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This month sees the fiftieth anniversary of one of the defining events of the twentieth century. The assignation of JFK on 22 November 1963 shocked the whole world and the United States, in particular. Captured on a grainy cine-camera, the images of the murder of one of the best loved US presidents along with the ensuing chaos, remain iconic and emotive to this day. They remain etched on the minds of people who remember the event and are also instantly recognisable to the generations that followed. JFK’s assassination was not the only one in the era; tragically his brother Robert F Kennedy suffered the same fate as did Martin Luther King the leader of the black civil rights movement. However, politicians, monarchs and ideologues across the ages have often faced the assassin’s bullet (or needle in at least one case) and although probably the most iconic, JFK’s assassination was not the first to be caught on film. Here are some of the other assassinations of the twentieth century (and earlier) that also captured the public’s attention.
Alexander I of Yugoslavia
Alexander who, of where? Originally King of the Croats, Serbs and Slovenes, Alexander formed the Balkan Kingdom of Yugoslavia. His assassination on 9 October 1934 was not exactly un-typical of the fate of many European crowned heads in the early twentieth century. Given the limits on democracy in some European monarchies at the time shooting, on occasion, seems to have been a substitute for voting. Alexander could have avoided his fate had he stuck to his self-imposed rule of not taking on public functions on a Tuesday; three family members had already died on this day and Alexander took this as a hint. However, as his state visit to France began on a Tuesday, he couldn’t on this one occasion avoid doing so; he was shot with Mauser C96 semi-automatic by Vlado Chernozemski a Slavic revolutionary. Alexander’s assassination was assured a place in history as it was the first to be captured on film, and remains (if less famous than JFK’s assassination) one of the most important examples of early news reportage.
The Curious Incident of the Empress and Needle-Wielding Anarchist
The Austro-Hungarian Imperial family were about as lucky as the Russian Romanovs, when it came to unexpected and untimely deaths. In 1898 one of their number fell victim to the assassins attention. The assassination of Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria-Hungry, was as sensational at the time as that of JFK over sixty years later. The empress was travelling incognito through Switzerland at the same time, unfortunately, as an anarchist looking to kill a crowned head. Luigi Lucheni had intended to kill the claimant to the French throne, the Duke of Orleans, but as the Duke had left town, Lucheni chose the empress instead. Not possessing any guns, or having access to gunsamerica.com, but obviously the type to improvise, he utilised a needle file to accomplish his dastardly ends. Though not caught on camera, the assassination was the subject of countless artists impressions, produced for the newspapers of the day.
Keeping Calm and Carrying on, for Generations
Despite the British general attitude of insubordination to their political leaders, this is one country in which Prime Ministers and heads of state seem to be immune to the assassins bullet. Although numerous attempts were made on the life of Queen Victoria she did, in true stiff upper lip style, keep calm and carry on. Only one British Prime Minister has been assassinated – Spencer Perceval – in 1812. At the time the Napoleonic wars were dragging on, the country was on permanent alert against uprising and when a lone gunman shot Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons, widespread insurrection was feared. It turned out that the gunman had a personal grudge against the government and was not a revolutionary. Again, the event was not caught on film (a little early for that) but was widely illustrated in the newspapers of the day, with some particularly dramatic glee.
The Gandhi Dynasty
You may think that the Gandhi dynasty might get the message. Particularly those daft enough to become Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 an event that looked set to push the rapidly developing nation into chaos. Her son Rajiv was also assassinated in 1991 during his term as Prime Minister. This assassination was also caught on film by a photographer covering the event. The female assassin and the photographer were also killed in the blast but images of the murder survived. Rajiv’s widow, Italian born Sonja, is currently the de-facto Indian leader, but has had the level-headed good sense to avoid the title of Prime Minister.
Your writer Ben Grant looks at some of the less well known assassinations of the twentieth century and earlier.