Assassination and the risk thereof are an occupational hazard for the prominent, the powerful, or just the plain famous and popular. The murder of such people can have an outsized impact, sometimes altering the trajectory of history and producing results that shape events for centuries. Following are thirty-five things about historic assassination plots, some successful, others not.
35. The Puerto Rican Seeds of an Assassination Plot Against Harry S. Truman
Assassination has claimed the lives of four American presidents, and several other commanders in chief have escaped attempts on the lives. One of the latter was Harry S. Truman, who survived a now largely forgotten assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists, who sought to draw attention to their cause by killing a sitting US president.
Today, the question of Puerto Rico’s ties to the US revolves around whether it should join the country as a new state, or remain an American territory. However, there was once significant support within Puerto Rico for a third option: outright independence. Failure to secure that goal eventually set pro independence activists on the path of political violence.
34. The Puerto Ricans Who Lobbied for Independence, With the Pen and With the Sword
In 1922, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP) was formed, to lobby for independence by both the pen and sword. Decades later, the pen had not brought about independence. So frustrated PRNP activists, led by the party’s charismatic leader, the Harvard-educated Pedro Albizu Campos, came to favor the sword.
On October 30th, a series of coordinated armed attacks struck American targets in six Puerto Rican towns. The uprising was swiftly crushed by a strong military response, that included the use of planes. President Harry S. Truman described the event as “an incident between Puerto Ricans“. That further upset PRNP activists. To draw attention to the cause of independence – and make a point that what had happened was a rebellion and act of war between two countries – they drew plans for the assassination of Truman.
33. Planning the Assassination of President Truman
The failed uprising in Puerto Rico frustrated PRNP activists. In the Bronx, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, were further angered by what they saw as excessive force by the US military to beat back the rebels. So they decided to retaliate – and draw attention to their cause – with an assassination of the American president.
At the time, Truman was not living in the White House, which was undergoing a renovation, but in the nearby – and less secure – Blair House. Torresola, an experienced gunman, secured a Walther P38 pistol and a German Luger, and taught the less experienced Collazo how to load and handle them. The duo then caught a train from NYC to Washington, DC, to reconnoiter. On November 1st, 1950, they sprang into action.
32. The Attempted Assassination of Harry S. Truman
While President Truman was napping in the Blair House, Griselio Torresola approached the building from the west side. His partner, Oscar Collazo snuck up behind a Capitol police officer, Donald Birdzell, who was standing on the Blair House’s steps, and tried to shoot him in the back. However, the inexperienced Collazo had failed to chamber a round. He did so and fired just as Birdzell turned around, and hit him in the knee.
Hearing the gunshots, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz rushed out of a separate Blair House entrance, and shot Collazo in the chest as he was climbing the steps. Two other Secret Service agents joined in, and exchanged fire with Collazo in what was described as “the biggest gunfight in Secret Service history“. In the meantime, Torresola had reached a guard booth, and shot White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt four times, mortally wounding him.
After mortally wounding officer Leslie Coffelt, Torresola shot another officer, Joseph Downs, in the hip, back, and neck. Despite his injuries, Downs managed to lock the door, denying the attackers entry into the Blair House. Torresola then joined Collazo in his firefight, and shot officer Donald Birdzell in the knee. As the gunfight raged, President Truman stuck his head out of a window, just 30 feet away, to see what was going on.
As Secret Service agents shouted at the president to get away from the window, officer Leslie Coffelt, who had been shot by Torresola and lay dying, managed to prop himself against the guard booth. Taking aim, he fired on Torresola from 30 feet away, and shot him in the heat, killing him instantly. Coffelt was rushed to the hospital, but died of his wounds four hours later. Oscar Collazo survived his injuries to be tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison.
