Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder by Michael Burleigh

Never mind the Borgias — the biggest murderers of the Italian Renaissance, it seems, were the leaders of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Between 1415 and 1525 the worthies of its Council of Ten successfully commissioned an average of two assassinations a year.

It was lucrative work if you could get it. In 1513 a Brother John of Ragusa informed the Council of his rates for the job. He would do in “the Grand Turk” for 500 ducats, 150 ducats would see the end of the King of Spain, and a mere 100 would spell doom for the Pope. Poisoning was the favored method. Now that would make a TV series.

Michael Burleigh’s Day of the Assassins is obviously enjoyable for the same prurient reasons as, in George Orwell’s day, spending a wet English Sunday reading about murders was satisfying. Yet Burleigh is one of our most distinguished historians so has some serious points to make as well. I promise to come to those after we’ve enjoyed ourselves a little more.

The Venetians were to be superseded in their political murderousness by just about everyone during the European religious wars. It wasn’t just a matter of statecraft but of religious duty; godly leaders were entitled to do away with heretical ones. In 1580, for example, the prime target of the Catholic Philip II of Spain (he of the Armada) was the insurgent Dutch Protestant Prince of Orange. Philip wrote commanding the silencing of William the Silent, promising to pay 25,000 gold crowns to the killer. Alas, Burleigh doesn’t tell us what that is in Venetian ducats (or is that Dogecoin?).

In 1582 a merchant’s clerk from Antwerp nearly won the bounty, shooting William in the head from such close range that the powder flash set fire to William’s hair and cauterized the facial wound. The assassin was killed on the spot. But finally, in 1584, a Burgundian Catholic infiltrated the princely palace at Delft and shot William fatally in the chest. Anyone wondering why Elizabeth I was a bit paranoid can now imagine her receiving these unglad tidings from the Low Countries.

In the 16th century a Brother John of Ragusa would do in “the Grand Turk” for 500 ducats, 150 ducats would see the end of the King of Spain, and a mere 100 would spell doom for the Pope.

And then, Burleigh tells us, there was a Great Assassination Pause. The killing in 1610 (by a “loner” as it happens) of Henri IV — Good King Henry — of France apparently made it unfashionable for kings to be terminated in this way. A distaste for the grubby business of singling out individuals for the blade, pistol or garotte developed.

Instead, during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries rulers and potentates resorted to judicial or military means to defeat or dethrone their rivals. A plan to assassinate Napoleon in 1806, for example, was indignantly turned down by the British foreign secretary and the plot’s author arrested.

And so it remained, more or less, until the late 19th century. At which point what Burleigh calls the “-isms” — first anarchism, then nationalism and nihilism — overturned these more delicate ways of dealing with enemies. In the period from 1881 to 1911 they dispatched a czar, an Italian king, a US president, an Austrian empress, a French president, a Serbian king and his queen and a Russian prime minister. In Russia, “between October 1905 and September 1906 alone”, Burleigh writes, “3,611 Tsarist government officials were assassinated”. That is a whole lot of murder.

Such violence is not only sometimes addictive, it can also cover up the lack of a strategy. The pre-Communist Russian agrarian revolutionaries, small in number and let down (as ever) by the peasants, made violent acts practically their only policy. One of their number was Alexander Ulyanov, hanged in 1887 for trying to murder Alexander III, son of the murdered Alexander II. Ulyanov’s brother was called Vladimir Ilyich. We all know where that ended up.

In Russia, “between October 1905 and September 1906 alone, 3,611 Tsarist government officials were assassinated”. That is a whole lot of murder.

Many assassins have been by no means cogs in conspiracies with great aims. There is a long history of religious zealots taking it into their heads to rid the world of the Devil incarnate, from François Ravaillac — who effectively stalked Henri IV waiting for an opportunity, which came when the king’s carriage was forced into a Parisian ditch by a traffic jam and some poor driving — to Yigal Amir, the yeshiva student who, 400 years later, walked up to Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in a Tel Aviv square in November 1995 and shot him twice in the back.

