Assassinations have always been a preferable way of solving conflict over all-out war, which can be a costly affair. A well-placed political murder – while difficult to carry out – can often achieve the same goal without all the hassles of war, which is why it has been so popular across cultures and time periods of our history.
Some of those assassinations, though, were so impactful that they didn’t just achieve their intended goal, but also caused other ripples that would reverberate across the world for years to come. We’re not sure if all of these assassins set out to change history in the ways that they did, though we know that if they hadn’t, the modern world would have been a much different place than it is.
10. Egyptian Islamic Jihad
The 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was massively influential in a variety of ways. It was carried out by the members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) – one of the earliest radical Islamist groups in the region – disguised as Egyptian soldiers during a military parade.
President Anwar was far from being a unanimously-loved leader, especially among the more conservative parts of the country. His recent peace accord with Israel, along with his refusal to adopt Sharia as state policy, didn’t sit too well with the rapidly-emerging radical groups across Egypt, one of them being the EIJ.
While it was carried out flawlessly, the assassination ended up having the opposite effect. Sadat’s successor – Hosni Mubarak – further strengthened Egypt’s ties with Israel, as well as heavily cracked down on Islamist organizations around the country – including the Muslim Brotherhood. His three-decade rule defined Egypt’s peculiar position in Middle-Eastern politics today, until he was overthrown in the revolution of 2011.
9. The Irish Republican Army
On paper, the IRA’s 1979 plot to kill Lord Mountbatten – the great-grandson of Queen Victoria – was purely meant as a gesture. It was the peak of The Troubles – a 30-year period of intense conflict between the British state and Irish nationalist separatists. With Mountbatten’s assassination, 1979 was when things really came to a boil, as political violence reached its peak across the region.
While the assassination was merely meant as a warning for the British government, it ended having the opposite effect. Public opinion immediately turned against the movement, and even the parts of the British population that were sympathetic to the Irish cause couldn’t stand behind the murder of an aging and unarmed member of the royal family, along with his 14-year old grandson.
The assassination set the stage for perhaps some of the most violent years of The Troubles, as the British establishment – led by Margaret Thatcher – started treating the IRA as a violent criminal organization rather than merely political opponents. It allowed the British government a much freer hand in dealing with the movement, even if it took them almost two more decades to completely crush it.
8. The Chicago Police Department
1969 Chicago was – in every way – a microcosm of the state of America at that time. Tensions between protesters, which included anti-war as well as civil rights activists, and the Chicago police department had reached their peak after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, followed by the heavily repressed protests at the Democratic National Convention later that year.
That was the backdrop of the assassination of Fred Hampton – the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party – by the Chicago Police Department and FBI in 1969, even if it wasn’t in any way unprecedented. Cases of racially-charged police brutality were rising across the city for months, as the Nixon government hardened its stance against radical groups. Hampton’s cold-blooded murder – as he slept alongside his girlfriend after being drugged by an FBI agent – though, was the first case of police brutality that could be verified by modern investigative techniques.
The police’s version – that they had only opened fire in response to firing from inside the house – was refuted by independent filmmakers and journalists in the years to come. They established that the assassination wasn’t just intentional, but also meticulously planned by the Chicago police and the FBI.
The assassination had a powerful impact on race relations in the city, as well as the rest of the country. It forged an alliance between the black and white protestors of the city for the first time; an alliance that paved the way for the city’s first black mayor in 1983, as well as fostered future black leaders like Barack Obama. It also united the black community across the country against rising cases of police repression, eventually paving the way for the organized BLM movements of the last decade.
7. Nathuram Godse
When the Indian territories of the British Empire were partitioned into the countries of India and Pakistan back in 1947, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The breakup of the British Empire left many of its former colonies splintered along religious and ethnic lines, giving way to some of the biggest conflicts of the 20th century.
What was out of the ordinary, however, was the radically different directions both of the countries ended up taking after their independence. While Pakistan soon turned into a full-fledged Islamic republic, India took a more democratic and secular approach.