30. The African Conqueror Who Created a Tribal Empire
Truman was an example of a lucky leader who escaped assassination. Many others were not so fortunate. One such was Shaka Zulu (circa 1787-1828), a warrior who rose from humble origins to become chief of his tribe, then launched a ruthless campaign of conquest against other Southern African tribes. A military visionary, he revolutionized tribal warfare, bringing it to a hitherto unprecedented pitch of destructiveness. By the time he was done, he had established a Zulu Empire. He overcame all before him – except an assassination plot that brought him down at the height of his power.
When Shaka came to power, tribal warfare in Southern Africa was a low intensity affair. It was dominated by rituals and display, with relatively little actual fighting, and thus few fatalities. Shaka was of a bloody-minded bent, and he set about changing that. He introduced fighting formations, organized his men into regiments known as impis, and transformed the Zulus into a disciplined army.
29. Shaka Zulu Was Assassinated by His Own Brothers
Shaka abandoned the throwing spears used in the region for centuries. Instead, he trained his men to use short stabbing spears, emphasizing shock tactics and decisive close combat. Zulu tactics and training made them unstoppable, triggering a catastrophe known as the Mfecane, meaning the “crushing” or “forced migration”. Tribes fleeing Shaka’s onslaught were forced to encroach upon their neighbors, who were then forced to fight or become refugees, encroaching upon their neighbors in turn, in a cascade of violence that killed millions.
Shaka’s rule finally came to an end in 1828. That year, he sent a regiment raiding up to the borders of the Cape Colony, but when it returned, rather than allow it the customary rest, he ordered it on yet another raid. That and increasingly megalomaniacal behavior led to widespread grumbling. Taking advantage of that, Shaka’s half-brother Dingane organized an assassination plot. At a signal one day at camp, he and his co-conspirators suddenly fell upon Shaka, and stabbed him to death.
28. The Assassination That Ushered the fall of the Roman Republic
During the Roman Republic, Rome’s legions were originally drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves – mostly a middle class of independent farmers. However, the independent farmer class steadily shrank over the generations, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, those large estates, worked by massive slave gangs, drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty, diminishing the pool of prospective legionaries.
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebes and a populares politician – a faction that supported plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians, whose faction was known as the optimates. He sponsored agrarian reforms to help small independent farmers, who were being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class. That led to his assassination, and set the stage for a spiral of political violence that caused the collapse of the Roman Republic.
27. The Assassination of a Tribune – A Roman First
Tiberius Gracchus proposed to break the giant estates owned by the rich, and redistribute the lands in small parcels to lower class Romans. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class. When he pushed through legislation that began redistributing land, his political rivals plotted an assassination to get rid of him.
He was murdered by a senatorial mob during a riot organized by conservative optimates seeking to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, while extending that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. The assassination was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence. It broke a double taboo: that against political violence in general, and that against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries. Tiberius Gracchus’ cause was carried on by his younger brother, Gaius. He met a similar fate.
26. Younger Brother Follows He Older Brother’s Lead, and Shares His Fate
Tiberius Gracchus’ younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC) followed in his older brother’s footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician advancing the cause of the plebeians, and an advocate of agrarian reform. He also followed his older brother’s footsteps and became a victim of political violence, when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates plotted his assassination.
Gaius Gracchus was elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC. He used the popular assemblies to push through his brother’s agrarian reforms, and advocated other measures to lessen the power of the senatorial nobility. He also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat. He was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate again organized a riot to go after a turbulent tribune. After one of his supporters was killed, Gaius Gracchus and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age. The Senate ordered Rome’s consuls to go after Gaius Gracchus, which they did with a mob.
25. Assassination Temporarily Solved a Problem for Rome’s Conservatives, but Backfired On Them Big Time
Rome’s conservatives plotted Gaius Gracchus’ assassination, but he spared them the trouble by committing suicide when the situation became hopeless. The mob then massacred hundreds of his followers, and threw their bodies into the Tiber river. In the long run, the murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates and the patrician class.
