For Love or Money

A compendious history of political murder.

‘Satan Tempting Booth to the Murder of the President’, US engraving, 19th century. Library of Congress.

Michael Burleigh begins his history of political murder with James Bond, who is licensed to kill bad men on behalf of the good. By the end, he has taken us from ancient Rome to modern Riyadh, a journey by way of Washington, Sarajevo, Tokyo, Malta and the Congo. The dead include Julius Caesar and Jamal Khashoggi, the Austro Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, Abraham Lincoln, prime ministers from Britain, Sweden and Japan, John F. Kennedy and a wide variety of Vietnamese and Venetians. Their killers are mostly less well known, the fanatic and self-righteous, the mad, the bad, the very dangerous to know, sometimes licensed, very often not.

Political murder, as Burleigh shows, is concentrated at certain times and in certain places. In Europe the 17th-century religious wars produced plentiful motivation, as did the opportunities presented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when monarchs needed to be more visible to their peoples than was always safe. In 20th-century Africa and Asia lay fault lines of the Cold War, around which both motives and opportunities were many. But some of Burleigh’s best stories are better told by themselves than as part of a pattern. There are more pitfalls for the historian in imposing an overall explanation than in missing one. Burleigh, a historian of Germany and a prolific newspaper commentator, is careful to recognise the whodunnits where mystery is as gripping as any historical methodology.

When Julius Caesar died on the Ides of March 44 BC, the motives of his assassins ranged from principled fears of tyranny to pique at missed pay days and the preference of their victim for other men’s wives. There have since been many who killed for principle, notable among them John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 on behalf of the defeated Confederacy in the American Civil War. Booth has been often disparaged as an actor with a grudge over being a lesser star than his brothers; but all the Booths were celebrities who had recently played together in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar before a huge audience. John Wilkes was a man with ideals he thought worth killing for. When he took the stage at Ford’s Theatre after shooting the president in the back of the head, he shouted ‘sic semper tyrannis’, words popularly associated with Marcus Brutus, the most idealistic of Caesar’s assassins. 

High principles of both anarchy and national independence powered the assassinations in the Balkans before the First World War. The wife of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph was killed by an Italian anarchist in Switzerland who was looking for any aristocrat to provide his ‘propaganda of the deed’. The emperor himself escaped from an assassin who had second thoughts. His heir, Franz Ferdinand, turquoise-coated on a meet-the-people trip to Sarajevo, took a bullet from a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in June 1914. Sparking the First World War was no part of Princip’s plan, although, unlike many assassins, he saw the full end of what he had started, surviving in prison until his death from tuberculosis in 1918. Of Caesar’s assassins only the last survivor, the poet Cassius Parmensis, lived long enough to see the same: a permanent monarchy that was exactly what the assassins had wanted to stop.

In November 1939 a communist loner, George Elser, came within a few minutes of detonating a bomb inside a pillar behind Hitler at a party in Munich. He, too, survived long enough to see the result, which in his case was a war he had failed to prevent. Burleigh argues that, if Elser had succeeded with his intricate one-week timer, ‘there might not have been a lengthy war at all’. Instead, Hitler left the party early and Elser endured torture by Himmler himself before imprisonment in preparation to be the star of a postwar show trial; he was executed only weeks before Hitler killed himself. 

The question ‘what if?’ hangs over many of Burleigh’s most gripping pages, in matters great and small. In 1932 the successful assassins of the Japanese prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi had also wanted to kill his house guest, Charlie Chaplin, ‘in order to trigger war with the west’. The filmmaker, who eight years later would live to satirise Hitler in The Great Dictator, was lucky to be hidden away watching sumo wrestling with Inukai’s son at the time.

The first killers to be given the name of ‘assassins’ were from the medieval Ishmaeli sect of Shia Islam. According to Marco Polo, their motives in targeting Sunni rulers in Syria and Iraq were the wine, women and song of a paradisical life in the hereafter. It took the Mongols to curb these pioneer optimists before more reliable rewards were demanded by their successors: 150 ducats plus expenses for murdering a king of Spain on behalf of the Venetian republic in the 16th century, 100 ducats for the pope. For readers who did not know the exotic eastern word and might have linked it to the consumption of hashish, Dante gave his definition of an assassin as ‘one who killed for money’. 

The assassins chosen for targeted killings by modern states are paid professionals, though not as lovers of James Bond would like to see them. Burleigh gives a chilling, clinical account of the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 by a ‘tiger team’ of surgeons, technological spies and a forensic pathologist. The death of the Maltese anti-corruption campaigner Daphne Caruana Galizia cost her enemies 150,000 euros, with 30,000 paid in advance and the balance ten days later, as though in any ordinary business deal. The only British prime minister to be assassinated was Spencer Perceval, in 1812, by a businessman who felt let down financially by the government. Several of Caesar’s assassins, less worried about his tyranny than their own lost opportunities for profit, would have sympathised with that.

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder
Michael Burleigh
Picador 398pp £25


Peter Stothard is the author of The Last Assassin: the Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020).