What motivates assassins to kill?

Original: Eduardo Angulo (2017) Las razones del asesino. Translated and adapted by Julio Nicanor Ozores, M.D.

Depending on who we consult, we will hear quite a few opinions regarding what it is that motivates assassins. Let us sample some murder mystery writers. Agatha Christie mentions the passions of love, the lust for money, or the pursuit of some fixed idea. Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason detective novels, speaks of the drives for money and power, claiming that they were particularly strong in the competitive society of the 1950’s United States. Closer to our times, the mystery thriller author John Verdon also blames the drives for money and power, adding the drives that propel exacting revenge and the drives to carry out sacred missions. Approximating what modern neuroscience has to say on the matter, the philosopher and essayist Arthur Koestler theorized that poor connectivity between our primitive brain regions, such as the hypothalamus, and the recently evolved rational cortex, lead us to “… that unique vein of hallucinatory, homicidal impulses to kill, torture, and make war.” Lastly, Peter Morral, a professor at the University of Leeds, whose research focuses on the meaning of madness and murder, notes how crime stories have the power to intrigue, fascinate, and provoke repugnance all at the same time.

Let’s examine the cases of three notorious killers. The cases span the social world of Madrid in the late 19th century, war time Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, and the ideological struggles that roiled the Basque country in the 1960’s.

The case of Cayetano Galeote: A priest’s tarnished honor

Narciso Martínez Izquierdo

Bishop Narciso Martínez Izquierdo was born in 1830 in Pineda de la Sierra, a town near the city of Burgos. The priest Cayetano Galeote was born in 1841 in Vélez-Málaga, a town near the city of Málaga. Their paths crossed fatally on Palm Sunday, April 18, 1886, on the grand staircase of the Cathedral of San Isidoro, in Madrid, when Galeote shot three bullets into Martínez Izquierdo. Thus did a priest’s dissolute life and tarnished honor, the strict harshness of a bishop and ecclesiastical politics come together into an assassination.

The bishop Narciso Martinez Izquierdo had come from a family of poor farmers who, as was habitual in that era, had inscribed one of their sons in a seminary as a means to feed and educate a child. But young Narciso would go on to make a brilliant career in the Church, reaching the post of Bishop of Salamanca in 1874, and later Bishop of Madrid in 1885. He also participated in politics as a Carlist (traditionalist) delegate and senator. Fitting his strongly conservative views, he opposed the legality of civil marriage when it was debated in the Spanish Parliament in 1881, later opposing the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution in 1886.

Soon after being named Bishop of Madrid he started a campaign against the corruption of the clergy, decreeing strict disciplines that made him unpopular amongst its members. Amongst other measures, he mandated that priests be formally assigned to one parish only, thereby eliminating the practice some priests had of charging fees for celebrating two, three or even four masses a day. Whoever would not comply would see his license annulled.

Amongst that Madrid clergy was the priest Cayetano Galeote. He too had come from a poor family that could barely feed its children. As a child, Cayetano had suffered from otitis, which had left him with a lifelong deafness in one ear. Early in his career he served posts in Madrid, Puerto Rico, and in the Spanish colony of Fernando Póo (today the island of Biko, in Equatorial Guinea) where he served as a military chaplain. He returned to Madrid in 1880, where the story of his notoriety would take place. From this point on, much of what we know about Galeote’s life and trial comes from to the reportage of the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, who happened to be a newspaper correspondent at the time.

Galeote had been an unstable priest, moving from parish to parish seeking better pay wherever it was offered. He had acquired a reputation as a violent, irascible person (a schoolmate described him as “a veritable epileptic”). He also had become notorious for the fact that his supposed niece and housekeeper, 33-year-old Doña Tránsito Durdal, had followed him from Fernando Póo to wherever his changing domicile would be. Durdal was evidently his concubine, a fact that was brought up in the trial – the evidence being that there was only one bed in Galeote’s house. Durdal would become an object of fascination in the drama. In his reports Pérez Galdós described her as “not at all vulgar” (as his readers might have expected) but as having “an intelligent physiognomy and courteous manners”, and being “good looking, tall, black-eyed, with a large mouth and an overall agreeable presence.”

According to his own testimony, Galeote shot the bishop to satisfy the demands of justice itself and to repair his tarnished honor. The final sequence of events as Galeote tells it started when a priest named Vizcaino, the rector of a chapel where Galeote officiated masses, prohibited Galeote from continuing to do so – a prohibition that Galeote ignored. Adding insult to injury, Galeote complained, Vizcaino did not even deign to salute him. Finally Galeote’s privileges were cancelled altogether, leaving him insulted, aggrieved – and out of a job. Galeote began to act He started by airing his grievances, pursuing audiences with or writing letters to various authorities – the bishop, his confessor, the pope’s representative, and politicians outside the church hierarchy. All to no avail. Becoming ever more insolent and threatening, he began stalking Vizcaino and the bishop, finally making good on his threats on Palm Sunday, 1886.