The patricians were virtually exterminated during rounds of proscriptions that claimed the lives of thousands. First, the dictator Sulla went after populares following his victory in Rome’s first civil war, and murdered them by the thousand in terrifying proscriptions. The conservative victory was not permanent, however. A generation later, the pendulum swung when Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription following their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. Then Octavian ended the Roman Republic, and replaced it with the Roman Empire, which he ruled as its first emperor, with the title Augustus. What remained of the patrician class was gradually killed off, as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct.
24. The Well-Timed Assassination That Relieved the Allies of a Headache
Admiral Francois Darlan (1881-1942) was commander in chief of the French Navy at the start of WWII. After France’s defeat in 1940, he served in the collaborationist Vichy regime, rising to become its deputy leader. He was in French North Africa when the Allies invaded in 1942, and they cut a deal with him to get him to order the forces under his command to lay down their arms. In exchange, the Allies allowed Darlan to govern French North Africa and West Africa under Vichy’s policies.
That agreement became a diplomatic and public relations embarrassment for the Allies. The agreement set up Darlan, with his pro Nazi record, as a rival of the Free French under Charles de Gaulle, who had never stopped fighting the Nazis. The embarrassment was finally lifted by a fortuitous assassination, when Darlan was killed on Christmas Eve, 1942 by an odd duck named Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle.
23. The Man Who Carried Out the Assassination of Darlan
The assassination of Admiral Darlan was carried out by Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle. La Chappelle was born in 1922 to a journalist father who dreamt of restoring the French monarchy, and combined that with ardent anti-fascism. After France’s defeat in 1940, the younger La Chappelle’s came to hate the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the fascists. Soon as the Allies landed in North Africa, La Chappelle joined a resistance group.
The resistance group loathed Darlan as a symbol of everything Vichy, and resented his continued hold on power. So they began planning his assassination. Lots were drawn to determine who would do the deed, and La Chapelle “won”. So he secured a pistol, received absolution from a priest, and went looking for Darlan on December 24th, 1942. He waited in the hallways of the Summer Palace in Algiers, and when Darlan showed up, La Chapelle shot him twice. He was tried by a French military court the following day, and was convicted and sentenced to death.
22. Darlan’s Assassin Went Before a Firing Squad Thinking it Was Going to be a Sham Execution
Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle was not too perturbed by his death sentence. He was confident that he would get a stay of execution, or at worst, that there would be a sham “execution” in which the firing squad would be issued blanks instead of real bullets. As it turned out, La Chapelle did end up getting pardoned and rehabilitated by an appellate court, which ruled that his assassination of Darlan had been justifiable because it was done “in the interest of the liberation of France“.
However, that ruling was handed down in December of 1945, three years too late for La Chapelle, who was executed by a firing squad that used real bullets on December 26th, 1942, one day after he was sentenced to death. Ever since, there has been plenty of speculation that Darlan’s assassination had been engineered by Allied intelligence. The theory is that they got a patsy to pull the trigger, promising him a pardon, then swiftly executed him to silence him for good.
The Republic of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (1901 – 1963) came to power in 1955. He did so with a heavily rigged referendum that deposed Vietnam’s Emperor Bao Dai, and established the Republic of Vietnam with himself as its 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 in the country, and about 90% of South Vietnamese were Buddhists, Diem’s pro-Catholic tilt did not sit well. Things would get bad, and end up with his assassination.
20. Act of Self Immolation That Highlighted the Unpopularity of Our Man in Saigon
Things kept going from bad to worth in South Vietnam. By 1963, the country 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, and 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.
19. The Overthrow and Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem
Vietnam and its ongoing mess 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, 1963, 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. They were placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier that was to take them to a military airbase. Instead, their captors decided that assassination was a better – and more permanent – solution. So the sibling were murdered by South Vietnamese officers en route to the airbase.
18. The Most Famous Assassin in the Ancient World’s Most Famous Assassination
Marcus Junius Brutus (85 – 42 BC) is perhaps best known as the addressee of Julius Caesar’s final words and lines, “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play. Brutus was the Roman dictator’s friend, the son of his longtime mistress, and the most famous of his assassins. Remarkably, Brutus’ father had been betrayed and murdered by Caesar’s rival, Pompey the Great. That did not stop Brutus from fighting Caesar under Pompey’s command.
