been used to describe our next victim of political murder in 1170 –Thomas Becket. Henry II of England had expected his friend to be an ally in the struggle for power with Rome when he made Becket archbishop of Canterbury. However this was not to be as Becket defended the autonomy of the church fiercely against his king’s political machinations. Upon hearing one of Henry’s most ferocious condemnations of his old friend four of his knights took it upon themselves to murder the ‘troublesome priest’. Henry maintained that he was shocked by the killing and did penance as did Beckett’s assassins who, ironically, ended up as crusaders attempting to find redemption for their sins. Thomas Becket was pronounced a martyr and canonised only two years after his death – giving valuable propaganda to the Pope and thus strengthening his power in England; yet another example of the failure of assassination to achieve the desired political aims.

It would appear that John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of American president Abraham Lincoln was motivated primarily by revenge. As a supporter of the Confederacy he was outraged by Lincoln’s support of voting rights for blacks and swore vengeance. Although the fifteenth amendment of 1870 did guarantee these rights it was repealed in 1894, something that would have delighted Booth.  To the shame of the USA black people had to wait until 1965 before they again had the legal right to a vote in every State in the Union. Booth’s act, then, had no impact on the course of US history. Karl Marx, on behalf of the First International, had sent Lincoln a letter of congratulation on his re-election just before the assassination and was sincerely saddened by his death. No doubt this event featured in his fierce debate with Michael Bakunin and the anarchist element within the International who supported assassination as a valid political strategy. Marx won the debate but lost the International which split along an Anarchist/Socialist fault line. Since that time no socialist has seriously believed that assassination can change anything politically but it has remained something of an anarchist fantasy.

No historical assessment of assassination would be complete without a mention of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in 1914. The decaying Austrian empire took advantage of this event to rattle its rusty sabre one last time. In doing so it provided the catalyst that sparked the First World War in which all of the European powers vied for supremacy. Princip was motivated by his knowledge that the Austrians sought to prevent the pan Slavic nation that he so desired and as part of the ‘Black Hand’ group he conspired to assassinate the Archduke. It could be argued that this event did contribute to the creation of Yugoslavia after the war in 1918. However the religious and cultural tensions within the peoples of that region led to its dissolution in 1991. A look at the ebb and flow of national borders in Europe during the twentieth century makes it obvious that nation states composed of federations of different ethnic and religious communities are often unstable and exist only courtesy of the strength or otherwise of the political illusions used to manipulate the populations by ruling classes. Princip’s anachronistic politics, and those who shared them, ensured the eventual doom of his dream.

In my own lifetime it was the assassination of President Kennedy that caused the most outrage. I remember, as a child, the sense of shock in my parents as they watched the drama unfold on TV. Without commenting on the numerous conspiracy theories that surround this event, it does seem possible it was more than the just act of one isolated ‘lone gunman’ in the shape of Lee Harvey Oswald. We will never be entirely sure of his motives as he was himself murdered soon after the killing of the President; it may have been revenge for the aborted invasion of Cuba or merely an act on behalf of what he saw as an ideological struggle between the USSR and the USA. We do know that it made no difference to the momentum of US militarism and imperialism across the globe.

We also know that none of the above acts of violence made any significant difference to the course of history; and that they will continue to be politically irrelevant. Only the ideologically naive believe that individuals hold immense power and that to annihilate these people would change anything in the lives of the majority. In contrast if we can convince the majority of the illusion of this belief, in both the legitimacy of attempting to allocate power to single individuals and the possibility that they can wield it successfully, then we can assassinate one of the causes of political murder.          

WEZ