The assassin’s creed

The killings of Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy all seemed world-changing events. But is assassination anything other than an act of petty vanity?

New Statesman
Immersed in death: on a packed commuter train in New York on the day JFK got shot, there is only one headline. (Photo: Getty Images)

It was a grey January day in St Petersburg in 1878 when Vera Zasulich, a young nihilist, made the short journey to the office of the city’s governor, General Fyodor Trepov. Here the general listened to petitions and examined complaints. A crowd of people had gathered in the cold. Zasulich waited in line for her turn to approach the great man. At last they spoke, and just as Trepov was turning from her to deal with the next supplicant, she pulled a gun from under her cloak and fired at him at point-blank range. The bullet burst into his pelvis, wounding but not killing him. Zasulich threw down the gun, stood quite still, and waited to be arrested. They beat her, of course, and then bundled her into a room, and then wondered a little feebly what to do with her next.

As they deliberated in the immediate aftermath of her deed, Zasulich moved from moments of dissociation and strangeness to an honest desire to offer advice to her baffled captors. Her words are quoted in a collection of revolutionary-era Russian memoirs, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, edited by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N Rosenthal:

My foresight, and consequently my precise plan of action, did not extend beyond the moment of attack. But every minute my joy increased – not because I was in full control of myself . . . but rather because I found myself in an extraordinary state of the most complete invulnerability, such as I had never before experienced. Nothing at all could confuse me, annoy me, or tire me. Whatever was being thought up by those men, at that time conversing animatedly in another corner of the room, I would regard them calmly, from a distance they could not cross.

This mingled feeling of elation and satisfaction appears often in the personal accounts of assassins; the work has been done and, in the process, their own lives thrown away. A sudden liberation from the burden of self fills them; they ascend to a height above life. They have realised themselves in the perfection of a deed.

Zasulich’s act succeeded by virtue of its comparative failure. Her shooting of Trepov was an act of revenge, after he had ordered an innocent man to be badly whipped in the house of detention on account of a small act of insubordination. Put on trial for her retaliation, she found herself acquitted unexpectedly; indignation against Trepov and sympathy for Zasulich’s courage meant only one possible end to the trial, despite the weight of evidence against her. That she had only wounded her man no doubt also facilitated her acquittal.

At the end of the trial, there were wild scenes of jubilation in court. Almost everyone was elated; only the judge and Zasulich were suitably sober. The result depressed the judge, who knew that it made a nonsense of the law, and disheartened Zasulich, who had been deprived of her death. She was confronted by the terrible responsibility of living on; freedom had been returned to her.

Zasulich’s state of mind following her attempt at murder is symptomatic of the “archetypal assassin” from the French Revolution onwards, that is, the assassin who struck at a prominent political figure for idealistic and ideological reasons. It illustrates how the results of assassination were perhaps always less vital to the perpetrators than the sheer exhilaration and abandonment central to the deed. There is no question that they also looked for a kind of political “success” in such murders, but in fact such triumphs were always more limited and less vital than the psychological rewards: the desire, in a righteous deed, to justify the self and in the same instant to escape its trammels.

It is doubtful how far assassinations have worked as an instrument of political or revolutionary change. In most cases, such murders have made only a negligible impression on events; the chaos and instability they carry with them have nearly always meant more than the change brought about by the deed.

One of the Great Courses, those DVD lecture series advertised in the New York Review of Books or the LRB, is on Events That Changed History. Two of its 36 defining moments are assassinations – the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the killing of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Both events look world-changing, but were they?