Brutus was raised by his maternal uncle Cato the Younger, a conservative reactionary and Caesar’s avowed enemy. Brutus had initially supported Caesar, but turned against him when he started viewing him as a would-be king. When Caesar marched into Italy in 49 BC, Brutus went against him and joined the ranks of his enemies, fighting under Pompey. However, Cesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Brutus surrendered, and was pardoned and restored to favor. That did not stop him from continuing to resent Caesar, and he eventually joined an assassination plot to do away with him.
When a faction of Roman Senators, styling themselves “The Liberators”, formed to plot the assassination of Julius Caesar, Brutus eagerly accepted the invitation to join them. He was a great symbolic catch, because he was a descendant of Lucius Licinius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who had chased the last king out of Rome. On the Ides of March, 44 BC, dozens of Senators suddenly fell upon Caesar during a meeting of the Senate.
Brutus stabbed the dictator in the groin, which contemporaries interpreted as a statement against his mother’s former lover, as well as against the rumors that Caesar might have actually been Brutus’ biological father. The assassins were pardoned by the Senate, but a riot soon thereafter forced them to flee Rome. The following year, Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavius, got that pardon revoked, and had the Senate declare the dictator’s assassins murderers. Civil war erupted again, and ended with the assassins defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Brutus committed suicide, to avoid falling into Octavius’ clutches.
16. Americans Might Do Political Assassinations, but We Have Never Gone to the Dutch Extremes of Political Assassination
Around the world, Americans have a reputation for violence – some of it deserved, some of it overblown. However, 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. Every now and then, tempers might get high enough in the US for political violence to erupt. Even on a massive scale, such as that time in the nineteenth 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 carried out an assassination of 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).
15. The Public Assassination, Mutilation, and Cannibalization of the Dutch Prime Minister
Johan de Witt’s chief political goal was to decentralize and shift power from the national government to local ones. He focused on that so much, 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. Disasters so bad that 1672 is known to this day in Dutch history as rampjaar – “the disaster year”.
On August 20th, 1672, 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 were not already 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.
14. The American President Who Foiled an Assassination Attempt by Beating Up His Would-Be Assassin
Long before he was elected president, Andrew Jackson, also known as Old Hickory, had been a prickly cuss. He was a cranky man who readily took offense, and would just as soon kill you as look at you. When not leading men into combat, slaughtering Redcoats by the hundreds, or hanging his own men for giving offense, Andrew Jackson could often be found out back dueling with somebody who had said the wrong thing in his presence.
Dueling, as in ritually facing off against somebody with loaded pistols, taking aim, and opening fire at a given signal. And not once, or twice, but many, many times. The total number of Jackson’s duels is unknown, but estimates range from a low of 13, to over 100. It is perhaps unsurprising that Jackson not only became the first American president to face and survive an assassination attempt, but that he survived it by pummeling his would-be assassin to a pulp.
Andrew Jackson’s most famous duel occurred in 1806, when he got into a tiff with a man named Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was reputed to be the best pistol shot in the country, but that did not stop Jackson from calling him out. At the duel, Jackson stood stock still, and allowed Dickinson to take the first shot. Dickinson took aim, and put a bullet in Jackson’s chest, wounding but not killing him.
Jackson recovered, took aim, and pulled the trigger. His pistol stopped at half cock. By the rules, that did not count as a shot. So as a horrified Dickinson waited, Jackson cleared the pistol, then took deliberate aim once more, and fired a shot that mortally wounded his adversary. As to Jackson, he recovered and went on to greater things, but Dickinson’s bullet remained in his chest for another 19 years.
12. The Crank Behind the First Assassination Attempt on a US President
By the time he made it to the White House, Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a very dangerous man to rile had been well established. So well established, in fact, that only a nutjob would try to assault him. However, America never had a shortage of nutjobs, and one of them became the first to attempt a presidential assassination by taking a shot at Jackson.
