History of Political Assassinations

Book Review

Kenneth Baker examines more than a hundred political murders in a new book. British author was once a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. He recalls his fortune at missing an explosion that ripped through a conference.

By Tony Rennell  

Too close for comfort and too often — that is Tory grandee Lord (Kenneth) Baker’s personal experience of assassinations.

In 1979, he was in the library of the House of Commons when he heard the bang and felt the shock as, just yards away, a bomb planted by Irish terrorists blew apart his fellow MP Airey Neave, who was driving out of the underground car park.

Five years later, Baker, by then a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, had, through sheer good fortune, left for London just hours before the explosion that ripped apart the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the Conservative Party conference because he was due to appear on breakfast TV that morning. It caused carnage and very nearly wiped out its target, Mrs. Thatcher.

Altogether, he counts a further six friends and colleagues who over the years were murdered by assassins. Not surprisingly, it is a subject that fascinates him, which is why he has put together this compendium of more than a hundred political murders, from Julius Caesar to Gandhi, from Lincoln to Kennedy and Trotsky to Osama bin Laden.

What emerges is a potpourri of intrigue and accident, miscalculation and just plain evil. In many cases, luck played a large part: a chance turn of events without which a murder plot would never have succeeded.

If only civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King had not stepped out onto the balcony of his motel room for a cigarette and presented himself as a target for gunman James Earl Ray …

If only Abraham Lincoln’s bibulous bodyguard hadn’t wandered off for a drink in a tavern, leaving the president’s box at the theatre unguarded … If only Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver hadn’t taken a wrong turning in the streets of Sarajevo in 1914 and then come to a halt within point-blank pistol range of his killer …

Such serendipity works both ways. On a Paris street, Napoleon Bonaparte’s quick-thinking coachman whipped up his horses, took a sharp turn to the right and managed to miss the explosion that killed eight people and brought down 45 houses, leaving the emperor unharmed. Mrs. Thatcher had left the bathroom in her hotel suite only seconds before the IRA’s bomb detonated in the bathroom immediately above. If she’d spent just a fraction longer in there, she would have died in the blast.

Every would-be assassin needs to know that this has always been a risky business, that there are many more misses than hits. Queen Victoria survived seven attempts on her life, France’s President de Gaulle no fewer than 31.

The record-holder for close shaves was the controversial King Zog of Albania, who between 1928 and 1939 was targeted 51 times without success. On one occasion he even grabbed a gun and fired back at his assailants.

Baker, whose long political career included spells as Environment Secretary, Education Secretary and Home Secretary before taking him to the House of Lords, succinctly summarizes each assassination and searches for a common thread between them.

He concludes that the days of the lone assassin with a personal grudge — the likes of John Bellingham, who shot dead Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812, or sniper Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963 — are over.

In modern times, assassinations tend to be carried out either by groups of political and religious terrorists or by states themselves.

In this last category, he cites the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, the shelling of British journalist Marie Colvin by Syria and the killing of Osama bin Laden, shot down in his own home by U.S. special forces in a raid authorized (and watched from the White House via video link) by President Barack Obama.

Assassins tend to believe their actions will change the world for the better that the cause they are prepared to kill for will be advanced, that their grievance will be atoned for, that their violent intervention in history will benefit mankind. But it rarely has done.

There are notable exceptions. It’s reasonable speculation that if Franz Ferdinand had not died at Sarajevo, World War I may well have been forestalled. It might even have been prevented.

By and large, though, Baker claims, assassinations have little or no effect. On the contrary, more often than not they backfire.

The template was set by Shakespeare, the first major literary figure to use the word itself, in Macbeth. In order to seize the crown, Macbeth murders the king of Scotland, but in the end is himself killed. Murders for political gain prove to be a poisoned chalice because the sheer violence evokes sympathy for the victim and revulsion for the perpetrator.

What’s more, they often make matters worse. Brutus killed Julius Caesar to end tyranny but only succeeded in laying the ground for the even greater tyranny of his heir, the emperor Augustus.

In the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday famously plunged a knife into the extremist politician Jean-Paul Marat as he lay in his bath in the hope of ending the violence, but this opened the way to his successor, Robespierre, and the launch of the Great Terror which sent 17,000 people to the guillotine.

Over the centuries it is the failed assassinations that have the greater impact on events. Napoleon’s premature death in 1800 would indeed have fundamentally changed the course of European history.

So, too, would Hitler’s if the attacks on him in a Munich beer cellar in 1939 and in the Wolf’s Lair in 1944 had succeeded.

Eradicating Stalin and Mao would undoubtedly have saved the lives of millions. But they were so ruthless and paranoid in weeding out opponents that no assassin got the chance. More’s the pity.


Courtesy: Daily Mail, London

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