Even though paradigm shifting historical events are the end product of a multitude of factors, in some cases, a single catalyst can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and changes the course of a nation and possibly the world. Assassinations have been used as such a mechanism and have successfully altered political movements and subsequently changed history. Many assassinations of political leaders have been overlooked or underappreciated in the context of a nation’s history and said country’s development. These killings, though, changed the course of history and you might not have even realized it.
10. Jean Jaurés
A great opposition leader in the lead-up to France’s decision to enter World War I; Jaurés was assassinated in a Parisian café by Raoul Villain, a 29-year-old French nationalist whose surname was ridiculously on the nose. Before his assassination, Jaurés had helped merge two different socialist parties forming the French Socialist Party. As the party’s deputy, Jaurés served as a leading voice of anti-militarism and led the fierce opposition to the implementation of a three-year draft period.
In addition, the socialist leader organized protests and strikes that hoped to force the government to back down and negotiate and instead of declaring war. Despite, many Frenchmen seeking to avenge the loss of Alsace-Lorraine territory – the assassination of Jaurés was still seen as a necessity before his attendance of an international conference. Three days after the socialist leader was assassinated; France declared for war and Villain was acquitted of all charges.
9. Patrice Lumumba
One of the unstable countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is unarguably the Congo. A country rich with resources has been victim of constant bloodshed over control of areas with diamonds, oil, uranium, and gold- the poverty that riddles the country, as a result, can be traced to the country’s decolonization and the assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. With the rest of Africa becoming de-colonized, Belgian reluctantly gave the Congo its freedom. However, the relationship of former colonist and colonized began on a rocky start with Lumumba giving a fiery speech:
“Although this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle, in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood.”
Soon enough, western nations had re-invaded the Congo including the United States. Lumumba was eventually tracked by the CIA and captured and tortured by Belgian forces along with Congolese soldiers supporting a different Prime Minister. According to the World Bank, the life expectancy of a Congolese is only 50 years old with 63% of the population living in poverty.
8. Emperor Haile Selassie
One of the most underreported periods of mass killings and persecution came after the death of Emperor Haile Selassie and the period of Red Terror under Mengestu Haile Mariam. Some would characterize Emperor Haile Selassie, as a victim of his time, others would say that he was too slow to modernize or reform his government.
Regardless, the Ethiopian Emperor who stood steadfastly at the League of Nations, and argued for the tenets of collective responsibility before the outbreak of World War II died under suspicious circumstances in 1975. He was said to have died under respiratory failure but his doctor denied these accounts. The Derg’s conquest of power led to the deaths of up to 500,000 people and a brain drain that saw millions of Ethiopians flee the country.
7. Luis Carlos Galán
One of the most compelling cases of power by a non-state entity is demonstrated by the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán. Never before, has the world seen a drug cartel as powerful as Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. And when Galán used his opposition against the cartels as a foundation of his candidacy he became a target of the cartels. One of the most threatening parts of his candidacy was his support of extradition of drug dealers to the United States. His rise not only threatened Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, but other political leaders in Colombia.
According to a former hit-man of Escobar, the decision to kill Galán was made on Escobar’s farm at the behest of liberal political leader Alberto Santofimio Botero. Luis Carlos Galán was gunned down on August 18, 1989, as he walked onto a stage to give a speech in front of 10,000 people. As a result of Galán’s death, the Medellin continued to prosper for some time with 70 to 80 tons of cocaine from Colombia to America per month, and as much as 11 tons in each flight.
6. Salvador Allende
One of the most notorious CIA operations that led to the overthrow of a democratically elected leader, was the coup d’état that saw Salvador Allende imprisoned and eventually killed under suspicious circumstances. After Allende adopted a policy that would nationalize prominent industries in Chile, the CIA developed the ouster of the Socialist President. Augusto Pinochet would take power after Salvador Allende and would be charged with numerous human rights violations.
During Pinochet’s dictatorship estimates hold that 1,500–2,000 Chileans were killed or disappeared, as well as nearly 29,000 that were tortured. The death of Allende is still controversial with some claiming that he was assassinated while others saying that he commited suicide before the military could take him prisoner. New forensic reports suggest that Allende killed himself, but the choice of torture and inevitable death versus death by one’s own hand is no choice at all.