Richard Lawrence, a house painter, was in the habit of angrily muttering to himself about Andrew Jackson. On January 30th, 1835, he was seen sitting in his shop, cackling to himself, before suddenly getting up and exiting, with the exclamation: “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!” “It” was killing Jackson, which Lawrence tried to do by ambushing the president outside the Capitol building.
11. Assassination Attempt Ends With Bystanders Rescuing the Assassin from Getting Beat to Death by His Target
To carry out his assassination, Richard Lawrence waited behind one of the US Capitol’s pillars. When Andrew Jackson passed by, he took a shot at the president’s back. The pistol misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and tried another shot, only to get another misfire. By then, Jackson had noticed what Lawrence was up to, and was understandably pissed off. That was bad news for Lawrence.
Although 67-years-old at the time – quite old and long in the tooth by the standards of the day – an enraged Jackson fell upon the much younger Lawrence, and proceeded to bludgeon him with his cane. The would-be assassin was lucky in that people in the vicinity intervened to stop a riled up Old Hickory from beating him to death. Bystanders stepped in to restrain the president, and hustled Lawrence off to the safety of prison.
10. The Medieval Assassination With a Legacy That Lasts to This Day
The death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was followed by a bitter succession dispute. On the one hand were those who believed that leadership of the Islamic community should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline. On the other, were those who thought that leadership should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose.
The former were a minority, and they coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son in law Ali. They became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis. The factions’ dispute, while heated, could well have ended within a generation or two after the participants shuffled off the mortal coil. However, an assassination worsened the dispute, and led to a lasting and at times violent division that rifts Islam to this day.
9. The Momentous Assassination of One Caliph Sets the Stage for an Even More Momentous Assassination of Another Caliph
Muslims elected the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, from outside Muhammad’s family, bypassing Ali each time. Finally, following the assassination of the third Caliph, Ali was elected. However, his predecessor’s relatives accused Ali of being implicated in the assassination, and engineered the election of a rival Caliph, Muawiyah I.
The competing Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali accepted arbitration. That led some of Ali’s supporters, known thereafter as the Khawarij, or “Outsiders”, to abandon him because they opposed arbitration. Viewing the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, they reasoned that Ali lacked the authority to make any decision regarding who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process for bestowing the Caliphate, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. By accepting arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, Ali was overstepping his boundaries and usurping a power of decision that was not his.
8. The Assassination of Ali Transformed a Limited Power Dispute Into a Permanent Rift Within Islam
Ali went ahead with the arbitration to settle his dispute with the rival Caliph Muawiyah. However, the arbitration turned into a fiasco without settling the dispute, and only served to weaken him politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both, and hatched an assassination plot to kill the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers.
Ali’s assassins succeeded in stabbing him to death in the Great Mosque in Kufa, Iraq, but those sent after his rival only wounded him. Muawiyah survived, emerged as sole Caliph, and went on to found the Umayyad Dynasty. The Khawarij rose in rebellion against Muawiyah, who eventually crushed them. Embers remained, however, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries. Rejecting the Caliph’s authority, they engaged in a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low level insurgency that flared up every generation or two into a major rebellion. They became the model for modern Islamist terrorists, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
7. The Man Who Created the Military Machine That Made Alexander the Great a Great Conqueror
In the first half of the 4th century BC, Thebes and Sparta vied for the dominance of Greece. While they fought each other, a new power was rising in the north that would soon eclipse both. In 359 BC, 23 year old Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon. Within two decades, he would change the face of Greece, and warfare would never be the same again.
Greeks viewed Macedon as a barely civilized kingdom that spoke a barely intelligible Greek dialect. The kingdom had a lot of potential, both in manpower and resources that far exceeded those of any Greek city state, but had yet to realize its potential. Philip unified Macedon’s fractious tribes, and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine.