Whether Galeote had shot the bishop was not an issue during his trial – half of Madrid had witnessed him doing so; besides, Galeote had promptly confessed the act. The issue debated was his culpability: Had he been in control of his actions at the fateful moment, or was he too insane to be responsible? One of the psychiatrists who examined him described him as “…a man of violent character, lacking humility, obstinate, of an excitable imagination, burdensome, jealous, prone to accusing and to insulting… all in all an impossible priest, who did not listen to reason.” The psychiatrist, evidently a supporter of Cesare Lombroso’s theories that physical features betrayed criminality, went on to describe Galeote’s physiognomy: “a man of sturdy complexion, wiry, with a shriveled face, a small cranium, long face, a narrow, sloping forehead and a bony jaw whose teeth emerge, some towards his palate, some diverging to push against his lower lip. This latter fact prevents him from closing his mouth, so he sprays a spittle of foamy saliva when he gets excited”. The psychiatrist goes on and on with similar observations, which need not detain us. Pérez Galdós also described Galeote, but more straightforwardly: “He has a small, curved nose, a very large mouth which is quite far from it, black, lively eyes, and a clear forehead.”

To the psychiatrists testifying for Galeote’s defense, he was a paranoiac exhibiting persecutory delusions. Despite the fact that Galeote did not want to be seen as mad, but rather as someone whose actions had been justified as a matter of honor, he was jubilant when one of the defense psychiatrists, Jaime Vera, read his thoughtful and precise evaluation to the tribunal. Galeote’s behavior stupefied the courtroom when he “ lifted (Vera) in his sturdy arms as someone might lift a feather and paraded him around the courtroom.” Yet at other times, when his defense attorney spoke of him as being insane, he would make vehement protestations.

Benito Pérez Galdós, delving for insights into Galeote’s character and motives, went beyond courtroom reportage and interviewed him in jail. He saw in the accused someone of who behaved in a strangely energetic manner. His reports describe how “the accused has permitted himself the most extravagant conduct, ignoring the authority of the judge, ceaselessly interrupting witnesses, abruptly shifting from tears to anger, exhibiting constant agitation and restlessness. His words, his apostrophes, which are now epigrammatic, now inspiring awe and terror, have excited the vivid interest of the public.” In the end, Galdós could only wonder, “when all is said and done, is he mad, or is he not?”

Galeote was found guilty and condemned to death. However, his subsequent strange behavior in prison prompted the tribunal to order a new medical examination. This time, a panel of six physicians certified that Galeote suffered from “persecutory delirium”. The Royal Academy of Medicine ratified the conclusion, and Galeote was transferred to a madhouse in the town of Leganés, where he died in 1922.

When murderers speak of their motivations and justification, they sometimes vouch that they did not intend to kill, that it was just an accident, that they didn’t mean it… But it doesn’t take a murderer to harbor murderous impulses: most people in our society, at some time or another have them – but they manage to not carry them out. Let’s see what some experts have said regarding motives for killing.

We can start with Abraham Maslow’s writings on the generic categories of human motivation and assume that the motives to kill may be special instances of the more generic impulses. According to Maslow, the foundational motivations are the basic requirements of our physiology, such as breathing and feeding. Then, metaphorically higher up on the hierarchical pyramid of motivations, are the need for safety, whether immediately personal, or the safety of one’s dwelling or territory. On top of that come the needs of attachment to someone and of belonging to a social group. Then come the motivations to enhance self-esteem, as we endeavor to be respected, successful, or climb in social status. Finally, at the subtlest pinnacle of the pyramid, are the needs for creative self-actualization.

What are the circumstances when, in order to satisfy these needs, members of our species are prone to killing each other? At least when it comes to extreme situations, this question inspired Philip Zimbardo to conduct the notorious 1971 Stanford prison experiment, whose results showed that, given the right circumstances, ordinary people are capable of atrocities. This is also the lesson of Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had been instrumental in organizing the extermination of European Jews. Arendt remarks on Eichmann’s ordinariness, his obedience, his efficacy as a bureaucrat – a man who just did not look like a sanguinary killer.

