In September 1898, the Empress of Austria—on holiday in Geneva, Switzerland—was stabbed and murdered by an Italian anarchist. The killing stunned Europe. Forty years later, the novelist Rebecca West still recalled her shock at the news. She explained her surge of emotion to a puzzled housemaid: “Assassinations lead to other things.”
But do they?
Sixteen years after that, the shooting of the empress’s nephew, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, plunged Europe into the First World War. Yet Empress Elisabeth’s killing, every bit as atrocious, had no geopolitical effect at all. The empress’s murderer was tried as a common criminal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He committed suicide in 1910.
The difference in the two killings cannot be explained by emotion. The empress was a figure widely popular with the public and much loved by her husband, the emperor. The dour Archduke Franz Ferdinand was disliked by both. The shooting of the archduke led to war, not because anybody important grieved for him, but because the Austrian leadership in 1914 welcomed an excuse to punish Serbia for a string of provocations. Gavrilo Princip’s connections to Serbian nationalist groups provided that excuse. In 1898, by contrast, Austria had no appetite for a conflict with Italy—and so the cherished empress’s slaying was left to the ordinary processes of law.
Assassinations provide opportunities and occasions for wars; they do not cause them.
Consider an even grimmer example.
The murderer of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been described in some reports as motivated by rage against Russian atrocities in Syria. His act may summon to memory the example of Herschel Grynszan, a young Jew who tried to avenge the sufferings of his family at Nazi hands by killing a German diplomat in Paris on November 7, 1938. Hitler seized upon the killing as his excuse for the rampage we know as Kristallnacht.
Yet when a Jewish student killed the leader of the Swiss Nazi party in February 1936, Hitler did nothing. Germany had secured the 1936 Olympic games before Hitler’s rise to power, and there was much agitation that year to rescind the award to protest Nazi anti-Semitism. Determined to maintain domestic quiet, Hitler let the death of Wilhelm Gustloff vanish into historical obscurity. (His killer, originally from Croatia, survived the Second World War in a Swiss prison.)
Even Hitler used outrages for his own ends, rather than being motivated by them.
Will today’s crime spark conflict between Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey? Only if those two authoritarian rulers want trouble. If trouble comes, today’s assassination will not be the cause, but only the justification. If, more likely, trouble is avoided, it will not be due to some noble commitment to peace on the part of two always ruthless and often violent men—but because for them all deaths, like all lives, are of value only for their own harsh and selfish political purposes.