6. Philip II Revolutionized Warfare Before an Assassination Cut His Career Short
Philip II of Macedon made soldiering a full time, paid, and highly professional occupation. That enabled him to drill his men regularly, ensuring discipline and unit cohesion. He built upon earlier Greek phalanx innovations, and improved upon them by arming his men with a longer spear, the sarissa. He also increased mobility by reducing his men’s armor, and furnishing them with smaller and lighter shields. That gave them a marching speed that few other armies could match.
Philip also made Macedon’s horsemen the world’s best, by recruiting the sons of the nobility into what came to be known as the Companion Cavalry. He equipped them with long lances that gave them greater reach than their opponents, and trained them in shock tactics. To break enemy lines, Philip taught the Companion Cavalry to ride in wedge formations well suited to penetrate enemy lines, in addition to being more maneuverable than riding abreast. Another innovation was Philip’s creation of a corps of engineers to design and build new instruments of war. Philip further revolutionized warfare by perfecting the coordination of different types of troops in a battlefield synergy that enabled them to support each other – the birth of combined arms tactics.
5. The Assassination of Philip II Had Far-Reaching Historic Consequences
In Philip II’s army, heavy infantry, light infantry skirmishers, archers, slingers, cavalry, and engineers, all worked together. Their mutual support made their collective whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. Philip’s signature combined arms tactic came to be known as the “hammer and anvil”, with the phalanx fixing an enemy in place (anvil), and the cavalry closing in with shock tactics, acting as a hammer to shatter the foe.
Philip’s military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, he had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: invading the Persian Empire. However, his ambitions and life were cut short by an assassination stemming from sordid court dispute. One of his bodyguards quarreled with one of Philip’s in-laws. It ended with the in-law getting the bodyguard drunk, and having his attendants gang rape him. When the bodyguard turned to Philip for justice, the king failed to offer him redress. So the bodyguard assassinated Philip during the king’s wedding to a new bride. It would be his son, Alexander the Great, who would use Philip’s military machine and tactics to become the Ancient World’s greatest conqueror.
4. A Terrorist’s Group Assassination Plot that Changed the World
Serbia’s Black Hand was a secret society that employed terrorism in a bid to free Serbs from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, and unify them in a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group sent terrorists across the border on operations to stir up trouble. Their greatest feat was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914. The result was World War I.
The Black Hand’s founders first came together in 1903, when junior officers, led by a Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, better known as Apis, launched a coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen. Following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, an act the Serbs resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization. It aimed to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a coordinated campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means. A furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to back off.
3. When Serbia Was a Full-Blown State Sponsor of Terrorism
The Black Hand was established in 1911 to resume the Serb campaign against Austria-Hungary, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into Austria-Hungary to destabilize it, and stir up nationalist resentment among its Serbian subjects.
Serbia became a full-blown state sponsor of terrorism. The Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the crown prince. The Serbian government was kept well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. By 1914, Apis was a colonel in charge of Serbia’s military intelligence, and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker. That year, he hatched a plot for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
2. Serbia’s Black Hand Pulled Off History’s Most Impactful Assassination
The Serbian Black Hand’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, was the culmination of a comedy of errors entailing various failed attempts. The parade of follies included a terrorist who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted suicide by swallowing expired cyanide, and tried drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep. One of the terrorists, Gavrilo Princip, gave up, and went to grab a bite at a cafe. To his astonishment, the Archduke’s convertible, whose chauffeur had taken a wrong turn, suddenly came to a stop just a few feet away.
As the driver attempted to reverse, Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots, killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife. A Rube Goldberg chain of events ensued, leading to a global conflagration. Austria declared war on Serbia. That dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. That brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany. That prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. German violation of Belgian territory brought in Britain, a guarantor of Belgian sovereignty.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to a war in which over 70 million men were mobilized, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. An age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a fervent and fast paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism, took its place.
Serbia suffered greatly for its sponsorship of terrorism. It stood off an initial Austrian attack, but was overrun in 1915. A fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest percentage suffered during the conflict. Serbia’s government finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders were arrested and tried on trumped up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading