By Andy Cooke
This series looks at moments when the world didn't change - but shivered in the balance. Moments where a Point of Divergence, with big consequences, came very close to occurring.
In most entries in this series, I select what I feel are the five greatest such almost-moments, often in a field where many people are unaware - at least on a day-to-day basis - of how often these moments came up.
This is somewhat different. There are many, many near-misses in the field of assassinations (and, sadly, quite a few hits). This means that todays article will be inevitably subjective.
The five I've selected are the ones that I felt, at the time of writing, were most worthy of highlighting. You may disagree - if so, please feel free to come up with other examples in the comments. Ones that I didn't want to leave out but had to cut to make it down to just five, included any of the eight (!) assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, Iraqi Intelligence's attempt on George Bush Snr, the 1981 attempt on Pope John Paul II, the one on Saddam Hussein in 1982, the attempt on Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1949... and, sadly, despite the image that leads the article, the failed attempt on President Andrew Jackson in 1835. Each and every one of these had the potential to change the world, but my (personal) final cut is below.
5 - John Major does not die in the IRA bombing of Downing Street in February 1991
It may be somewhat parochial to focus on Britain, but the direction of the country (and of countries all it later influenced) from the Nineties onwards would have been very different had the Good Friday Agreement never been signed.
Had the Prime Minister and his Cabinet (including the Chief of the Defence Staff) died in the IRA mortar attack on Downing Street on 7th February 1991, it's very hard to see the Troubles coming to an end - even to the extent that they have come to an end.
Three mortar shells - each four and a half feet long and carrying 20kg of Semtex - were fired from a van parked on the junction of Horse Guards Avenue and Whitehall (above). One mortar landed in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street. Had the angle at which it was fired been changed by 5-10 degrees, in the opinion of the Head of the Explosives Section of Special Branch, the bombs would have hit the building - very possibly killing the Cabinet.
What would have been the outcome?
4 - Margaret Thatcher does not die in the IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel in 1984
If the above was a dramatic near-miss, this one is far beyond that. When the Provisional IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference in 1984, the bomb exploding in the early hours of the 12th of October. It killed five people and seriously injured several more, but Mrs Thatcher was unscathed.
What would have been the effect? Well, this has been explored - in the Timeline "For The Sake of A Shower" by Jack Tindale, and as a key PoD in the backstory of Six East End Boys, by David Flin. Even taking aside the highly probable crackdown and increased law and order focus, it's questionable whether many of her later policies would have gone ahead - certainly the Anglo-Irish Agreement would not have happened as it did, but also most of her privatisations, the financial "Big Bang", the abolition of the GLC (and others), the poll tax, among others would probably not have gone ahead. At least not in their OTL form, despite the Conservatives retaining power.
And, of course, her vehement support for banning CFCs to save the ozone layer (as a chemist, she closely questioned experts who proposed this, accepted the arguments, and pressured Reagan strongly to support a ban) would not have happened.
3 - Vladimir Lenin was not killed by Fanny Kaplan on 30th August 1918
Less than a year after assuming power, Lenin survived an assassination attempt by a political revolutionary who was convinced he was betraying the Revolution.
Fanny Kaplan, a 28-year-old member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (banned by the Bolsheviks that year) took three shots with a revolver at short range - one missing him, one hitting him in the shoulder, and a third one passing through his neck and hitting him in the chest. Lenin was badly wounded, but survived - although he never fully recovered.
The Red Terror began immediately thereafter.
What would have happened had Lenin died that day? Who would have succeeded him? What differences would there have been in policies attempted and carried out? Would the Bolsheviks have survived? Bearing in mind that, while prominent, Lenin was at the head of political and ideological forces that went far beyond just himself, it is highly unlikely that Soviet communism would simply have ceased to be, of course.
2 - Adolf Hitler - survived many assassination attempts
Much like one of my choices in the nuclear explosions that never happened article, this one is a bit of a cheat: I've rolled up multiple assassination attempts into one example.
Depending on how you count them, the Fuhrer of Nazi Germany survived more than forty known assassination attempts (It sometimes seems as though he must have been protected by timetravellers from an alternate timeline...). Some of these could very easily have worked, from Maurice Bavaud trying to shoot Hitler during a parade in 1938 (balked by the crowd carrying out a Nazi salute and blocking his view), Georg Elsner's bomb behind his podium during a speech by Hitler just as WWII was starting (balked because Hitler unexpectedly moved up the time of his speech by an hour and left 8 minutes before the bomb went off, from Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw being diverted (and happening to miss the 500kg of TNT waiting down his original route) ... through the faulty fuse on a bomb smuggled onto his plane causing it to fail to detonate in 1943, and the willing suicide bomber who had to disarm his bomb when the timer took to long to go off ... to the famous 20th July plot in 1944.
Hitler could easily have died in any of these. But would the Nazi ideology have simply rolled on remorselessly, under the leadership of another?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it could have been very different.
1 - Otto von Bismarck does not die on the street in Berlin in May 1866
What could trump Lenin and Hitler nearly dying?
Answer - something that would have made the history of the twentieth century unrecognisable. The history of Europe would have been very different without the consummate statesman, the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. He helped forge Germany out of the states that preceded it, became the first Federal Chancellor, created the new German Empire's position in Europe and the world, and, according to Hobsbawm, "remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers."
He also, arguably, set the stage for the First World War.
On the afternoon of the 7th of May, 1866, before almost any of this had even started to happen, he was waylaid on the street in central Berlin by a student - Ferdinand Cohen-Blind. The 22-year-old had decided that Bismarck was a threat to his country and would cause civil war, and shot Bismarck in the back with a revolver from short range. As Bismarck span and grabbed him, he fired three more times.
Every bullet either simply grazed him or ricocheted off his ribs. Had just one of them caused a fatal injury (and, frankly, with five shots from a revolver at point-blank range, the odds have to be in favour of that), Bismarck would have perished before Germany was unified.
I've argued above that maybe the social, economic, and political drivers that resulted in these figures taking power may have outlived their assassinations. But Bismarck was so skilled at what he did, and did what he did at so many tentative butterfly-laden moments that shaped history, it's hard to see him being replaced.