MHM looks at five assassination attempts that could have changed the course of history.
5. Charles de Gaulle: 1962
Hardly a stranger to attempts on his life, de Gaulle came closest to meeting his Maker when his car was peppered with machine-gun re as it was speeding towards Villacoublay military airport. The man responsible for the attack was a French Air Force officer, enraged with de Gaulle’s decision to grant Algeria its independence.
Two policemen were killed in the assault, and the rear window and all four tyres of the car were destroyed. Yet somehow the driver managed to get away with the President and his wife in the back, unharmed. In which political direction might the French have gone without the influential character of de Gaulle leading them?
4. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: 1918
While stepping into his car following a speech at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, Lenin heard his name being called by fellow Communist Fanny Kaplan. As he turned, Kaplan fired three shots with a Browning pistol: one passed through his coat and missed him, one lodged in his shoulder, and the third passed through his neck, puncturing part of his left lung. Lenin survived and recovered, eventually using the incident to increase his popularity.
Had Lenin died, would the Communists still have prevailed against the Mensheviks and defeated the White Army? Would Stalin still have succeeded Lenin or would power have been seized by another?
3. Benito Mussolini: 1926
Il Duce survived four separate assassination attempts in 1926 alone. The first and most successful attempt was made by an Irish woman who came very close to shooting off the dictator’s nose. The remaining three were all by men, who either missed their target or were foiled in the early stages of their plotting. All four would-be assassins were executed. But what would have become of the Fascists had their leader been killed? Would their already shaky hold on the country have been broken? Or would another, more capable Fascist leader, have replaced him?
2. Wilhelm II: 1901
On 6 March 1901 Kaiser Wilhelm II was mildly injured when an anarchist opened fire on him while he was visiting the city of Bremen in north-west Germany. The consequences of a lethal shot might have been radical.
Had the Kaiser been killed during the attack, his successor might have reacted differently to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand 13 years later. It is possible that a cooler-headed leader might have been able to prevent the situation spiralling out of control as quickly and completely as it did. His young son would most likely have taken command, but down which path would he have led his country in 1914?
1. Abraham Lincoln: 1864
Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 by the actor and Southern agitator John Wilkes Booth. However, a year earlier, as he was riding around Washington in his carriage, someone took a shot at him, narrowly missing his head and putting a hole in his famous top hat.
Had the shot been a few inches lower, the relatively unknown Vice President Hannibal Hamlin would have succeeded Lincoln. How would he have fared against General George McClellan at the upcoming election? Whether or not the South, in the wake of an earlier Lincoln assassination, might have held on a while longer against Hamlin or McClellan and forced an armistice rather than suffered a defeat is still hotly debated. Had they done so, the course of America’s history would have been drastically different.
This article featured in issue 51 of Military History Monthly.