The assassination on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo is a textbook example of contingency in historical matters. Along the Appel Quay, where the visiting Austrian archduke, his wife and their entourage were scheduled to drive past, waited seven adolescent assassins, some of them still schoolboys, all determined to kill their man and spark a situation that might lead to Bosnia joining a Greater Serbia. The car swept by, passing the first assassin, who could not act, as a policeman was standing by him in the crowd. The second assassin was more fortunate, and lobbed a nail bomb that landed on the opened bonnet of the car. The archduke swiftly scooped it up and threw it back on to the road, where it exploded as it hit the ground. One soldier was injured by the blast; 70 holes punctured the car. The bomb-thrower bit into a cyanide capsule but the poison was old and its potency was gone. He pushed past the bystanders and leapt over the wall to drown himself. But the summer’s heat had shrunk the river, and it was too shallow to drown. Vomiting from the unstable pill, he was pulled down by a throng of people and bundled into the custody of the police. When they asked him if he was a Serb, he replied, “Yes, I am a Serb hero.”

Meanwhile the car drove on. The next assassin it passed was moved by pity for the royal pair and failed to fire his gun. The fourth assassin’s nerve failed him and he ran off home. The others watched as the car sped past too fast, and the moment was gone. Disappointed, one of the would-be killers, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, feeling hungry now, crossed the Quay and ambled on to the entrance of Franz Joseph Street; there, at Moritz Schiller’s food store, he stepped in and bought a sandwich. He was still sitting and eating it when the archduke and duchess pulled up in their car, right outside the store. They were coming back from the city hall and the driver had taken a wrong turning. They tried to reverse, but there was too little room to manoeuvre in the narrow street. Princip stood up, strode over to the right hand of the vehicle and, from a distance of four or five paces, fired two shots directly into the car. The first one killed the archduke; the second, intended for Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fatally wounded the duchess.

Some still believe that this product of accident and misadventure sparked a world war that killed millions. It is the case that some schoolboys playing the role of doomed heroes helped topple a civilisation; yet, on a grander political scale, the murder was very largely only a pretext for action. There had been brutal assassinations before. Such murders usually occurred within the body politic of a sovereign state, as an element in a coup or an outcome of insanity. By their transnational nature, the numerous anarchist murders from the 1880s to the 1900s offered no foreign country as a suitable target for retaliation; like the pirate, the anarchist was equally an enemy everywhere. As the assassins operated outside the boundaries of the nation state, the vengeance of armed retribution was meaningless in relation to the horrors of their actions. The murders in Sarajevo were entirely different. They occurred on Hapsburg soil but could easily be said to have their origin in the very existence of the Serbian state. The response to the killings potentially involved war – yet such a confrontation was always avoidable as long as everyone wanted peace.

However, far from aspiring to avert a war, the Austrians did all they could to invite it. The Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wrongly believed, or chose to believe, that the murders in Sarajevo had been carried out with the connivance of the Serbian government. With German backing, the Austrians were disposed to pick a fight. They thought they could bully the Serbs with impunity and quickly crush an upstart neighbour. They pressed for war, but even so meant only to settle scores with Serbia, a smaller enemy whose certain defeat would bolster the empire; they never intended the European conflagration that would burn down their power.

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the youth who threw the nail bomb at the car, lamented that “if I had foreseen what was to happen I should myself have sat down on the bombs so as to blow myself to bits”. Though he toughed it out in court, in private Princip was devastated by reports of the war. Yet, later, he could hardly believe that a world war could have followed on from their choices; he couldn’t really feel guilty for that bit of bad luck. They had aimed at a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility.

The “world-changing” consequences of the events in Sarajevo depended on the context in which the murders happened. The world was poised for war, and so the killings led to carnage. The deed resonated within the desires of others, and just then what others wanted was what they imagined would be the speedy resolution of questions of European dominance and prestige. If it had not been Sarajevo that pulled the trigger, it would have been something else, but war would have come in any case.

