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‘Day of the Assassins’: The killers who stalk the shadows of political life

Political murders, revenge killings and assassinations — eternal shadows that plague humanity and stability. They have always lived among us — the assassins and those who contract them — two particular and unique manifestations in the bloodline of the most dangerous predator on Earth: Homo sapiens. 


“The important thing to know about an assassination or attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.” — Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939)

“After going off duty, these crews return to their families, so that they might be bathing their children within forty minutes of killing a stranger in a foreign country.” — Michael Burleigh

Throughout human history, the assassin has stalked the shadows of political and quotidian life. 

From the murder of Julius Caesar to modern-day targeted US military drone strikes as well as the cold-blooded butchering of Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, it is clear we are a consistently homicidal species.

Apart from whether assassinations work or result in a predicted political outcome, there are the ethical and moral dimensions to this violent method of political warfare that endures into the 21st century.

Franco-American philosopher George Steiner often began lectures by asking students what they would do should Adolf Hitler walk into the room and they had the opportunity to kill him, knowing what we do now. Plato and Aristotle argued that tyrannicide — the murder of a tyrant — could be justified.

It was the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who opined that “assassination has never changed the history of the world”.

The English historian Michael Burleigh, who has written extensively on World War 2, has just published a massively readable tome, Day of the Assassins — A History of Political Murder (Picador), in which he warns: “In many democracies, politics have become so angry and polarised that one wonders why it [assasination] is still a comparatively rare occurrence.”

South Africans are deeply aware that in this neck of the woods assassinations are not a “rare occurrence”; they have featured as a more or less permanent trope in South African politics, including post-apartheid South Africa. 

SACP leader Chris Hani’s assassination by right-wing zealot Janusz Walus in 1993 was one of the most high-profile assassinations. There have been a reported 450 political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal alone since 1994. 

The assassination on 23 August of Gauteng Health Department official Babita Deokaran, a key witness in an SIU probe into PPE procurement irregularities in the department, falls within the category of a “political” assassination as it implicates officials deployed to the department by the governing party.

Burleigh’s deep and detailed dive into the world of assassins, their conspirators and masterminds debunks Disraeli’s quip and shows that in some instances assassinations can prompt catastrophic political consequences. 

The murder in 1934 in Leningrad of Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s potential rival, by a stranger was used by the Soviet strongman as an excuse to begin the first “great purge” from 1936 to 1938 in which millions were persecuted, tortured and killed. 

In Rwanda, the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutus, in a plane crash in 1994, triggered the devastating genocide in which almost a million Tutsis died. 

Burleigh sets out how the event did not end with the genocide. Hutus in Zaire launched attacks on Rwanda and as the US and French-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s power waned, Angola, Burundi, Uganda and Zimbabwe invaded Zaire. Mobutu was deposed and Laurent Kabila installed.

The historian’s chapter on Putin’s Russia, where assassinations are as commonplace as Matryoshka dolls, finds some resonance with contemporary South Africa and its political/organised criminal nexus in relation to organised killings.

As countries go, Putin’s Russia already topped the assassination stakes, with 750 actual or attempted assassinations, between 1998 and 1999.

This was just as Putin resigned from the KGB to focus on “public administration” and stimulating the economy in Leningrad. The plan involved building casinos and driving a scheme for the sale of oil, scrap metal and cotton in exchange for food for the starving citizens of Leningrad, who received not a morsel.

Turning to the US, a country that has consistently ignored, suggests Burleigh, a body of evidence that “terrorist organisations tend to collapse more quickly by not assassinating their leaders, because of internal factionalism and war-weariness” the historian laments a CIA that has twice been fashioned into a paramilitary force rather than an intelligence-gathering organisation.

The Cold War resulted in several authorised killings, including that of the independent Republic of Congo’s first democratically elected president, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961.

Lumumba’s assassination was particularly diabolical. After an attempted poisoning he was shot, buried, exhumed, hacked to pieces and dissolved in sulphuric acid. Cuban leader Fidel Castro too was a frequent target of successive US presidents. 