The case of August Hirt: For the sake of science and the Nazi cause

On November 23rd, 1944, the Free French 2nd Armored Division under the command of General Leclerc, allied with the US Army under General George Patton, entered the city of Strasbourg, expelling the German occupiers and liberating the city. As was the protocol, squads from the liberating army searched the city’s institutions for documents or other evidence related to the occupation. When they came upon the storage basement of the Strasbourg University Anatomical Institute, they found the remains of at least 150 cadavers, some complete, some dismembered, all neatly preserved in alcohol. About a month later, a commission charged with investigating possible war crimes established that the trove belonged to anatomy professor August Hirt, the institute’s director.

Monolith memorializing the victims of August Hirt

Who was Hirt? He was born in Mannheim in 1898. At the tender age of 18 he volunteered for the German army and was seriously wounded during the First World War, receiving a medal of honor in 1916. He went on to study medicine at the University of Heidelberg and was awarded a doctorate in 1922 upon completion of a thesis on the sympathetic nervous system of reptiles. He went on to teach anatomy at the University of Greifswald, while also making significant contributions to the development of fluorescent microscopy. By 1940 he had garnered a fine curriculum as a scientist, having published 27 articles on microscopy and on the nervous system.

His professional path took a turn after 1940. Although he continued doing “research”, he stopped publishing altogether. It was around this time that he became affiliated with the Nazi Party and with the SS, where he rose to the ranks of Obertsturmführer and later Sturmbannführer . His notoriety would be linked, after 1941, with the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Strasbourg, where became the director, and with Ahnenerbe, the “Institute for Research into Heredity”, a “cultural organization” dedicated to the study of the “Nordic Indo-Germanic Race”. Ahnenerbe had been established by Heimrich Himmler himself in pursuit of his racist obsessions.

Nuremberg, 1938

Hirt solicited funding and cadavers from Himmler, via Wolfram Sievers, the executive secretary at Ahnenerbe, who would go on to be tried at Nurenberg. Hirt’s ambition was to create a collection of Jewish specimens for the use of future generations. He envisioned a new academic discipline altogether, Race Anatomy, that would make use the material after all Jews were exterminated. Hirt deemed that his anatomical collection in Strasbourg was deficient in Jewish skulls and skeletons. But the war on the Eastern Front promised an unexpected trove of crania and whole skeletons. Hirt specifically wanted those of Jewish commissars, whom he deemed “the prototype of the repulsive, but characteristic, subhuman”. In a letter dated February 1942, Hirt requested the skulls of Jewish-Bolshevik commissars for the purpose of “scientific investigations”. The missive included two additional notes. The first note, since lost, had to do with microscopy techniques. The second note, which is extant, instructed the Wehrmacht and the Military Police on locating, identifying, anthropologically measuring and then killing the commissars – murders that Hirt cynically termed “induced deaths”. Finally, there were instructions on how to prepare specimens. Specifically, the heads were to be severed, pickled in preservative fluid, and sent to Strasbourg. The cruel phantom of pseudo-science was turning into reality.

In addition to asking for the heads of the commissars, Hirt also sought to source himself with more cadavers. Along with his collaborators Sievers, Eichmann and others, he organized the relocation of Jewish inmates from various concentration camps to the Struthof-Natzweiler camp, where they were to be gassed by the camp’s S.S. Commandant, Josef Kramer. Kramer, who was captured by the Allies, testified as follows during the Belsen trial: “Early in August 1943, I received eighty inmates who were to be killed with the gas Hirt had given me. One night I went to the gas chamber in a small car with about fifteen women this first time. I told the women they had to get into the chamber to be disinfected. I did not tell them, however, that they were to be gassed. With the help of a few S.S. men I stripped the women completely and shoved them into the gas chamber when they were stark naked. When the door closed they began to scream. I introduced a certain amount of salt through a tube… and observed through a peephole what happened inside the room. The women breathed for about half a minute before they fell to the floor.”.

Once these bodies arrived at Strasbourg, Hirt would proceed with severing the heads for crania, and to add to the skeleton collection. He apparently had other side interests as well: The advancing Allied troops discovered histological preparations of testicular tissue made from samples that had been obtained while victims were alive.

What became of Hirt? He had already fled his post by the time General Leclerc entered Strasbourg. Hirt then turned himself in, months later, to the mayor of the German town of Schönenbach, but disappeared again in June 1945. He was tried in absentia in 1953. The case against him was based on the notorious letter giving instructions on murdering the Soviet Jewish commissars for the skull collection, on the cadavers found in the basement of the Anatomical Institute and on the histological preparations. Hirt was found guilty and condemned to death, but his whereabouts remained unknown. A warrant for his arrest was in force in Switzerland (where he had a second nationality) as late as 1959. It was only in the mid 1960’s when it became clear that in 1945, in Germany’s Black Forest, he had committed suicide.

