10 Assassinations That Changed History | History Hit

10 Assassinations That Changed History

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'The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln' by Alonzo Chappel, 1868.

Assassinations are almost always as much about politics as they are about the individual concerned, the hope being that the death of a person will also result in the death of their ideas or principles, striking fear into the hearts of their contemporaries and shocking the wider world.

The murder of prominent figures has historically sparked soul-searching, mass outpourings of grief and even conspiracy theories, as people struggle to come to terms with the consequences of assassinations.

Here are 10 assassinations from history that shaped the modern world.

1. Abraham Lincoln (1865)

Abraham Lincoln is arguably America’s most famous president: he led America through the Civil War, preserved the Union, abolished slavery, modernised the economy and bolstered the federal government. A champion of black rights, including voting rights, Lincoln was disliked by Confederate states.

His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a Confederate spy whose self-professed motive was to avenge the Southern states. Lincoln was shot at point-blank range whilst he was at the theatre, dying the following morning.

Lincoln’s death damaged relations between the North and South of the USA: his successor, President Andrew Johnson, presided over the Reconstruction era and was lenient on Southern states and granted amnesty to many former Confederates, to the frustration of some in the North.

2. Tsar Alexander II (1881)

Tsar Alexander II was known as the ‘Liberator’, enacting wide-ranging liberal reforms across Russia. His policies included the emancipation of serfs (peasant labourers) in 1861, the abolition of corporal punishment, the promotion of self-government and the ending of some of the nobility’s historic privileges.

His reign coincided with an increasingly volatile political situation in Europe and in Russia, and he survived several assassination attempts during his rule. These were mainly orchestrated by radical groups (anarchists and revolutionaries) who wanted to overthrow Russia’s system of autocracy.

He was assassinated by a group named Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) in March 1881, bringing an end to an era which had promised ongoing liberalisation and reform. Alexander’s successors, worried they would meet a similar fate, enacted much more conservative agendas.

An 1881 photograph of Tsar Alexander II’s body lying in state.

Image Credit: Public Domain

3. Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1914)

In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by a Serbian named Gavilo Princip in Sarajevo. Frustrated by the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia, Princip was a member of a nationalist organisation entitled Young Bosnia, which aimed to free Bosnia from the shackles of external occupation.

The assassination is widely believed to have been the catalyst for the outbreak of World War One in August 1914: underlying factors were exacerbated in the political fallout of the Archduke’s death and from 28 June 1914, Europe began an inexorable path to war.

Dan Snow visits Sarajevo on the trail of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, and the fatal encounter that led to the outbreak of WWI.
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4. Reinhard Heydrich (1942)

Nicknamed the ‘man with the iron heart’, Heydrich was one of the most important Nazis, and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. His brutality and chilling efficiency earned him the fear and loyalty of many, and unsurprisingly, many loathed him for his role in anti-Semitic policies across Nazi Europe.

Heydrich was assassinated on the orders of the exiled Czechoslovak government: his car was bombed and he was shot at. It took Heydrich a week to die from his injuries. Hitler ordered the SS to wreak revenge in Czechoslovakia in an attempt to hunt down the assassins.

Many consider Heydrich’s assassination a major turning point in Nazi fortunes, believing that had he lived, he may well have achieved major victories against the Allies.

5. Mahatma Gandhi (1948)

One of the earliest heroes of the civil rights movement, Gandhi spearheaded non-violent resistance to British rule as part of the Indian quest for independence. Having successfully helped campaign for independence, which was achieved in 1947, Gandhi turned his attention to trying to prevent religious violence between Hindus and Muslims.

He was assassinated in January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, who viewed Gandhi’s stance as too accommodating towards Muslims. His death was mourned around the world. Godse was caught, tried and sentenced to death for his actions.

6. John F. Kennedy (1963)

President John F. Kennedy was America’s darling: young, charming and idealistic, Kennedy was welcome with open arms by many in the US, particularly due to his New Frontier domestic policies and staunchly anti-Communist foreign policy. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas. His death shocked the nation.

Despite serving less than 3 full years in office, he is consistently ranked as one of the best and most popular presidents in American history. His assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was apprehended, but was killed before he could be tried: many have viewed this as symptomatic of a wider cover up and a sign of conspiracy.

JFK’s assassination cast a long shadow and had a huge cultural impact in America. Politically, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, passed much of the legislation set in place during Kennedy’s administration.

Dan gives a moment-by-moment account of the day that shocked the world.
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7. Martin Luther King (1968)

As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Martin Luther King met with plenty of anger and opposition over his career, including a nearly fatal stabbing in 1958, and he regularly received violent threats. Reportedly after hearing about JFK’s assassination in 1963, King told his wife that he believed he would die by assassination too.

King was shot dead on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. His killer, James Earl Ray, initially pled guilty to the charge of murder, but later changed his mind. Many, including King’s family, believe his assassination was planned by the government and/or the mafia in order to silence him.

8. Indira Gandhi (1984)

Another victim of religious tensions in India, Indira Gandhi was the 3rd Prime Minister of India and remains the country’s only female leader to date. A somewhat divisive figure, Gandhi was politically intransigent: she supported the independence movement in East Pakistan and went to war over it, helping create Bangladesh.

A Hindu, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 after ordering military action in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, one of the most important sites for Sikhs. Gandhi’s death resulted in violence against Sikh communities across India, and it’s estimated over 8,000 were killed as part of this retaliation.

Indira Gandhi in Finland in 1983.

Image Credit: Finnish Heritage Agency / CC

9. Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

Yitzhak Rabin was the fifth Prime Minister of Israel: first elected in 1974, he was re-elected in 1992 on a platform that embraced the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. Subsequently, he signed various historic agreements as part of the Oslo Peace Accords, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

He was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist who opposed the Oslo Accords. Many view his death as also being the demise of the kind of peace he had envisaged and worked towards, making it one of the most tragically effective political assassinations of the 20th century, in that it killed off an idea as much as a man.

10. Benazir Bhutto (2007)

The first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority country, Benazir Bhutto was one of Pakistan’s most important political figures. Killed by a suicide bomb at a political rally in 2007, her death shook the international community.

However, many were not surprised by it. Bhutto was a controversial figure who had been tarred consistently by allegations of corruption, and Islamic fundamentalists opposed her prominence and political presence. Her death was mourned by millions of Pakistanis, particularly women, who had seen the promise of a different Pakistan under her tenure.

Tags: Abraham Lincoln John F. Kennedy

Sarah Roller

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