Top 10 Most Important Assassinations In History

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Ever since the Moabite King Eglon was stabbed to death on his throne in 1200 BCE (Judges 3:12-30)—and probably long before that—political leaders have been killed for any number of reasons. Usually they are murdered because they are deemed a threat by others in authority, or because of some controversial political stand they have taken, but sometimes the rationale can be as simple as the quest for revenge or the desire by the assassin to be famous. In any case, usually these murders are but minor footnotes in history, but occasionally they can and have had a profound impact on not only a nation, but on history itself. So who were these men—and a few woman—whose deaths have had such immense repercussions?

10. Benazir Bhutto

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

While no longer a sitting head of state, Bhuto’s influence on Pakistani politics was considerable. A moderate voice in a country fraught with extremism, her death at the hands of Islamic militants may have single-handedly destroyed any chance the nation might have had for political stability and likely contributed to the general downward spiral the nation has experienced ever since. While it’s unknown whether she might have made a major difference in slowing or arresting Pakistan’s increasingly militant tendencies, her death left a void that no opposition leader has been able to fill, leaving nuclear-capable Pakistan an increasingly unstable and dangerous nation.

9. Reinhard Heydrich

Senior Nazi Official, 1942

Reinhard Heydrich

Only World War Two history buffs would likely know who Reinhard Heydrich was, but he was the one man who could have won the war for Germany had he not been killed by Czech partisans on the streets of Prague in 1942. How? Every bit as ruthless and twice as smart as his protégé, Adolf Hitler, the man was being groomed to be the Fuhrer’s successor when he died; had he lived, who knows if he might not of eventually found the kahunas to oust an increasingly frail and delusional Hitler and take the reins of the Third Reich himself—a prospect that could have had profound implications for the allies. Certainly, under Heydrich’s leadership, the many mistakes made by Hitler in the last years of the war that all but sealed Germany’s fate may have been avoided; on the other hand, he may have just made different mistakes that would have hastened Germany’s defeat, but that’s for the alternative history aficionados to work out.

8. Indira Gandhi

Indian Prime Minister, 1984

Indira Gandhi

Like Benazir Bhutto (see number 10 above), for an entire generation of Indians, Indira Gandhi (no relation to number 6 below) was the voice of modernization whose death resulted in a period of considerable political instability in India for several years afterwards (instability that was to be behind the death of her own son, Rajiv Gandhi, at the hands of Tamil extremists in 1991). Though often considered a controversial and, at times, heavy handed and unpopular figure in Indian politics, her influence and desire to bring India into the twentieth century cannot be underestimated, nor the damage done to those plans—at least in the short term—be denied.

7. John F. Kennedy

U.S. President, 1963

John F. Kennedy

While Kennedy was just one of four U.S. Presidents to die at the hands of an assassin (and one of no fewer than ten presidents to experience an assassination attempt), none were as public or had as much impact on the American psyche as did the death of the young former senator from Massachusetts. While his death had only a minor impact on the political course he had set for the country (his successor, Lyndon Johnson, continued with many of his programs and policies) it can never be denied how profoundly his death cast a pall over the American people that has, in some ways, remained to this day. But even more than that, his death resulted in the creation of the entire cottage industry of conspiracy theories, all of which have done much to stoke the fires of paranoia and cynicism that burn so strongly in this country.

6. Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

Indian political activist and spiritual leader, 1948

The voice of non-violence in an increasingly violent world, when the emaciated Indian holy man was gunned down on the streets of New Delhi by a university student turned activist, it was a tremendous blow not only to India, but to the entire world. His policies of compassion towards the poor and non-violent resistance served as a blueprint for peaceful change, while his ability to affect both Hindu and Muslim alike made peace—of a kind—possible in his war-torn nation. The only positive thing that can be said—if such is possible—is that it was fortunate his assailant was a fellow Hindu; had he been gunned down by a Moslem, it might well have turned the subcontinent into religious battleground of apocalyptic proportions.

5. Julius Caesar

Emperor of Rome, 44BCE

Julius Caesar

While the sort of event that seems more a part of melodrama than real history, the murder of Rome’s greatest general and first emperor at the hands of his own senators set the Roman Empire on a course that was to set her on the path of centuries of turmoil and treachery. What Rome might have looked like had he stayed in power is unknown, of course, but it’s likely the transition of power in the future would have been a far less messy affair (and there certainly wouldn’t have been the resultant civil war that very nearly split the empire in two either). On the other hand, without Caesar’s death to kick-start a whole sordid chain of events, we would never have the Cleopatra/Mark Antony tryst to entertain us all these centuries, would we?

4. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil Rights Activist, 1968

Martin Luther King

While it’s impossible to know how things would have gone for the black community in the late sixties and early seventies had King not been silenced by an assassin, the loss of their chief spokesman was unquestionably a huge blow to the entire civil rights movement. Considered the voice of reason and moderation in a time of increasing strife, his death opened the door for more militant leaders to rise to the forefront of the movement, often resulting in the radicalization of the black community and creating deeper divisions than was already evident. Had he lived, it’s possible the late sixties and early seventies would have had a much less militant air about it, though that’s purely speculative.

3. Alexander II

Tsar of Russia, 1881

Alexander II Tsar of Russia

While not many people likely know much about Tsar Alexander II of Russia, his death at the hands of terrorists (yes, they had them even back then, though at the time they were known as anarchists) in March of 1881 changed the course of Russia for the bad. Something of an enlightened monarch and a reformer, he was on the verge of creating a parliament in Russia at the time of his death, which likely would have led to the countries’ eventual democratization (much as was seen in England and other European countries around this time). Instead, his successors decided to take a more heavy handed approach, resulting in thirty more years of oppressive and corrupt leadership and sowing the seeds for the 1917 revolution that would introduce Communism to the world, the effects of which we are still feeling today.

2. Abraham Lincoln

U.S. President, 1865

Abraham Lincoln

No assassination has had as great an impact on a country than did that of the sixteenth president of the United States. His death at the hands of actor turned southern agitator John Wilkes Booth is not only the stuff of legend, but was disastrous to the south as well, who would have fared much better under Lincoln’s conciliatory hand in the aftermath of the Civil War than it did under Andrew Johnson and subsequent administrations. In fact, it could be said that because of Booth’s treachery, the Civil War lasted decades longer—at least in the minds of many southerners—than it would have otherwise, and likely contributed greatly to the oppression of blacks in the south. As such, in killing Lincoln, Booth may have damaged his beloved south far more than his actions could ever have helped it.

1. Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Heir Apparent to Austro-Hungarian Throne, 1914

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

So why does this guy make it to number 1 on the list? After all, it’s hard to imagine that the assassination of a fairly obscure nobleman could have huge repercussions, much less be the most important assassination in history. However, the death of the Archduke and his wife as they rode in an open car through the streets of Sarajevo (the capital of modern day Bosnia-Herzogovina but at the time part of greater Serbia) had immediate and profound repercussions. The problem was that the assassin (you guessed it; another anarchist) was part of a group that had ties to the Serbian military itself; as such, in a world-class case of overreaction, Austro-Hungary held the Serbian government complicit in the murder and set in motion the wheels of war which would, in turn, start a chain of events that would, over the course a just a few weeks, not only bring the two countries to blows, but would drag the entire continent into the fray with it. The result? World War One—arguably one of the bloodiest and most futile conflicts in history. (Final death toll: 15 million.) Certainly far better known and more powerful people have been assassinated over the years, but none had the consequences this single act of mindless brutality and sheer stupidity entailed.

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Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.  


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32 Comments

  1. It can be logically argued that the assissination of Archduke Ferdinand also lead to WWII in that the penalties imposed on Germany in the treaty of Versailles led to the rise of the Nazi’s and ultimately WWII.

    • To take that a step further, WWII created the Holocaust which created the seeds for the forced creation of Israel which led to mass instability in the Middle East today and from there we can draw direct connections to a number of wars, rise of terrorism/extremist groups etc

  2. Archduke Ferdinand as number 1? Wow. I would not have put him anywhere near there. Sure, his death was the pretext used by Austria-Hungary to start a war with Serbia which resulted in WWI, but it had very little to do with him. If it had not been Ferdinand, it would have been someone or something else. Austria-Hungary was gunning for Serbia for years as a way to gain direct access to the Mediterranean and block the Russians from the same. The weakness of the Ottoman Empire left the area a political vacuum and ripe for the movement of one or the other. Both sides were looking for a reason to go to war over Serbia, Ferdinand was just a convenient excuse. To call that the most important assassination in history? WOW.

    • Well, you sort of make the point in your comment…the list is not Top 10 Most Important People Who Were Assassinated–otherwise, I assume he would not even be on the list. His assassination, however, was very significant. It basically determined how the world would work for the rest of the century, if not longer.

      Yes, it probably would not have mattered had he not been assassinated–it probably would have happened to someone else. But it didn’t and that’s how history works.