The book’s index helpfully marks history’s assassinees with a horribly suggestive bullet-wound asterisk and uses a sword symbol for the killers. Many of the most famous sword-bearers were social inadequates, acting without assistance for reasons of grandiosity, pure hatred or a terrible sense of inferiority. These include that trio of Sixties American destroyers Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK), Sirhan Sirhan (RFK) and James Earl Ray (MLK).

Some were spurred on by literature. Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, saw himself as the reincarnation of the noble killers of Julius Caesar, as depicted by Shakespeare and as acted by him and his thespian family. Yet another far more recent work of historical fiction has had just as much influence. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel about a hired British assassin sent to kill the French president Charles de Gaulle, was read several times as a teenager by the very nearly assassin of Pope John Paul II in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca. It was also a favorite of Rabin’s murderer.

Sangfroid and Sumo

Day of the Assassins is written with Burleigh’s characteristic readable brio, replete with pithy summaries of historical moments (he is brilliant on the Americans in Vietnam, for example) and full of surprising vignettes, which he handles with a commendable sangfroid.

One of my favorites concerns Japan in the early 1930s, as nationalists attempted to force their government into conflict with the decadent West. These fanatics put paid to two prime ministers and a finance minister. As a bonus they hoped to ignite war with America by murdering the visiting Charlie Chaplin in 1932. Fortunately, he was at a sumo contest that day and thus spared to make Modern Times and The Great Dictator.

There are murderous Nazis, Fascists and imperialists in here. Then the Cold War exploits of the Fifties and Sixties on both sides of the Iron Curtain, when killing awkward third parties who were leaning the wrong way was once again seen as statecraft. In the US this came to a crashing halt in the Seventies when the reputational damage done by cowboys trying to kill Fidel Castro provoked a series of presidential and congressional ukases against murdering unpopular opponents.

And, by and large, with one caveat and one big exception, what we call “the West” has abided by this belief that assassination is uncivilized. The “caveat” of course to the West’s no-assassination policy has been targeted killing by drones. Burleigh discusses this phenomenon at some length and is more inclined than I am to think that such attacks are as much about convincing domestic critics that whoever is president is tough on terrorism. I see it rather as an inevitable consequence of deciding not to risk troops in foreign battles that must, nonetheless, be fought.

The Day of the Jackal was read several times as a teenager by the very nearly assassin of Pope John Paul II in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca. It was also a favorite of Rabin’s murderer.

The “exception” is Israel. For 50 years the world’s one Jewish state has reserved the right to defend itself by killing its enemies abroad. I have met only two people who were subsequently assassinated — one was a Hamas leader and the other a PLO commander, both responsible for organizing acts of terrorism, and Israel killed them, one in Gaza, one in Tunis. And I have only (to my knowledge) met one former assassin, and he later became Israel’s prime minister.

In recent times Israel has extended its deadly reach into Iran, presumably aiming at delaying any development of an Iranian nuclear capacity by killing its atomic scientists. The most recent case, described by Burleigh, was the assassination last November on a road east of Tehran of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Burleigh clearly deprecates the tendency to excuse these activities by people in the West. Why is sauce for the goose not always going to lead to the gander insisting on an equal right to sauce? Ganders such as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who in September 2018 authorized the murder of a journalist and dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This act was punished by the Crown Prince being courted by politicians turned businessmen, such as our former prime minister David Cameron.

Finally, assassination may, as Burleigh suggests, become contagious, but does it work? Usually not, he thinks. Take out a Taliban commander and another one pops up. The course of history is rarely determined by the bloody removal of individual men and women.

Yet, he agrees, there is one assassination that might have changed the world. In November 1939, with the war two months old a left-leaning German carpenter, Georg Elser, made a time bomb and secreted it in a beer cellar where Hitler was likely to address a party gathering marking the 16th anniversary of the failed Munich putsch.

Hitler arrived in the beer hall at 8pm, spoke till 9.17pm, then left. The bomb exploded at 9.20, killing six people. Elsner was caught at the Swiss border and kept in a camp till near the end of the war, being shot just weeks before his target assassinated himself in the bunker in Berlin. In the intervening six years 70 million people died. If only.

David Aaronovitch is the author of several books, including, most recently, Party Animals