On March 15th — the Ides of March — 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by men he had once counted as friends and fellow statesman. He was killed as a matter of political recourse, having recently been declared the “dictator in perpetuum” by the Roman Senate, a move which instilled both fear and envy in many of his former fellows in the senate.
Caesar was neither the first nor the last person who would meet his or her demise in this fashion (though death by knifing still ranks near the top of the undesirable list). Politically motivated murder has been a frequent recourse in human history; sometimes people just don’t want to wait around for a vote or don’t care to engage in a spirited debate. Instead, they just want to shoot, stab, or explode the object of their political ire.
Now, we could have taken the easy road here and talked about JFK, Lincoln, and other high-profile political murders, but instead we’re going to discuss assassinations that actually arguably changed the course of history, for better or for worse. (When President Lincoln was murdered, for example, the war that defined his legacy had already been won. His life changed history; his death didn’t necessarily.)
Phillip of Macedon
If a soldier named Pausanias hadn’t decided to make the switch from bodyguard to assassin, the world may never have known of Alexander the Great. That’s because Alexander was the son of Phillip II of Macedon who was already well on his way to being as impressive a leader as his child would soon become. Why Pausanias killed Phillip is actually unknown; he may have been put up to it by the Persians, or even by Alexander himself, or he may have been avenging a grudge he held after an alleged personal incident. In any event, the murder of Phillip made way for the ascension of Alexander, who took leadership of an already powerful, consolidated Macedonia, and went on to establish one of the greatest empires of the age. Or of any age, by certain metrics.
Tsar Nicholas II
While death by firing squad isn’t your typical assassination, when the people pulling the trigger are rebels taking part in the February Revolution (the year was 1918, FYI) and acting apart from the auspices of law and state, it’s hardly just another execution. With Nicholas and the rest of the Romanov family dead, the last vestiges of Russian Imperial rule were erased and the Communist Soviet state was formed. Oh, and talk about adding injury to insult… Nicholas has abdicated power the year before and was desperately seeking a country that would accept him and his family as exiles.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Chances are there was going to be some sort of European conflict in the early part of the 20th Century. What with the last handful of decades having seen such total peace in Western Europe, we tend to forget that the continent was pretty much always at war in centuries past. If WWI would have taken quite the shape it did without the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, we’ll never know. But when on that June 28th of 1914 the Archduke was murdered by a young Serbian militant named Gavrilo Princip, it led to the declaration of war against of Serbia, which began a domino effect triggering convoluted alliances, which led to a goddamned World War.
Empress Myeongseong (AKA Queen Min)
Queen Min was the wife and partner of the man who would become the first emperor of the Korean Empire; her death arguably led to the very formation of said empire. The long-established Kingdom of Joseon ruled much of what is today known as Korea (never mind that little issue at the 38th Parallel). At the close of the 19th Century, Japan was growing ever more aggressive in its expansionist practices, threatening the sovereignty of the Chinese, the Koreans, and even the Russians. Queen Min was an ardent and outspoken opponent of Japanese meddling on the Korean Peninsula, and thus was killed by a band of Japanese assassins. Her death led to a surge of anti-Japanese sentiment across Korea and caused the uprising of dozens of militia groups, which came to the aid of the crown. The Korea Empire was declared in 1897. (However the Koreans succumbed to Japanese colonial rule in 1910.)
Benazir Bhutto twice served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and was well on her way to being its president at the time of her assassination in late 2007. Bhutto returned to her native country in October of 2007 after years spent in exile battling charges of corruption. She dove right back into politics, planning to run for a parliamentary seat in elections scheduled for 2008. The first day she was back in Pakistan, suicide bombers killed dozens of people in an attempt on her life. Six weeks later, gunmen stormed her offices, killing several of Bhutto’s supporters. Then, on December 27th, 2007, assassins finally made good on their attempts, killing the woman who may well have re-shaped Pakistani politics, with a combined gun, grenade, and bomb attack.