Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder

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Sarah Coolican, a Research Associate at LSE IDEAS, interviews Professor Michael Burleigh on his latest book, Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder, below

Sarah Coolican: You said that you wrote this book to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge around this time. How did you find researching for the book?

Professor Michael Burleigh: This is easily the most fun book I have ever written. I just loved it. I am sorry to say that, as it is about killing people. If I had to make one criticism, it would be the book’s focus on the murder itself. One thing I neglect to mention, is the families and wider lives of the victims. The main subconscious attraction of the book is the hunting story it relays. Frederick Forsyth’s thriller novel, The Day of the Jackal, was an incredibly successful book due to its simple structure. It has two interlinked hunting stories; the assassin and the police forces trying to stop him. I concluded that the appeal of this subject is largely to do with our innate predisposition to be hunter-gatherers and learn of stories like this. 

BBC film maker, Alan Clarke, directed a short film called Elephant. This recreated 18 political murders in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and featured no soundtrack. There was also a Netflix-Italian film based on the memoirs of an Italian prosecutor who sentenced the Corleone Crime Family in Sicily. This film is told through childhood stories of Boar hunting and the skills both the prosecutor and his friend, turned-crime boss, learned. Again, hunting stories seem to be the ones which resonate. 

I became very interested, when writing this book, in the ‘zig-zag’ movements of assassins before they commit their crimes. For example, Lee Harvey Oswald who shot JFK, and James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr., were like a ball in constant motion. I became fascinated by their journeys backwards and forwards, and how it must have been a mental preparation for the life they were going to take, and the life they would live after. Oswald was planning to escape to Mexico via bus. Ray even went to the trouble of having rhinoplasty to alter the shape of his nose and ears to morph identity. He would have hot footed it to Rhodesia via London, had he not been caught with an alternative passport in his pocket at Heathrow airport.

Sarah: It is so fascinating to read about these stories and find that there was an insignificant and trivial factor that just slips them up at the last minute.

I must, however, refute your point about not giving enough mention to the lives of the families and victims. Your chapter recounting the murder of Boris Nemtsov, for example, was fascinating. The level of detail you went into, from describing the last meal he ate, the coat his girlfriend was wearing, and the precision of the garbage truck coincidentally blocking the CCTV view at that very moment.

Michael: Recounting details of assassinations is relatively easy. They are so widely studied by both investigators and reporters, even in places like Russia, that the information is not hard to come by. In Nemtsov’s assassination, every minute was reassembled in court documents; like why CCTV cameras were not pointing in the right direction, or strangely had no tape. Indeed, the garbage truck that conveniently stopped to block out the crucial moment of the shooting. It is a fascinating venture to recreate those scenes into your own words.

Sarah: Is there anything not mentioned in the book that you wish you had got in?

Michael: Well, my publisher cut about 70,000 words from this edition, of which I tried to covertly reinsert about 20,000. The cut that hurt the most, was the removal of some of the details surrounding the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo in 1914. I did a lot of research on his journey down to Sarajevo; he was going on a military tour and travelled by warship, train and then car envoys. During his life, Ferdinand had killed over 279,000 creatures. He was a fanatical hunter. In Konopiště Castle, he had over 36,000 animal trophies hanging on the walls. As they were driving through the woods, he sees a cat in the meadow, so he stops the car and shoots the cat with his rifle. Truly a cruel man. Then they resume their journey to Sarajevo and stay in a hotel which is ornately decorated with Islamic carpets and furnishings. Both he and Sophie wanted to return home with such fineries and so went out, into the centre of Sarajevo late at night with no security, in order to purchase the items. But it was not until the next morning that they made their official entrance and were murdered. These surrounding details fascinate me.

They were in a car that had no reverse gear. After the Archduke had given his speech at the town hall his driver went into a cul-de-sac by mistake. As there was no reverse gear, the car could not be turned around easily, and that is where they were shot.

Sarah: You have mentioned that, in your opinion, the most lethal form of assassin would be in the shape of a skilled craftsman. Would you say there is a specific profile of an assassin?