  3. I really liked the list and agree with all of these except for Heydrich…at best his ascension to the head of Nazi germany would have prolonged the war, but in the end Nazi germany was destined to lose. Also, I think ferdinand assassination is overplayed becasue his death was really the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to WW1. Anyone who has a good understanding of the politics of this time knew (even then) that rampant nationalism and a series of alliances against each other was going to drag the countries of europe into war. In other words, it was inevitable that WW1 would erupt due to the circumstances, Ferdinand was just the spark. Thats why I don’t think it is deserving of the top spot

  4. If Dr. King not be killed, then the modern democrat party would not exist as it is today. Dr. King was a registered REPUBLICAN. During Dr. Kings fight it was the democrats that were the party of slavery, the pary of segregation, and the party of jim crow. It was REPUBLICANS who passed the voting rights act and civil rights act of 1965 and 1964. Democrats filibustered both these acts. The democrats have never been the party of racial equity. They want blacks poor and dependent on the gov’t. With the assassination of Dr. King, by a democrat, they achieved this.

    • You’re wrong on nearly every account in your posting. First, Dr. King’s political leanings clearly were liberal, regardless of how he may have been registered. You state, “…it was the democrats that were the party of slavery.” This is patently untrue. You state, “party of segregation”. Again, this is completely false.

      Do you really believe that democrats “want blacks poor and dependent on the gov’t?” Are you aware that in all probability, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not killed by James Earl Ray? Even the family of Dr. King has issued public statement that they do not believe Ray was guilty. James Earl Ray was set up to be a “patsy”, and then got framed for a murder he did not commit.

      Are you aware that the ONE black police officer in Memphis on the day Dr. King was killed was verbally “reassigned” elsewhere for that time period? The likely culprit ultimately responsible for King’s death was J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was no democrat, that much is certain. He was nasty, and blackmailed politicians and celebrities by installing illegal wiretaps and then his agents monitored those phone conversations, noting any dirty laundry that could be used as leverage.

      Try to get your basic facts right.

  5. Can’t remember his name for the life of me… but some Roman Caesar was assassinated after 60 days because he failed to give a promised pay raise to his guards.
    In those 60 days, he fixed every problem the empire had.

  6. So what about Osama Bin-Laden and Moammer Gadhafi. I found No.9 to be quite interesting, Reinhard Heydrich. I am also a member of another Top Ten list website. He is in the Top Ten List on that website of the most “Sociopathic and Narcisstic people whoever lived and the synopsis of him goes into detail about the pleasure he got from watching people being tortured, maimed, disfigured and killed. Two Nazis were on that particular list, Heydrich and Josef Mengele (“The Angel Of Death)

    • Well, technically Muammar Ghadafi was not assassinated–he was caputred and killed after a civil war. That’s like saying everyone who dies in battle is assassinated by the opposing army.

      As for bin Laden, sure his death was significant, but he was not nearly as powerful or influential (or even significant) as people think. He was broke, and recruitment was falling drastically. The only reason people wanted him dead was revenge. He was not as influential as someone like the leader of a country, he was just a public enemy.

    • Bin-Laden was nothing more than a scapegoat, the exuse the US needed for their “war on terror”. They needed the war to build up the mass surveillance of their own citizens.

  7. I wrote a comment stating that the writer had made a mistake writing that Rajiv Gandhi was killed by Sikh extremists rather than LTTE extremists from Sri Lanka. Well the writer corrected this but why was my comment deleted. Because I just pointed out a mistake? Rather than at least saying “Thanks” my comment was deleted. What arrogance!!!

    • Garfield, I usually delete the comments referencing mistakes because after the correction is made, what is the point of clogging up the comments with information that is not necessary now. But I do agree a thank you was in order so thank you for your correction. I will leave these comments up for posterity. I usually send an email to the commentor. I hope this soothes your bruised ego,it was not my intent to anger a reader.

      • On the subject of corrections you refer to Heydrich as being ‘Every bit as ruthless and twice as smart as his protégé, Adolf Hitler’. Surely this is the wrong way round as Hitler was in no way Heydrich’s protégé.

  8. “Only history buffs would know his name”? You cant be serious, his infamy among the Jewish people alone will live forever, the master mind behind the “final solution “. Heydrich was the vilest of the vile,his execution changed nothing, the machinery of destruction was well in place by a perverse German people. Had he survived the end was inevitable and he would have been smuggled to some south American country on the “Rat Line” run by the Vatican under the auspices of “Blessed Pius XII” and another Austrian devil Bishop Hudal

    • That line seemed weird to me too. I would say anyone who has ever watched a decent TV show about the Nazis would know that name and face.

