Murder is murder. No matter how you cut it, taking one’s life is a tragedy, but taking one’s life for political motivations makes it all the more noticeable, and often times the ramifications are felt far beyond the grieving family. Most often the faction responsible for the assassination rejoices; most often the world mourns. Though this list is by no means comprehensive, and surely there are many politically motivated assassinations that could fill a list 1000 entries longer, these five political assassinations are the ones that may have had the most impact on either the movement that the slain member was a part of, or the country that the assassinated figure was a national of, or, in some cases the entire course of world history.
5. Julius Caesar
Perhaps one of the best known characters from ancient history, while it may be reaching a little far back to say that the assassination of Julius Caesar changed the world, make no mistake, it most certainly did in ancient times, and its ramifications can still be felt politically today.
Caesar was very prominent Roman political and military figure in the 1st century B.C. who had great success in wars meant to expand the Roman Republic in Gaul, and upon returning to Rome from his triumphs he started a civil war in the Roman Republic. Upon winning the war he was proclaimed dictator. Caesar disillusioned some senators however, after naming himself dictator, as Rome was a republic and all matters were to be decided by the Senate, not one man. These senators, once loyal to Caesar, planned to assassinate the general turned dictator on the Ides of March. Julius Caesar was lured into the Senate by these senators to read a fake bill that would give power back to the Senate, and as he did so he was stabbed 23 times. They began stabbing him while he read, and once he turned away to run he fell to the floor, blinded by his own blood. At least 60 senators watched as their most famous general fell to the floor and was repeatedly stabbed.
The assassination did not reap what the Senate had hoped for; with the death of Julius Caesar a new Rome emerged, not a new Republic led by the Senate, but rather an imperial Roman Empire led by an Emperor. The assassination backfired horrifically and ushered in the template for the modern dictator through a succession of iron fisted Roman Emperors.
4. Mahatma Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known better as “Mahatma” was the leader of the Indian nationalist movement in British-ruled India from the 1920s to the 1940s. Ghandi advocated nonviolent civil disobedience, to oppose British colonialism; Gandhi ultimately led India to independence in August of 1947 when the Indian Independence Act was invoked. As such, Ghandi’s use of non-violence and his success in helping India achieve independence inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.
Unfortunately, as in all political struggles, there were factions within the Indian population that saw the way to independence in a completely opposite light. One such faction was the extremist Hindu Mahasabha, who strongly opposed the doctrine of non-violence and also contended that Gandhi was guilty of favoring Pakistani Muslims when deciding on how to partition British India into two separate countries. In reality partitioning India was never a part of Ghandi’s vision for independence; he made efforts to unite the Indian Hindus, Muslims, and Christians before realizing that his idyllic vision could never work. None of this mattered much to assassin Nathuram Godse, however, when on January 30 1948, he shot Ghandi, who was with his grandniece at the time, three times in the chest at point blank range. While his assassin and co-conspirators were charged and executed in 1949, barely remembered by name in history, Ghandi’s legacy has prevailed over the decades. In a 2010 address to the Parliament of India, Barack Obama stated:
“I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared with America and the world.”
Time Magazine also named The 14th Dalai Lama, Lech Wałęsa, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, among other prominent civil rights leaders, as Children of Gandhi and spiritual heirs to the non-violence movement, solidifying Ghandi’s place in history as a figure for peaceful resistance during tumultuous times.
3. Malcolm X
The sensitive subject of race relations in the United States has been an extremely difficult, and sometimes volatile issue since the formation of the nation. The dichotomy in which two of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders went about promoting their message of how African-Americans were to achieve equality within a white dominated society was equally as volatile during the 1960s. It was in prison in the later half of the 1940s that Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, discovered Nation of Islam, a religious movement that preached black self-reliance and the return of all Africans to Africa, where they would be free from white American and European domination.
Malcolm X was a part of the Nation of Islam from 1942 until 1964, when he and the Nation of Islam were accused of being black supremacists, racists, violence-seekers, segregationists, and a threat to improved race relations. Civil rights organizations denounced him and the Nation of Islam as extremists whose views did not speak to, or for, African Americans. For his part Malcolm X was as critical of the civil rights movement, calling Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders “stooges” of the white establishment.
