Book: Inside The Minds Of Those Who Take Pot Shots At Posterity: Age


The Observer (England)
November 18, 2012

HISTORY: Inside the minds of those who take pot shots at posterity:
Age of Assassins: A History of Conspiracy and Political Violence,
Michael Newton, Faber £ 25, pp736

Ian Thomson

In Geoffrey Household’s tense thriller Rogue Male (1939), a lone
English adventurer takes a pot shot at Hitler and then runs for his
life. Few Germans were brave or reckless enough to resist the Fuhrer.

Once Hitler’s madness was obvious, however, the dilemma for German
patriots was painful: to love the Fatherland yet desire the downfall
of Nazism.

Had Hitler been assassinated, what sort of Germany might have emerged?

Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who put the bomb in the briefcase,
reportedly cried out, “Long live holy Germany!” in front of his
executioners – hardly an ideal slogan for a modern democratic nation.

In Michael Newton’s view, von Stauffenberg was the “apotheosis of
Teutonic manhood”; he wore a steel helmet even to his wedding. Few
would dispute the justice of killing Hitler, yet von Stauffenberg is
viewed as an ambivalent hero in Germany today; his dog-like devotion
to Prussian codes of honour is reckoned to be anachronistic.

For most assassins, says Newton, the intended victim is always
a “Hitler” of sorts and deserving of death. Violet Gibson, the
Dublin-born daughter of a Conservative MP, shot Mussolini three times
in Rome in 1926. The Italian dictator escaped with merely a grazed
nose. Was Gibson mad? She had intuited the danger of fascism early
on, and for this at least her attempt to eliminate the Duce might
lay claim to our admiration.

In Newton’s superb history of conspiracy and political violence
throughout the ages from 1865-1981, assassins and would-be assassins
emerge as complex and often paranoid personalities, who came close at
times to changing the fate of nations. Inevitably, assassination is
a subject that attracts conspiracy theorists of one stripe or another.

Half a century on, cliques and shadowy cabals are still believed to
have manipulated “the truth” behind the Kennedy assassinations of
the 1960s.

Hydra-headed conspiracy theories flourish in the absence of hard
evidence. For all his avowed allegiance to communist Cuba, Lee
Harvey Oswald was probably unattached to any “red” paymaster. The
Illinois-born drifter James Early Ray, who murdered Martin Luther
King, was seemingly another freelance operator. In Ray’s corrosive
sense of racial grievance and “anti-nigra” politics Newton sees an
echo of an earlier American assassination.

Abraham Lincoln’s murder in 1865 was the work of a deluded white
supremacist named John Wilkes Booth, who likewise viewed the world
solely through the lens of racial conflict. Lincoln, in Booth’s
distorted vision, was a money-grubbing Yankee hostile to the gracious
suavities of the gallant south.

>>From Lincoln to assassination attempts made on Queen Victoria and
Ronald Reagan, Newton contemplates political violence in all its
complexity. Assassinations were at their most frequent amid the moral
and material ruins of post-first-world-war Europe. In 1921, an Ottoman
leader was gunned down in Berlin in revenge for Turkey’s slaughter of
Armenians. The assassin, a young Armenian named Soghomon Tehlirian,
had exacted justice on behalf of the voiceless dead, he said.

Other assassins have been less transparent in their motives. President
Nixon’s would-be killer, Arthur Bremer, was a “no-hoper” who
scrounged for a living in 1970s Milwaukee, and appeared to relish
a life of subterfuge. On the eve of his long-planned assassination,
he ritualistically shaved off his hippy-length hair for a Mohican Taxi
Driver look. Yet his ambition to shoot Nixon came to nothing. Instead,
Bremer shot and paralysed the segregationist Alabama politician George
C Wallace. His motives for doing so remain obscure.

In recounting the lives of lesser-known assassins, Newton risks
providing a platform for their monomania. Yet the point is well
made: by the late 20th century, shooting a US president had become
no different from shooting, say, John Lennon or Andy Warhol, because
politics had become a subdivision of stardom.

Age of Assassins is an unusual work of social history. If the writing
is at times overdone (“the grey area of our pampered and inadequate
pity”), the book has immense narrative verve and psychological
fascination. I was gripped from start to finish. Ian Thomson

To buy Age of Assassins for £ 18 with free UK p&p call 00330 333 6847
or go to


‘Assassins emerge as complex personalities who came close to changing
the fate of nations.’ Getty Images

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