5. Yitzhak Rabin
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Israel’s change in leadership may be the most apparent shift in a nation’s history. With Rabin negotiating a peace deal, the Oslo Accords, with Yasser Araft – Zionists saw his forfeiture of the occupied territories as heresy. During a rally in support of the peace negotiations, Yigal Amir, an ultranationalist and zealot, fired three shots at Rabin who was walking towards his vehicle.
Bodyguards quickly grabbed Amir while Rabin was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. After he was pronounced dead, a blood-stained sheet of paper with the lyrics to the well-known Israeli song Shir LaShalom, “Song for Peace”, was found in Rabin’s pocket. The result of his assassination was the election of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud right-wing government to power in 1996, and the death of peace talks.
4. Abd al-Karim Qasim
Technically more of an execution than an assassination, and one that had the CIA’s fingerprints was the overthrow of General Qasim – an Iraqi Army brigadier who seized power in a 1958 coup d’état, which saw the dismantling of the monarchy and the establishment of Qasim as Prime Minister. Qasim enacted several reforms that threatened the interests of Western interests including the seizure of 99% of Iraqi land from the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company, and distributed farms to more of the population.
The result of the enactment was the expansion of the Iraqi Middle class, and the fury of Western Powers. Soon after the nationalization, British and American covert operations began its financial and tactical support to the Ba’ath Party. Qasim was overthrown by the Ba’athist coup of February 8, 1963, and was killed shortly thereafter. Ironically, the man who would come into power after him was none other than Saddam Hussein.
3. Oscar Romero
The most appalling assassination in a list that includes heads of state goes to the murder of Bishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador. Soon after Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador; a good friend and fellow priest was assassinated for his progressive views. His friend’s death had a profound impact on Romero who then began to champion the rights of the poor and neglected while also criticizing the United State’s role in supporting the right-wing government.
Óscar Romero was killed on March 24, 1980, when a lone gunman shot the archbishop down while he was giving mass in his church. The horrible legacy of the Salvordan Civil War continued long after his death, on the seventh anniversary of his death – 50,000 people had been killed. The murder of the Archbishop also was another item in a long list of United States atrocities in Latin America actions that led to several hundred thousand Salvdorans fleeing their country. To date, nearly 1.1 million reside in the United States of America.
2. Ngô Dình Diem
The Pentagon Papers would later reveal that South Vietnam was the result of United States influence, but nonetheless, at the time of his death, Diem was the president of a country that would soon provide the battlefield to one of the most opposed Wars in United States history. At the onset, the legitimacy of Diem came under question as he became elected with 600,000 votes from an electorate of only 450,000. In addition, Diem was a Catholic in a nation of Buddhists. Neverthless with the United States’ backing, Diem managed to consolidate power but had little support amongst the people. However, when it became clear that Diem no longer could control all the aggrieved parties, the United States backed a coup that led to his ouster and assassination by other anti-communist generals. Ho-Chi Minh and The North Vietnamese Politburo, had this to say about Diem’s assassination,
“The consequences of the 1 November coup d’état will be contrary to the calculations of the U.S. imperialists … Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists … Among the anti-Communists in South Vietnam or exiled in other countries, no one has sufficient political assets and abilities to cause others to obey. Therefore, the lackey administration cannot be stabilized. The coup d’état on 1 November 1963 will not be the last.”
Ho Chi Minh was right, as South Vietnam had a series of coups before it was toppled by the North Vietnamese forces and the country was reunified.
1. Franz Ferdinand
This one’s obviously a little more well known, but no list of world-altering assassinations is complete without it. The origin of the First World War can be traced back to many issues, but few would argue that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand did not serve as the catalyst to send the great powers of the world to battlefields. Ferdinand had many titles but was most notably the Archduke of Austria-Este.
The Archduke was assassinated by members of the Black Hand, a secret military society, which formed with the aim of uniting all territories with Slavic majority including those annexed by Habsburg Empire. Members of the Black Hand believed that the assassination may lead to the declaration of war against Serbia, but that Russia would come to their defense. They did not foresee the outbreak of a World War that saw over 37 million people dead.