Psychology professor Antonio Crego, of the Pontifical University of Salamanca, tells us more about Zimbardo’s theories in his own blog, published in Investigacion y Ciencia . Crego enumerates stages in the process of how people can cross over to the dark side and become capable of committing atrocities. The line between good and evil, being ill-defined, can be unconsciously crossed at first. But then it becomes necessary to dehumanize the potential victims and to de-individualize the self. The dehumanization eases qualms about perpetrating harm to a fellow human. Then, the process of de-individualizing one’s self – subsuming it in a larger group, donning uniforms and masks, acting under the influence of rallying music, etc. – further lubricates the slide toward committing atrocities (recall the photos of lynchings in the United States). Finally, blind obedience, excusing one’s behavior as inevitable because it was ordered by a superior, sometimes seals the process. The end result, at least for some perpetrators, is a passive indifference to evil – the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt described.

The story of Kandido Azpiazu and Ramon Baglietto: Our very own neighbors in the Basque Country

The entire cast of this story comes from the small town of Azcoitia, in the Basque Country. All were neighbors whose lives would fatefully cross and cross again as in a tragic drama. Everyone knew each other, but apparently this could not prevent an ideological assassination…

The story takes us back to an incident that took place in 1962, in front of a furniture store in Azcoitia. A mother is walking by the store her two children, an 11-month-old baby in her arms and a toddler in tow. Suddenly the toddler drops the ball he is carrying and impulsively chases it across the street. A truck is speeding towards him. The mother runs after her child, but just as she jumps away from the curb, the baby is snatched from her arms by Ramon Baglietto, the owner of the furniture store. The truck runs over and kills the mother and the toddler. The baby, Kandido Azpiazu, is saved by Baglietto.

Ramón Baglietto

Azpiazu never learns, as a young man, the identity of his savior. He grows up to become a sympathizer of Basque nationalist groups. As early as age 14, he starts to fraternize with leftist, Basque nationalist groups (Abertzale left), and by the age of 16 longed to join ETA, the Basque nationalist paramilitary organization that carried out kidnappings, bombings and assassinations in pursuit of its goals.

It’s now 1980; Azpiazu has become a 19-year-old ETA foot soldier. An order comes from “on high” the ETA hierarchy to assassinate Ramon Baglietto. Why Baglietto? Because he had been active in center-right politics as a deputy mayor and activist for the UCD – the Union of the Democratic Centre, the party that governed Spain during its transition to democracy.

The terrible deed had to be carried out, Azpiazu would later testify: It was a matter of “historical necessity”. On May 18, 1980, Azpiazu and an accomplice overtook Baglietto’s car on the road between Elgoibar and Azpeitia. Using a Steiner machine gun and a Browning pistol, Azpiazu shot at Baglietto, who lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. Azpiazu then walked over to the wreck and dealt Baglietto the coup de grace.

Azpiazu was apprehended, sentenced and served a prison term. He was released from prison in 1995 and rehabilitated himself as a glazier. He set up a shop that – in one of the many crossed paths of this story – was on the ground floor of the building where Baglietto’s widow was living.

In an interview published in 2001, Azpiazu revealed some of the mentaility, justifications and motivations that contribute to a political killing:

Azpiazu: “I am not an assassin.”

Interviewer: “But you have killed someone.”

Azpiazu: “Because it had to be done.”

He repeats, when the interviewer asks him how he “became an assassin”:

Azpiazu: “I am not an assassin.”

Interviewer: “(But) You have killed someone.”

Azpiazu: “Because it was a historical necessity. And there was a good feeling to be Basque. As long as I remember, I have fought for the independence of Basques….One always knew that someday we would end up doing what we in fact did. It was a drawn-out process. One does not suddenly say, ‘Today I’m turning into an executioner’ – can you understand that? Can you? One slowly matures until…”

The interviewer asks about the final moments before his deed:

Interviewer: “Were you afraid?”

Azpiazu: “No. One was prepared to offer up one’s life.”

Interviewer: “Did you know the man you killed?”

Azpiazu: “Yes…. It had to be that way.”

Interviewer: “Why?”

Azpiazu: “He was a member of the oppressor’s apparatus… he was connected with Marcelino Oreja.” (a Spanish government official).

Interviewer: “And that was enough?”

Azpiazu: “The order came from on high.”

The order had not only come from on high – it had come from Eugenio Etxebeste, second in command within the ETA organization– and, tragically, Baglietto’s very own cousin.

In this case, everyone knew each other – families and neighbors who lived in the same town. But this was not enough to overcome the dark motives, the social forces, the “banality of evil”. Or an intrinsic fascination with killing, as in the chilling pronouncement we quoted in the first article of this series: “…men kill because they like it.


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Added Reference:

The master plan: Himmler’s scholars and the holocaust, by Heather Anne Pringle, 2006

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