The list of US targeted executions is long and Burleigh explores many of these, from Osama bin Laden to Al-Qaeda’s military head, Muhammad Atef, in his chapter Targeted Assassinations

Since 2010, drones have been used to kill between 7,584 and 10,918 people including between 751 and 1,555 civilians, the author notes. Burleigh asks who are the young Americans who control these Predator drones and what is the impact on their lives.

“The bureaucratic politics of drone warfare should not distract from the reality of young men and women sitting in trailers steering drones with a joystick and pressing a button to kill people seven or eight thousand miles away,” he writes.

Thousands of men and women have flown drones, notes the author further, adding “a few of them have written or spoken of what they do”.

He sets out how there are usually three personnel in the drone-flying trailer who are in constant communication with up to 20 people — “like any bureaucracy involved in killing, responsibility is compartmentalised and dispersed”.

The drone teams, writes Burleigh, work 12-hour shifts “which can be scheduled so that they see the target country in daylight while it is night outside in Nevada”.

“The most common feeling amongst the drone crews is tedium interspersed with brief adrenaline rushes.”

He notes, “After going off duty, these crews return to their families, so that they might be bathing their children within forty minutes of killing a stranger in a foreign country.”

Israel’s record of assassinations harks back to the killing in 1944 of Lord Moyne, Churchill’s friend, in Cairo and the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946.

Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, says Burleigh, holds the world record for “external assassinations” with around 2,700 victims. Mossad has a “semi-acknowledged” campaign of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists.

When Burleigh does make a quick turn to South Africa it is to unpack the assassination of apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, inside the House of Assembly by a parliamentary messenger and member of the SA Communist Party, Dimitri Tsafendas, in September 1966.

A previous attempt on Verwoerd’s life in 1960 at the Rand Easter Show by millionaire farmer David Pratt had failed. In both cases the Pretoria government had attempted to paint the assassins as “insane”.

Verwoerd’s death by multiple stabbing did not, however, lead to the demise of apartheid. Tsafendas’s act in fact strengthened the resolve of hardcore racial nationalists, like Verwoerd, who were prepared to racially, politically, socially and economically rearrange South Africa by force.

Julius Caesar was 56, the same age as Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated, when on the morning of 15 March 44 BC more than 20 senators drew their daggers and plunged them into him as he sat on his gold and ivory throne.

The emperor was so convinced he was untouchable that he had dispensed with his Spanish bodyguards. 

Personal protection, beloved by former South African president Jacob Zuma and so many other politicians, was a pretension, warned Aristotle, of “one who is aiming at tyranny”.

In the author’s almost 500-page excavation of political murders there are scores of individual killers and collective political conspiracies to choose from.

There are many standout assassins, including Fanny Kaplan, the half-blind socialist revolutionary who survived 11 years of hard labour in Tsarist labour camps and who attempted to assassinate Lenin in August 1918. 

For her deed, Kaplan was shot in the neck by the Bolsheviks and burnt in a barrel.

Then there was Alexander Orlov, the Spanish head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and “a specialist in organising the deaths of ‘those to be liquidated’ ”.

Orlov noticed that NKVD officers summoned to Moscow seemed to disappear. He and his wife slipped away on board a boat to Canada after embezzling $68,000 from the NKVD. It was Orlov who first exposed Soviet spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean inside British Intelligence.

Burleigh enlivens the history on the pages — the reader is transported to the Senate in Rome with Caesar’s killers or to Mexico as Trotsky’s killer stealthily plots his way into the heart of the Soviet exile’s home.

As with ancient religious wars, the advent of modern pseudo-religious ideologies, says the author, licensed any number of “symbolic murders” targeting monarchs, prime ministers, judges and policemen as well as such symbols as opera houses and stock exchanges.

“When these ideologies captured powerful states, then the number of assassinations skyrocketed since states have many murderers at their disposal and their rulers sometimes operate with a different morality from that of ordinary men and women.” DM

Please join Marianne Thamm and Michael Burleigh at noon on Thursday, 2 September for the online South African launch of Day of the Assassins — A History of Political Murder.


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