Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder by Michael Burleigh - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Et Tu, Brute?

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder


Picador 448pp £25

In times like these we have to rue that Britain has only a paltry tradition of political assassination. This, I’d propose, is not a mark of civilisation but of timidity and the eschewal of realpolitik. To overcome our squeamishness, we might gainfully study this breathless race through two thousand years of special pollarding, which might have been more aptly named ‘Assassination: A Handbook’, for it is, among much else, an inventory of means and methods: blades, blunt objects, poisons and toxins, guns and ammo, shots from motorcycles, bombs, defenestration and plump cushions.

Assassination signifies the taking of life. So, obviously, does murder. They are not, however, synonymous. Assassination is planned. It most probably involves an ambush or trap, and before that high-level debates and decisions made in meetings, which typically are not minuted. Murder doesn’t generally involve such things. Assassinations are intended. They are tactical instruments and tools – if not also proxies – of war. They are, equally, evasions of war and bulwarks against tyranny. Michael Burleigh is dubious about the beneficial effects of governmentally sanctioned killing. However, a perhaps unforeseen outcome of his relentlessly sanguinary book is the implication that the planet, far from being sullied by opérations ponctuelles, might be a happier place were a few more tyrants to be treated to well-aimed headshots. There can, for instance, be no doubt that had Benito Mussolini been shot and strung up in Piazzale Loreto a few years earlier than he was, he would not have bought a road map to catastrophe from Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was himself a frequent target, of course. Burleigh retells the story of the communist Georg Elser’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life in November 1939, ten weeks after war had been declared. It became the subject of Stephen Sheppard’s novel The Artisan; Klaus Maria Brandauer both directed the film adaptation and played Elser. Yet it is less well known than the July 1944 bomb plot on Hitler’s life. As Burleigh drily points out, the aristocratic bomb plotters ‘had considerably more post-war utility to the class of person who reads broadsheet German newspapers than a humble Swabian Communist carpenter’.

Joachim Fest estimated that in the ten months between the failed 1944 plot and the Nazi surrender in May 1945 4.8 million Germans died. Burleigh goes further, trepidatiously, and suggests that had Elser’s bomb succeeded ‘there might not have been a lengthy war at all; none of Hitler’s peers possessed his charisma or oratorical skills, and the army high command might have swept them aside’.

The work Day of the Assassins persistently recalls is neither historical nor literary but a film, Alan Clarke’s Elephant, a dourly brilliant realistic album of sectarian assassinations in Belfast. The cumulative effect, heightened by Steadicam, is thrillingly gruesome and stomach-churning. So it is with Burleigh’s book. There are, of course, commentary and context, but every page is weighted with names of operatives in the death business: victims and culprits, executants and collaterals, backroom technicians, black-ops tacticians, the pseudonymous and the disguised whose trade demands not merely cold blood but the ability to cover their tracks. Jamal Khashoggi’s killers and their overlords were markedly wanting in this department. Burleigh is a clear-headed guide to the Saudi crown prince’s perpetual handwashing. Other killers have been less concerned to conceal their acts: among them, astonishingly, is Dwight D Eisenhower, who ordered the despatch of Patrice Lumumba with the words, ‘We will have to do whatever is necessary to get rid of him.’

For a secret organisation, Mossad is remarkably ostentatious. But then Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir never made a secret of having been members of the murderous Irgun and its offshoot Lehi, which attempted to treat with Nazi Germany in the hope that the latter would wage war against the British mandatory government in Palestine. Years later, Mossad successfully recruited the multiply scarred former(-ish) Nazi Otto Skorzeny, who was happy to both grass up old comrades, among them veterans of the V-1 and V-2 programmes now developing missiles in Nasser’s Egypt, and, if necessary, put them to sleep. Such was, most probably, the fate of the fixer and arms dealer Heinz Krug. Skorzeny, like many of Burleigh’s subjects, was a Talleyrand, in this case a muscle-bound Talleyrand, who was as happy to maim and liquidate for de Gaulle’s Barbouzes as he was to advise the OAS, the anti-Algerian independence organisation that Burleigh wrongly describes as ‘a right-wing terrorist group’.

It wasn’t. Rather, it was people fighting for their homes. Its high command included many former Resistance fighters and Raoul Salan, the most decorated soldier in the French army. Its ground troops were petites gens. They were losing everything because of de Gaulle’s treachery in sacrificing them to the FLN, the war crimes of which over a long decade far outdid those of the OAS. It is a matter of great regret that none of the attempts on de Gaulle’s life succeeded. He was a lucky ‘fascist’ – the term is Roosevelt’s.

Burleigh moves swiftly from the fortunate survivor to John F Kennedy, who, as a senator, had militated for Algerian independence and, as president, visited de Gaulle a few weeks after the generals’ failed coup of April 1961. Given Kennedy’s clumsiness over the Bay of Pigs and his escalation of the war in Vietnam, with the dispatch of thousands of ‘military advisers’, his position on Algeria was risibly hypocritical. Burleigh rather rashly dismisses the possibility of Kennedy’s assassination being the culmination of a conspiracy. So: no Mafia, no CIA, no grassy knoll, no storm drain, no bogus policemen, no James Jesus Angleton. Just one troubled loner whose familiar back story is neatly, if omissively recounted. I’m not certain that the notion of a single shooter remains credible. Still, Burleigh’s opt-out does mean that his book does not get bogged down in the world of serious investigators, conspiracy industrialists, mutually refuting anoraks and wacky hobbyists.

In his afterword, Burleigh, eager to put a lid on the topic in which he has immersed himself to the point of satiety, writes of assassins that ‘in most cases what they did on their big day had no real consequences other than to temporarily discombobulate a society with an act bound up with their own life stories and personalities’. This is surely an underestimation of both the assassin’s power and the dire litany of killings that fills this harshly excellent book. Certain eras have been defined by assassinations, and others by those that failed or were not attempted. Mossad could have wasted Ayatollah Khomeini when he was hiding in plain sight at Neauphle-le-Château outside Paris, and so might France’s DST. But the Shah advised President Giscard d’Estaing’s right-hand man Michel Poniatowski against such an action, with the results that we see today.

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