Michael: When it comes to things like creating bombs, there is a technical element that requires skills that a clockmaker or engineer would have. Carpenters are also typical of the skill and patience needed to become an assassin. Georg Elser, a German clockmaker, came very close to assassinating Hitler in 1939. He worked every night for three-weeks in this empty beerhall, excavating a column on a podium, putting a bomb inside, which had an advanced timer on it set to detonate when Hitler was speaking there. It was a very sophisticated device, that was insulated with cork in order to disguise the ticking. Had Hitler not decided to cut the speech short, that bomb would have undoubtedly killed him. After this, Hitler’s entourage always included professional clockmakers to listen out for the ticking.

The man who tried to murder Tsar Alexander II was a carpenter working at the Winter Palace, and he built a bomb two floors down from the Tsar’s dining room. Again, had the Tsar been in the room, rather than waiting for his guests, that would have killed him.

Sarah: Tsar Alexander II, aside from the final attempt which took his life, was a very lucky man. He dodged an incredible number of attempts on his life.

Michael: It is a mystery how it all happened. There was another attempt to assassinate him, by planting a bomb on his train carriage. Which ended up destroying the baggage and supplies carriage instead. The viscous red which spilled onto the snow, was not blood as people first thought, but in fact raspberry jam heading to the Imperial pastry chefs. They had hit the jam carriage instead of the royal carriage.

Sarah: So, the skilled craftsmen certainly provide the tools and the means but is it a different profile for the assassin who can execute more brutal murders. I am thinking of the NKVD-style assassinations.

Michael: The NKVD murders were the most fascinating ones in the book. The NKVD are the organisation I would least like to get on the wrong side of. The most sinister element here was the extraordinary amount of deception they were able to maintain throughout their postings. Many NKVD assassins were Lithuanian Jews who managed to reconstruct themselves as Spanish fighters and fought in the civil war on the side of the Communists. They essentially became hunters who knocked off any Trotskyites or Francoist prisoners. They became their role. After the Spanish Civil war, these same trained killers were deployed on other Latin American missions. The mother and son team who eventually succeeded in killing Trotsky, had both been involved in the Spanish civil war.

The change of identity to become a trained killer is just a fascinating transition. There are lots of people in the book who were like that, but the NKVD were the best of the best.

Sarah: Do more modern methods of assassination not scare you? This idea that you are never safe. That even in the UK, the threat of assassination using chemical agents is a very real one.

Michael: The Soviets have been using toxins for a very long time. A recent novel by Sergei Lebedev called Untraceable, follows the use of nerve gas in Russia’s history. Sourcing it back to the Weimar Republic, when Trotsky was making deals with the government to create chemical weapons. In the book I note instances where the KGB used radioactive isotope to kill dissidents. It is not a new thing. Now, however, with instances like Litvinenko or Skripal, there is use of military grade nerve agents. And the Russian state does not seem to mind using it visibly.

Sarah: That is the scary part.

Michael: Investigative opensource site Bellingcat, did a lot of work on the Skripal case, and they discovered the identity of the Russian Senior Officer found hanging around in Paddington Station. They traced him back to The Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, to find an entire unit dedicated to discrediting dissidents and committing assassinations.

Sarah: No matter what anyone says, including Benjamin Disraeli, assassinations undoubtedly change the course of history.

Michael: They certainly do. I start the book with the murder of Caesar, which is the moment that the Republic of Rome transitioned into being and Empire. This assassination marked a huge transformation in political culture. The assassination of President Lincoln was also an interesting example, as the advent of President Andrew Johnson, a slave owning Southerner, saw him put the brakes on the work Lincoln had tried to achieve. Johnson set the American civil rights movement back to pre-Lincoln times, having catastrophic consequences on history. The effects of which America is still very much living through.

Sarah: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

If you are interested in reading more about the history of political murder throughout the centuries, you can buy Professor Burleigh’s book here.

Professor Michael Burleigh is a historian and commentator. His books include the best-selling; The Third Reich: A New History; Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945–65, which was long-listed for the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize which he won in 2001, and The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now. His book based on his Engelsberg Chair lectures, Populism: Before and After the Pandemic was published in February 2021. In May 2021, his latest book Day of The Assassins: A History of Political Murder was published.

He has also been active in bringing history to television audiences and won the British Film Institute Award for Archival Achievement. He writes regularly for The Times, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday on international affairs. A Professor of Modern History, Michael was the first appointed Engelsberg Chair in History and International Relations at LSE IDEAS, an annual distinguished visiting professorship, delivering public lectures to LSE’s foreign policy think tank.