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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.