While there were many reasons behind that, perhaps the biggest one was the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. When he was killed by Nathuram Godse in 1948 – a radical Hindu assassin who wanted to establish a Hindu state parallel to Islamic Pakistan – Gandhi was already a beloved figure across the world. The assassination immediately turned public opinion against the far-right ‘Hindutva‘ ideology espoused by Godse – one that was rapidly gaining ground across India. It was followed by a crackdown on all militant Hindu organizations around the country and instantly delegitimized the movement in popular imagination, further strengthening the secular and inclusive character of the newly-formed republic.
6. James Earl Ray
While Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the hands of James Earl Ray is obviously extremely well known, this seems like a good time to revisit its long term impacts, as the divisions that culminated in the murder of the massively popular civil rights activist in 1968 are as pronounced as ever right now.
While Ray’s precise motives for the act – or even the source of his funding – remain unknown to this day, they’re not hard to guess. He was an admirer of Hitler, as well as closely involved with the presidential campaign of George Wallace, who was known for his segregationist views.
King’s assassination by a sniper rifle during one of his speeches was instrumental in more ways than we may even know of. It enraged the black community across the country, as the riots that erupted in over 172 cities in the days after the assasination were some of the most violent in American history.
The riots – knowingly or not – changed the demographics of many of those cities, as many small-scale businesses that were destroyed during the violence never recovered, triggering the demise of many once-bustling urban centres. It also hastened the migration of primarily-white communities from the cities to newly-developed suburbs, further leading to economic stagnation in the cities.
The riots also reinforced the tensions between the black community and the police, and gave way to the more conservative, hardline elements inside the government promising to bring back order to the cities.
5. Yakov Yurovsky
When the Bolshevik revolution ended with the execution of the Romanov dynasty back in 1918, it was received differently around the world. The entire royal family – which included Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandria, and their five children, along with all of their servants – was killed under the leadership of Yakov Yurovsky, a key Bolshevik leader, and it was anything but a smooth affair. By some accounts, bayonets and knives were used to finish off the last members of the Russian royalty, followed by botched attempts to dissolve the bodies in vats of acid.
The response from the global community was mixed. While some criticized the revolutionaries for the killing of an unarmed family that had already surrendered, the revolution itself had massive support from workers and resistance groups in most other countries. Regardless of your views on it, though, the assassination gave rise to one of the largest empires in history – the Soviet Union – as well as inspired a huge wave of uprisings against royal and imperial rule around the world.
The assassination also strengthened the more reactionary ideologies like fascism and Nazism, especially in Europe, and the resulting conflict between them and Bolshevik-style communism would end up being a defining theme of the Second World War.
4. Yigal Amir
Yitzhak Rabin was the fifth Prime Minister of Israel, and had already served a term before when he was elected in 1992. While a generally-liked figure across the country, some of his ideas weren’t received as well by the orthodox sections of the society. The 1995 Oslo Accords with Palestine – which included giving up the West Bank; an unacceptable proposition to the more radically-conservative elements in the government – were the final straw for Yigal Amir, a devout Jewish law student based in Tel Aviv.
Amir shot Rabin twice after one of his rallies in support of the accords. While he probably didn’t know it then, the assassination succeeded in its intended goal. Israel was already seeing a wave of resurgence of the Jewish anti-peace right wing even before the assassination. After it, the pacifist members of the government started being further sidelined by the more hardline ones. The assassination turned public opinion against the peace treaty, directly resulting in the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as the next Prime Minister. In the years since, Israel’s increasingly conservative policies under Netanyahu have shaped up the politics of the entire region, and would continue to do so for years to come.
Most people know that the Congolese region used to be one of the most prized possessions of the colonial Belgian Empire, though not everyone knows about the USA’s involvement in it. Congo’s mineral rich regions were of particular interest to the American government and businesses, especially during WW2, as Congo supplied almost the entire stock of Uranium used to build the atomic bombs.
So when the country gained Independence under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba in 1960 – a popular figure who advocated for complete decolonisation of Africa and self-rule for the new Congolese republic – it wasn’t received too well by both the colonial powers. His term as the Prime Minister of the new Congo Republic would be short lived, as the country split into multiple factions with their own interests as soon as Belgium withdrew its rule. With the Soviet Union also sending in advisors to assist Lumumba, Belgium sent its troops to reinforce the mineral-rich Katanga region, ruled by Moise Tshombe, a successful businessman opposed to Lumumba’s ideas.
Lumumba was soon captured and executed by a firing squad, and while we don’t know the exact details of the killing, we know that it involved Belgian as well as Katangan troops. The assassination silenced one of the most influential pan-African voices of the time. Lumumba strongly supported economic independence for the rest of the African countries under colonial rule, and his death proved to be a setback for the entire decolonization movement across Africa.
2. The Roman Senate
The murder of Julius Caesar clearly belongs on any list of the most influential assassinations in history. Having established himself as a capable military leader after a string of victories and successful expansion campaigns by 44 BC, Caesar decided to name himself ruler for life. That wasn’t all that bad, as he really was loved by most of his people, though it didn’t sit too well with a group of senators opposed to his rule.
A case could be made that the conspirators that ended up assassinating him only wanted the best for the republic, as they saw him as a dictator. Whatever their intentions might have been, the murder ended up having the opposite impact. Instead of bringing order to the republic, things soon devolved into all-out warfare between different factions vying for Rome’s control. By the end of it, almost the entire old nobility of the Republic was either dead or left without their former power, which was the exact opposite of what the senators wanted.
Caesar’s appointed heir Octavian – later renamed Augustus Caesar – ultimately emerged as the most powerful man in Rome. He learned from Julius’s mistakes and didn’t do anything to anger the senate, all the while concentrating all the power in his own hands. He would go on to become the first emperor of the new Roman Empire, eventually removing any trace of the Republic from all sections of the government.
The assassination would have a far-reaching impact on the region, as the rise of the Roman Empire went hand-in-hand with the rise of organized Christianity in the region. The Roman Empire gave shape to the western world as we know it in more ways than we can even count, as well as served as the blueprint for almost every major empire to have emerged since.
1. Sirhan Sirhan
While most people know about the massive political impact of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, far fewer are aware of the equally – if not more – impactful assassination of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. At the time of his assassination, Robert was running against another Democratic senator, Eugene McMcarthy, to secure the presidential nomination, and it was increasingly looking like he was winning.
Unlike his brother, Robert was able to bring together a wide coalition of varied interests together – worker unions, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, and college groups being a few of them. It was – in a way – a ray of hope for the splintered resistance groups of the early 1960s.
He was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian migrant originally born in Jerusalem. He didn’t like that Robert supported Israel’s actions in the Middle East, and chose to carry out the assassination on the first anniversary of the beginning of the Six-Day war.
He didn’t know it then, but Sirhan’s decision to kill Robert F. Kennedy had huge repercussions for American politics. The assassination was followed by violent riots at the DNC convention in Chicago later that year, and the footage of the violence was played on repeat in living rooms across the country. That, combined with the nationwide riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that year, allowed Richard Nixon to run on a plank of bringing order back to the cities. His unrelenting stance towards black groups and the increasingly-radical left directly helped him win the upcoming elections.
Even if Nixon resigned from office after his impeachment in 1974, his term marked a sharp turn towards the kind of free-market, anti-protest conservatism prevalent in American politics today. It reflected deep changes in the American society, too. That was the beginning of a long, continuous string of Republican, increasingly hardline presidents until 1992, with the exception of Jimmy Carter. Robert’s assassination came at one of the most crucial crossroads in the country’s political history, when the conservative pushback to widespread calls for social change started getting stronger, and ultimately ended up dominating modern American politics.