16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History

Khalid Elhassan - September 5, 2018

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Health is in You

12. Alexander II Celebrated His Escape From Assassination a Moment Too Soon

19th century Russia was marked by great discontent and political turmoil, as reformers ran into the oppressive instincts of Russia’s imperial government. Without political freedom, and with free expression severely restricted, many reformers grew disgusted with the system, and turned into revolutionaries dedicated to its overthrow. One such group formed a secret organization, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), which sought to overthrow the autocratic government by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. A terrorist organization, in short.

People’s Will saw terrorism as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime. It called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and decreed a death sentence against Emperor Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.

People’s Will tried to kill the Emperor in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, by planting a bomb in his palace. However, Alexander II was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Emperor declared a state of emergency, and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression mounted, and People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets were hanged. Undaunted, the group doggedly persisted in its relentless efforts to kill Alexander.

They finally succeeded on March 1st, 1881. A People’s Will assassin waited in ambush along a route taken by the Emperor every week, and threw a bomb under his carriage when it passed by. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, and Alexander was unhurt. A shaken Emperor emerged from the carriage, and crossed himself as he surveyed the damage. His relief was premature, as there was a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd. Shouting at Alexander “it is too early to thank God!“, the second assassin threw another bomb, which landed and went off directly beneath the Emperor’s feet. Mangled by the explosion, Alexander died soon thereafter.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Caligula. The Telegraph

13. Caligula Discovered it Was Unwise to Insult His Bodyguards

Caligula (12 – 41 AD) was raised by his uncle, the Roman emperor Tiberius, a paranoiac who spent much of his reign as a recluse in a pedophilic pleasure palace in the island of Capri. He surfaced on occasion to order the execution of relatives accused of treason, including Caligula’s mother and two brothers, and had probably poisoned Caligula’s father as well.

Caligula survived the bitter Tiberius, who named him heir, quipping “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people“. The years of repressed living left their mark, and once freed of his homicidal and paranoid uncle, Caligula cut loose. He went into an orgy of lavish spending and hedonistic living, as the combination of sudden freedom and sudden unlimited power went to his head.

His craziness included once cackling uncontrollably at a party, and when asked why, replied that it was hilarious that he could order anybody present beheaded on the spot. On another occasion, displeased by an unruly crowd at the Circus Maximus, he pointed out a section to his guards, and ordered them to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead”, gesturing at two bald people. Another time, when told that there were no more criminals to throw to the beasts, he ordered a section of the crowd thrown to the wild animals.

Among the sexual depravities attributed to him, incest with his sisters was the least of it. At dinner parties, he would frequently “request” that a guest’s wife accompany him to his bedroom, and after bedding her, return to the party to rate her performance, berating the cuckolded husband if she was lacking. He also turned the imperial palace into a brothel, in which he forced the wives of leading Romans to serve as prostitutes.

He declared himself a god, and had the heads removed from the statues of various deities, replacing them with his own. He also once declared war on the sea god Neptune, marched his legions to the sea, and had them collect seashells to show the deity who was boss. However, it was not the preceding craziness that did him in, but his grievous error in offending his own bodyguards.

The commander of his security detail, a man named Chaerea, had a high pitched voice, and Caligula got a kick out of mocking him as effeminate. He thought it hilarious to come up with derogatory daily passwords that had to do with homosexuality, and whenever Chaerea was due to kiss the imperial ring, Caligula made sure it was on his middle finger, which he would waggle obscenely. In 41 AD, Chaerea finally had enough, hatched a plot with other Praetorian Guards, and hacked Caligula to death.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
A painting depicting the phases of the de Witt murders, by Pieter Frits. Wikimedia

14. Johan de Witt Had an Extremely Bad Last Day

Bad as tempers have gotten in American politics – and one need only look at the news for the latest examples – things have usually, if not always, stayed within reasonable and civilized bounds. Every now and then, tempers might have gotten high enough in the United States for political violence to erupt. Even on a massive scale, such as that time in the 19th century when Americans killed each other by the hundreds of thousands during the Civil War.

Still, bad as tempers have gotten in America, they never got so bad that American soldiers killed the head of government in the street, after which a frenzied mob seized the carcass, mutilated it, then proceeded to cook and eat it. On that, the Dutch have us beat. Notwithstanding the Dutch reputation for orderliness and politeness, there was a time in 1672 when a Dutch mob went wild on their prime minister.

Johan de Witt (1625 – 1672) was a Dutch politician whose main program was to decentralize and shift power from the national government to local ones. He focused so much on his decentralization agenda, however, that he ended up neglecting the Dutch army and navy. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War erupted, the result was a series of military disasters in 1672, so bad that 1672 is known to this day in Dutch history as rampjaar – “the disaster year”.

On August 20th of that year, Johan de Witt, who by then had dominated Dutch politics for twenty years, went to visit his brother Cornelis, who had recently been sentenced to exile. Out of the blue, the brothers were attacked by members of the Hague city militia, who shot them and left them on the street to the tender mercies of a Dutch mob. The mob was neither tender nor merciful. If the de Witts had not already been dead from the soldiers’ bullets, they were quite dead by the time the mob was done stabbing and beating them. The mob then strung up the corpses upside down from a gibbet, disemboweled them, ripped off their genitalia, and roasted and ate chunks of them in a cannibalistic frenzy.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
South Vietnamese soldiers posing with the corpse of former president Diem. Pintrest

15. Ngo Dinh Diem’s Contempt for His Country’s Dominant Religion Backfires

South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem (1901 – 1963) came to power in 1955 after a heavily rigged referendum with which he deposed Vietnam’s emperor Bao Dai, and established the Republic of Vietnam with himself as president. A staunch Catholic, he pursued discriminatory policies that favored Catholics for public service and military positions, land distribution, tax concessions, and business arrangements.

Some Catholic priests even ran private armed militias, which they put to use demolishing Buddhist pagodas and forcing people to convert – activities to which the government turned a blind eye. Since Catholics were a distinct minority, and about 90% of South Vietnamese were Buddhists, Diem’s pro-Catholic tilt did not sit well with most of his countrymen.

By 1963, South Vietnam was seething with discontent and a steadily intensifying insurgency, fueled by widespread governmental corruption, nepotism, and the president’s pro Catholic policies. Protests erupted in May, when Diem’s government banned the flying of Buddhist flags – only days after it had encouraged Catholics to fly Vatican flags at a celebration of Diem’s elder brother, a Catholic archbishop. Government troops opened fire on Buddhist protesters, killing and wounding dozens, triggering yet more protests.

On June 10th, 1963, correspondents were tipped that “something important” would happen the following day near the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. On the 11th, photographer Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press captured two Buddhist monks dousing an elderly comrade with gasoline, as he sat, lotus style. The monk, Thich Quang Duc, then struck a match and dropped it on himself, and maintained his serenity while flames engulfed him. Browne’s iconic photo of the event captivated the world.

Vietnam entered America’s national conversation after the Burning Buddhist’s photo appeared on the front page of newspapers across the US. As president Kennedy put it: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one“. People questioned America’s support for Diem’s government, and Kennedy did not oppose a coup that overthrew it a few months later.

On the night of November 1-2, units of the South Vietnamese army attacked the presidential palace, and captured it after a bloody siege. President Diem and his advisor and younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, surrendered after they were promised a safe exile, and were placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier that was to take them to a military airbase. Instead, they were assassinated by South Vietnamese officers en route.

16 Dramatic and Impactful Assassinations from History
Contemporary painting depicting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Smithsonian Magazine

16. History’s Most Impactful Assassination

Serbia’s Black Hand was an irredentist group that used terrorism as a tool to free Serbs from Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman rule, and unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and assassins trained and supplied by the group would murder the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914.

The Black Hand trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into Austria-Hungary to destabilize it and stir up nationalist resentment among its Serbs. The group was primarily led by high ranking Serbian officials, including the crown prince. The Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities, making Serbia its day’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism.

On June 28th, 1914, Black Hand assassins struck in Sarajevo. They started off inauspiciously, with a comedy of errors in which various assassins tried but failed to kill Franz Ferdinand. It included a would-be assassin who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted to kill himself by swallowing expired cyanide and drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep.

Then, fate intervened. After the remaining assassins gave up on the whole thing as a fiasco, the Archduke’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princep, an assassin who had given up on the affair and gone to grab a bite. Princep stepped up to the open vehicle, and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally, which brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany, which prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. The German advance through Belgium brought in Britain, one of the signatories to treaty guaranteeing Belgian sovereignty.

Over 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million were killed in the ensuing war. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a new fervent and fast paced era of democracies, radical ideologies, and totalitarianism, emerged in its place. The world was forever changed because of that assassination in Sarajevo.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­____________

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Association For Diplomatic Studies and Training – The Assassination of Anwar Sadat

CNN, November 18th, 2013 – One JFK Conspiracy Theory That Could be True

Encyclopedia Britannica – Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Encyclopedia Britannica – Elagabalus, Roman Emperor

Encyclopedia Britannica – Johan de Witt, Dutch Statesman

History Net – The Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – November 22, 1963: Death of the President

Medium, January 24th, 2017 – Tsar Alexander II: Tsar Liberator and Rise of Terrorism in Russia

Penn State University – The Death of Tiberius Gracchus

Smithsonian Magazine, December 27th, 2016 – The Murder of Rasputin, 100 Years Later

South African History Online – Shaka Zulu

Spectator, The, December 18th, 2012 – An Assassination at Christmas

Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars (2013)

Telegraph, The, June 27th, 2014 – First World War Centenary: Franz Ferdinand’s Final Journey

Tuchman, Barbara – The Guns of August (1962)

Wikipedia – Assassins

Wikipedia – Assassination of Ali

Wikipedia – Caligula

Advertisement