The discrepancy in tactics between the Civil Rights advocates, and the Nation of Islam were radically different: Civil Rights advocates wanted desegregation, the Nation of Islam wanted segregation of African Americans from whites and a return for all black Americans to Africa. He also rejected non-violence, expressing the opinion that African Americans should defend and advance themselves by any means necessary.
Ultimately a leadership power struggle forced Malcolm X to leave the Nation of Islam in 1964, effectively signing his death certificate. Though he disavowed racism after his departure from the Nation saying: “I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then…” he still emphasized that he believed in black self-determination, and black self-defense.
What Malcolm X could have accomplished for African-Americans would never come to fruition however, as on February 21, 1965, while preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X was shot dead from 21 bullet wounds. Though the man’s message may have been polarizing, not only in the white community, but in the African-American community as well, Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African-Americans to ever live, credited with raising the self-esteem among the black population in America, reconnecting them with their African heritage and articulating their complaints over inequality better than the mainstream civil rights movement ever did.
2. Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Kuther King Jr. is perhaps one of the most well-known and important Americans of all time. A prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, King’s method was the antithesis to the extreme Malcolm X. A Baptist minister, King advocated the advancement of civil rights by using nonviolent civil disobedience, much like Ghandi did in India. King became a civil rights activist early in his career when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, where he served as its first president. It was during the 1963 March on Washington, when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that also cemented his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.
Because of his standing as an extremely influential voice in the civil rights movement, the FBI had him on a watch list from his time with the movement in the 1950s until the end of his life. Furthermore, because of the traction King’s ideas were gaining, more insidious threats than the FBI were ever present. Indeed, a mere day before he was assassinated in Memphis, King addressed the bomb threat directed towards his plane that had delayed his originally planned arrival:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
It would be the closing of the last speech of his career, and an eerie foreshadowing of his death the following evening. On April 4, 1968 while standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, King was shot in the side of the face. King was pronounced dead just over an hour later. After news of the assassination became public, there were riots in over 60 cities across America, and five days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a day of mourning. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy was long lasting for the civil rights movement, and his legacy as one of the greatest Americans to ever live has been preserved as well. Beginning in 1971 cities began observing Martin Luther King Jr. day. By 1986 the U.S. was observing the holiday, and in 2000 Utah, the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, officially observed it as well, creating a national holiday for a cultural icon.
1. Archduke Franz Ferdinand
While there may be more famous names on this list of those who have been assassinated for political motivations, no other assassination for political reasons had such massive, sweeping and world altering consequences. Seriously, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand has defined every major world event over the last 100 years.
Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire, a territory that not only comprised modern day Austria and Hungary, but parts of Italy and Poland and many countries in the Balkans as well, among others. It was the tension in the Balkan states that ultimately led to the Archduke’s assassination. The secret military society, the Black Hand had a goal of uniting all of the South Slavic peoples within the Austro-Hungarian Empire into one independent state, and on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, the militant group leapt into action. Mere hours after Ferdinand and his wife had been attacked by a grenade thrown at their car, the couple insisted on driving to the hospital to visit with those who had been injured in the explosion. While driving to the hospital, 19-year-old Black Hand member Gavrilo Princip shot and killed both Ferdinand and his wife.
Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand changed the modern world forever. It was the pretense the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their ally Germany needed to go to war with Serbia, who in turn called upon their ally Russia. Eventually, many of the mutual protection treaties signed between European nations in the early 1900s came home to roost, and Great Britain, France, Canada, and eventually the United States were all thrown into the First World War. Even if the implications for Ferdinand’s death ended there, it would still be a massive political assassination. But they didn’t.
Let’s not forget that the First World War led to the Treaty of Versailles, which led to the disenfranchisement of the German population, allowing one Adolph Hitler to be in the right place right time to seize power and start the Second World War, and commit the Holocaust. Furthermore, the Second World War led directly to the Cold War, and all of the proxy wars fought during that period of time. With the end of the Cold War came the fall of communism, the rise of Vladimir Putin and the heightened state of alert in Europe at this very moment over the Ukraine.
It has been almost exactly 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the world has changed a great deal. One death of a royal at the hand of a 19-year-old boy utterly altered the course of the 20th century and claimed nearly 100 million lives in its wake. This was far and away the most important, and shocking political assassination in world history.