20th Century's 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

Jeanette Lamb - February 25, 2017

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
The Audubon Ballroom stage after the murder. Circles on backdrop mark bullet holes. Public Domain

Malcolm X

Human rights activist and Muslim leader Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. He was 39 years old. By then, the prominent leader had been traveling abroad to promote his ideas in Europe and Africa. When he adopted himself into the Nation of Islam in 1952, he became a proponent of their radical teachings. They included provocative ideas, including that white people, are devils and that blacks are the superior race. This was not altogether outlandish given segregation was still widely practiced throughout the United States.

Racial segregation was little more than an extension of suppression through slavery. Ideas that the Nation of Islam advocated were the same ideas being applied to blacks but superimposed on white society. Many in both white and black communities were distressed by Malcolm X’s statements when he spoke on behalf of the Nation of Islam. At least part of the shock had to come from the drastically contrasting messages coming from the African American leaders. Where Martin Luther King revered peace, Malcolm X revered violence.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
Malcolm X before a 1964 press conference, Public Domain

Malcolm X had a very different outlook on solutions being explored during the Civil Rights Movement. While some blacks in America looked for equal rights and the end of segregation, X wanted to take segregation another direction entirely. He wanted to enhance the space between blacks and whites. He proposed that blacks return to Africa. By 1964 however, X stepped away from the Nation of Islam claiming its inflexible teachings were too old and tired to promote changes needed. It was this break that ultimately would cost him his life.

Throughout 1964, tensions between X and the Nation of Islam intensified. X was forging a new path for himself. He sounded more diplomatic by incorporating ideas about “equality” into his speeches. He often ended his talks by saying that if things did not go their way, violence might be the answer. His appeal was grand. The Nation of Islam was so angered by his actions, one of the temples order his car be bombed. Death threats were inferred in interviews, and one minister of the Islam order said X should be beheaded. The FBI overheard death threats, and in 1965, Malcolm X announced during a meeting that the Nation of Islam were actively trying to kill him.

Two days later while giving a speech in Harlem, he was sabotaged. Using a sawed-off shotgun, an audience member shot X in the chest. Two more individuals from the audience stormed the stage wielding semi-automatic guns. An autopsy report concluded Malcolm X died from 21 bullet wounds to his body.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
A photo of Gavrilo Princip following his arrest.

Gavrilo Princip was a 19 years old when he assassinated the Archduke of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Princip was born a Serb but grew up in Bosnia. There, he became a Bosnian nationalist through his membership with Mlada Bosna — Young Bosnia. The group’s purpose was to unify Bosnia. This was not an easy task.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

A plan was hatched to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Franz was being given control over Austrian acquired territories in Bosnia. Killing him was part of a plan. If things went well, Bosnia would be released from Austria’s clutches. The idea was that the Balkans would fight Austria. They did not necessarily calculate the likely-hood of their assassination attempt as a trigger for setting World War into motion.

Gavrilo Princip was one of six nationalist sent on a mission to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Franz and his wife were arriving in the morning by train. The six assassins, including Gavrilo, were given different instructions. At one place along the Archdukes route, one of the six nationalists would use a bomb. In another place, a hand grenade, and so on.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

It was by chance that none of the plotted attempts worked. When the Archduke and his wife were within firing range, Gavrilo aimed his gun and delivered a fatal blow to each of them. Unlike his companions whose attempts failed, the small, determined 19 years old was successful. As the story unfolds, six conspirators lined the route. Each kept enough distance between himself and the other five assassins as to increase their chances of success. Their instructions were straight forward. Each was to attempt to kill Franz Ferdinand when in the procession of cars, his reached the assassins position.

The car first passed, Muhamed Mehmedbašić who was beside the Austro-Hungarian Bank. It was from that postion he was planning to launch a bomb attack. As the Royal car approached, fear overtook him. Some minutes later at 10:15, the parade passed the police headquarters. Nedeljko Čabrinović did not hesitate. He tossed a hand grenade towards the Archduke’s car whose driver realized they were under siege, hasten to move the automobile. The bomb had a 10-second delay and exploded under the wheel of the fourth car in the six car procession. It exploded, wounding those inside.

The crowd of spectators reacted, and chaos erupted on the streets. The remaining assassins would decide whether to flee or continue with their mission, making split second decisions within the thunderstorm of confusion that has been unleashed. Princip held his position. He was next to Moritz Schiller’s café. Having taken a wrong turn, the Archdukes’s car drove past. The driver abruptly brought the car to a stop. While placing it in reverse to correct the turning error, the engine stalled. Princip stood before an open window of opportunity. From five feet away was the Archduke and his wife. Princip did not hesitate. He drew his gun and squeezed off two shots. One for the Archduke and one for his wife.