If assassination’s potency to alter history is questionable in Sarajevo, there must be even greater doubts in the case of the killing of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. Kennedy had mastered the new politics, offering charisma to the electorate. His final place in the national consciousness was as a symbol of all that was most desirable in the American myth. In terms of tangible achievement or foreign policy gains, however, he left almost nothing for posterity; at best, he founded the Peace Corps. The great legislative triumphs of the period, in civil rights, Medicaid, environmental law and social welfare, are all attributable to the much-disparaged and untelegenic Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In the cruellest interpretation, the single most important impact of Kennedy’s career is that his death handed Johnson, as his successor, the moral force to pass these necessary reforms – laws that Kennedy would have been unlikely to get through undamaged on his own. In foreign policy terms, it was almost certainly Kennedy’s weakness with Khrushchev that prompted the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution of which was his only victory. Even that success was not quite what the public perceived it to be, involving as it did the hushed-up quid pro quo removal of US missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile, Kennedy had already sparked an arms race with the Russians, and his policy on Vietnam helped to create the conditions for the disastrous war that followed. There were hints that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam if he had been re-elected; and later there were other hints that he had been murdered precisely because of this private intention.

To imagine that Kennedy could have ended the Vietnam war presupposes a strength of purpose in him of which there was little evidence in the first years of his presidency, other than the brinkmanship of the missile crisis and (on a much smaller scale) his confrontation with George Wallace over racial integration. In any case, Kennedy had fatally undermined the Diem regime in South Vietnam, with consequences that would have precluded such a sudden withdrawal. Otherwise, he inspired and launched the space programme – and that was about all.

Despite this paltry legacy, Kennedy still stands in the eyes of many as a “great president”, even one of the greatest. This owes more to marketing than delivery. Knowing that his Catholicism would prevent a straightforward coronation by the Democratic Party, he was forced to fight the 1960 election campaign on the basis of his national popularity. He had to win primaries and show his power. It was a new kind of strategy, and it hinged on the retailing of Kennedy. They were going to “sell Jack like soap flakes”.

On 26 September 1960, Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, on television; radio listeners were more evenly divided on who they believed had won the debate. On the screen, JFK had looked like a superstar, and the sweating, stubbly Nixon, as one journalist put it, “a real middle-class uneducated swindler with all the virtues of a seller of fountain pens in Naples”. The smear on the Democratic posters – “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” – stuck. The Kennedys’ relationship with the press and with television, their youth, their attractiveness, placed them in a position of mediated confidence with the electorate. However, it was the faux-intimacy of the television image, the allure of cinema. In 1960, in an article for Esquire, Norman Mailer put it like this:

Since the First World War Americans have been living a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull . . . and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation . . . if elected he would not only be the youngest president ever to be chosen by the voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife – some would claim it – might be the most beautiful first lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favourite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller.

The Kennedys were stars, and John F Ken - nedy died on-screen. The assassination was an experience broadcast on television; two days later Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was shown live by NBC across homes in America. Within half an hour of the JFK shooting, 68 per cent of Americans had heard the news, carried to them by the media. The television set that brought the outside world into the domestic space displayed the pathos to a nation. All could feel involved; the deed became an image.

Yet it was an image that could not be assimilated or understood. In one sense, apart from the tragedy of a young man’s murder, it was precisely its lack of historical significance that rendered it so potent. The plethora of conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s murder responded to genuine mysteries and unresolved problems in the story; the theories were also a way to inscribe meaning into the event, as though an unseen betrayal underwrote it, and they might produce the simulacra of significance. For, just as the assassinations of the 1960s were often assumed to be manifestations of a vague “climate of violence”, so it was that their significance lay chiefly in their effect on American mentalities – even, as Mailer suggests, on the dream life of the nation. It was not the political consequences of Kennedy’s murder, nor indeed all the various assassinations of that decade, that truly mattered, but rather the way they sustained and exemplified an atmosphere of panic, or of social disintegration. They worried Americans with a sense of things falling apart, of a polis under strain.

In the eyes of many, political violence, random killings and unrest seemed a constant factor in American life from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. As the journalist Jack Newfield wrote: “We felt, by the time we reached 30, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated.” The folk singer Dick Holler’s 1968 song “Abraham, Martin and John” links the deaths of Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It presents the four men as simple embodiments of goodness who were not allowed to live out their potential.