  9. Julius Caesar wasn’t the first Emperor of Rome, his nephew, Octavian (later he took the name Caesar Augustus) was technically the first Emperor of Rome. He definitely would have become the first emperor had he lived longer but Cassius and Brutus were wanting to prevent such an action and thus were the instigators of the assassination. It’s funny, because it seems very likely that things would have been a whole lot less messy had he simply gained the power that the Roman people were so willing to give him. Ironically, such an action as his assassination led to the downfall of the Republic very quickly and very violently.

    • I’m sorry, do you mean to say that Rome fell quickly and violently? Or that the Republic did?

      I can assure you Rome lasted for a very long time after Julius Caesar’s death–even longer, if you count the Byzantine Empire.

      If you mean the latter, the Republic was sort of “killed” in civil war–a bloodbath in which Octavian took power, and started the Empire.

  10. I’m surprised that Malcolm X is not on this list. His death in ’65 was the beginning of the darkest period in Civil Rights history. Thoughts?

  11. Under the other definition of assasination ‘deliberately killing someone for political reasons’. Jesus Christ can be included at number…ONE.

    • While, technically, the primary definition of assassination does state it is for political reasons, an execution is not an assassination. Execution is putting someone to death, possibly for political reasons, while an assassination is more stealthy, more “cloak and dagger” if you will.

  12. Michael Vaughan on

    Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. Benazir Bhutto was a former head of government. The president was the head of state.

  13. John F. Kennedy: His death had only a MAJOR impact on the political course of the country. Kennedy would never had have wished for the radical implement the Great Society and only someone with Lyndon Johnson’s political skills and connections in Congress could have implemented these left wing programs that we are still suffering from.

  14. Thomas Mitchell on

    The failure to mention the Nov. 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing religious fanatic during the middle of the Oslo peace process is a major omission. Rabin had the security background and credibility to make major concessions and sell them to the Israeli public. Had he not been assassinated there might have been a peace treaty between Israel and Syria.

    Hitler was hardly the protege of Heydrich. Hitler was the leader of the Nazi Party, which was built around his cult of personality. Heydrich was the protege of Himmler. But ultimately it was Hitler’s poor strategic and diplomatic decisions that led to Germany’s defeat in WWII. Hitler surrounded Germany with enemies with whom he went to war at the same time and he continually interfered with his generals in the running of the war to the detriment of the war effort.

    @markusp
    Read any account of antebellum American history–clearly the Democratic Party was the party of slavery. It was the Democratic Party in the South that led the secession drive in 1860-61 that led to the Civil War. While the Whig Party wasn’t an antislavery party, it did have an antislavery wing in the North. The Democratic Party in the North supported the spread of slavery to the western territories–the cause of the Civil War.

  15. People saying Malcom X or JFk are wrong. They affected America in a way that in hundreds of years no one will remember but Franz Ferdinand was different it affected the world. Its not just USA in the world. Americans think everything is about them. What difference would it make outside America if JFK didnt die. Or Malcom X it dosent effect the world also if Martin Luther king wasnt assinated what would be the differeence. His deaths sparked riots that ended inequality but if he lived he still would have ended it. Franz Ferdinand is number 1. Two world wars and millions of people died .

    • “What difference,” you ask, “would it make outside America if JFK didnt die.” I would frame the question differently – what difference did it make, outside America, that he died? To answer that, I would set aside questions of policy. To be sure, policy questions are fascinating. There’s a decent chance he could have ended the Cold War, a possibility he might have steered clear of deep involvement in Vietnam, and a chance he might have avoided the errors of LBJ’s Great Society (excessive federal control of money, etc.) – but that stuff is purely speculative. I would set all that aside and answer your question this way. His death made a great deal of difference to the African bushman who hiked many miles through open country to say to an American, with tears streaming down his face, “I have lost a friend and am so sorry.” It made a great deal of difference to the people of France – Charles de Gaulle said, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France” and decided to attend the funeral. It made a great deal of difference to Andrei Gromyko, Russian foreign minister, who paid his respects that weekend at the American Embassy in Moscow and wept as he departed (those tears, from one of the dourest of Cold Warriors, haunt me). The point being, John F. Kennedy represented hope for a better future to billions of people globally. You can’t fool people into hopefulness. And if you snatch away hopefulness with a bullet, you damage the world in uncountable ways.

  16. I know this is an old article but in the #9 entry, Reinhard Heydrich, Senior Nazi Official, I believe the writer intended to use the slang work cojones which translates to balls, not kahunas which is Hawaiian for a wise man or shaman. I suppose the write might be saying that Reinhard Heydrich might have needed to find and enlist other important persons to pull off the coup. I’m thinking he mean cojones in this context and not referencing finding several “big kahunas who run the whole show”.

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