In America losing those individuals, irreparable damage was done to the possibilities of national political life. Other people failed to do what the man who was killed might have done. Similarly the history of assassination depends in two senses on the centrality of the individual: in the idea of the “indispensable person” who is assassination’s chosen victim, and in the fantasy that such murders gift their perpetrators with an undying, if ignoble fame.

Though there is a great deal of force to Newfield’s lament, the idea of the “indispensable person” runs counter to the strengths and resilience of democratic life. The American mood in the late 1960s was one of intense unease; and yet the fabric of social and political life held good. The anarchists who struck at presidents, monarchs or high-ranking officials were sometimes engaged in personal attacks, their killings a move in an ongoing vendetta between the government and revolutionaries. More usually they were simply aiming at the office itself: in their own judgement, murdering a symbol and not a person. Yet, seen as such, the deed was meaningless. The president was killed and another president took his place. The structures of power were always designed to take into account the fact of mortality, to maintain continuity; that death should be caused by an assassin’s gun altered little.

Even in the case of the many assassination attempts directed against Adolf Hitler, it is doubtful whether striking their target would have altered events significantly. Hitler’s would be assassins were as much involved in making a gesture, an indication of the survival of an internal opposition, as attempting to decapitate the Third Reich. Success would probably have led to succession by another, equally wicked Nazi. Where assassins did succeed in killing a leading Nazi – with the murder of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 – the murder, for all its justice, merely prompted horrible reprisals, notably the massacres in the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Meanwhile, the “architect of the Holocaust” may have been killed, but the Final Solution continued apace.

In modern times, with very few exceptions (such as the killing of Abraham Lincoln in 1865), assassination has been a sideshow – although, I would argue, a highly significant one. Assassination has often been linked to a kind of “secret history”, contained in the romance of conspiracy theories. It seems instead that assassination belongs to another kind of concealed history – the history, in Norman Mailer’s terms, of the dream life of the west.

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead. Killing was sufficient, even without the understanding of its consequences. Indeed, practical results were the last thing sought for by any assassin. For assassination long ago broke free of any idea of efficacy or political influence, and instead became the central expression of the extremists’ taste for action as such – a pure deed that annihilates both the victim and the perpetrator, even as it depends on the target’s fame and the fame and attention that it grants to the killer. It is an act of self-assertion that is simultaneously a self-negation.

In one respect, the historical importance of Zasulich’s action was limited: Trepov survived and the autocracy continued. However, as a muse of murder she proved a vital figure, her deed provoking attempts against the kaiser in Germany and arousing a broad campaign of assassinations in Russia which led to the murder of the tsar himself. Zasulich’s example was crucial in this swing towards the practice of terror. She was an inspiration to crime. A police official was murdered in Kiev in the spirit of emulation, and when in August 1878 a young man called Sergei Kravchinskii executed General Nikolai Mezentsev on the streets of St Petersburg, he was consciously following the line set by the courageous Zasulich.

For most within the movement, the heightening of stakes seemed inevitable and just. And yet, for Zasulich herself, there was no such easy acceptance of the killings. Soloviev’s infamous attempt to assassinate the tsar with a bomb at the Winter Palace in 1879 merely depressed her. As years went by, Zasulich’s position grew clearer. The assassin’s deed was without revolutionary merit. It led not to great social changes, but only to an ineffectual puff of violence. It exhilarated other revolutionaries, who sensed vicariously and inappropriately the retort of power. Conversely, it dismayed and sickened potential supporters among the masses, or rendered them passive spectators of outrage. The people were not roused to rebel by such deeds, but became mere witnesses to others’ glorious,  or infamous, violence. Worst of all was terror’s dependence upon a sickly illusion in the mind of the assassin herself.

Zasulich knew this at first hand. The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all. Zasulich’s act of terror had sought to publicise another’s brutality; the danger was that such acts would only advertise their own horror. The injustice that prompted them would be forgotten in the impact of the assassin’s bullet. It was, she might have realised, only her own incompetence, in merely hitting Trepov in the hip, that had permitted her deed to appear noble.

Michael Newton is the author of “Age of Assassins” (Faber & Faber, £25)