Below are ten world figures who died this year. Each made a mark on history. Some were heroes; some were villains. And for some, which they were is your call to make.
Abe Shinzo (b. 1954) was the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history and a staunch proponent of shedding the military and diplomatic constraints Japan embraced after World War II. Abe was born in Tokyo to a prominent political family. His maternal grandfather and great-uncle both became prime minister, and his father served as foreign minister.
He worked briefly in business before beginning his political career in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1982 as an executive assistant to his father. He was first elected to the Japanese Diet in 1993, winning the seat his late father held. Reflecting the influence of his grandfather, who had bitterly opposed Japan’s anti-militarist Constitution, Abe positioned himself as a staunch nationalist, a position he held to his death.
Hebe de Bonafini
Hebe de Bonafini (b. 1928) helped found the Argentine human-rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo after one of her sons was kidnapped and never seen again. In the late 1970s, Argentina’s military dictatorship waged a so-called dirty war against leftist opponents. As many as 30,000 Argentines “disappeared” during the seven years the military was in power.
De Bonafini’s strident views often alienated her allies. She said she felt “happiness” after the 9/11 attacks because the United States had supported Argentina’s military dictatorship. She also said Pope John Paul II would “go to hell” for helping end communism. At the end of her life, de Bonafini was embroiled in a corruption scandal involving a charity she founded.
Elizabeth II (b. 1926) was Britain’s longest reigning monarch, and the second longest reigning monarch in history, serving as queen for seven decades. She was born in London as Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, the daughter of the Duchess and Duke of York. She was not expected to ascend to the throne. Her father was the second-born son of King George V. Her grandfather died in 1936, and her uncle became King Edward VIII. However, he abdicated the throne after less than eleven months to marry an American divorcée. Elizabeth’s father became King George VI. He reigned until 1952. Upon his death, she became Queen of the United Kingdom, though she held many other titles. Just two days before her death she invited Conservative Party leader Liz Truss to form a new government. That devotion to duty perhaps explains why Elizabeth II was beloved by so many Britons.
Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) was the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party who oversaw the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the United States, and introduced the reforms that led to the Soviet Union’s collapse. Gorbachev was born to a peasant family in Privolnoye, a small town in the Stavropol region of what is now Russia. He joined the Communist Party youth organization as a teenager and was honored with the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.
He introduced the policies of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political opening) that he hoped would reinvigorate the Soviet Union. The opposite happened. The reforms further weakened the Soviet Union and its hold over Eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 forced Gorbachev to decide whether to use force to keep Soviet domination in place. He opted not to and chose instead to accept the reunification of Germany. That decision led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Jiang Zemin (b. 1926) was selected to be general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre and oversaw a decade of historic economic growth. Jiang was born in Yangzhou, a city northwest of Shanghai, to a middle-class family. He joined the Communist Party when he was twenty and worked as a technician in an ice cream factory. After Mao came to power in 1949, Jiang distinguished himself with his work to bring the factory under communist control. He ran a succession of industrial factories over the next three decades and spent stints abroad in Russia and in Romania. Jiang initially had no independent power base and deferred to party elders. But he gradually consolidated power. He was named president in 1993 and held the post for two five-year terms.
Phyo Zeya Thaw
Phyo Zeya Thaw (b. 1981) was a Burmese hip-hop star, political activist, and legislator who was executed by the ruling Myanmar military junta for his pro-democracy activities. Phyo Zeya Thaw was born in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and, at the time, its capital. His parents, both dentists, hoped he would pursue a traditional career. He instead set his sights elsewhere. While in college, he started Myanmar’s first major hip-hop band, Acid. The group was a hit. Anti-government protests adopted many of its songs in demonstrations that rocked the country in 2007 as part of what became known as the Saffron Revolution.
During a relaxation of political tensions in 2012, he was elected to the Burmese parliament. He was reelected in 2015. During his time as a legislator, Phyo Zeya Thaw became an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar’s democratic opposition. Phyo Zeya Thaw had planned to return to rapping, but Myanmar’s military seized power in 2021, ending the country’s decade-long experiment with democracy.
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (b. 1976) was the successor to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State and a chief architect of the Islamic State’s genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority. Qurayshi was born in Iraq as Amir Muhammad Said Abdel-Rahman al-Mawla. He majored in Quranic studies at the University of Mosul, served for a brief time in the Iraqi army, and then earned a master’s degree in Quranic Studies at the University of Mosul. In 2004, he joined the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
After ISIS took Sinjar, Iraq, in 2014, he issued a ruling declaring that Islam permitted ISIS fighters to enslave and rape Yazidi women because they were infidels. ISIS’s reach and influence had been shattered by the time Qurayshi succeeded Baghdadi in 2019. Qurayshi spent much of his brief time as the group’s leader in hiding in Syria. He killed himself and much of his family by detonating a suicide vest when U.S. commandos raided his hideout in northern Syria.
Mimi Reinhardt (b. 1915) was an Austrian Jew who helped the German industrialist Oskar Schindler save more than 1,100 Jews being held at a Nazi labor camp outside Krakow, Poland. Reinhardt was born in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, as “Carmen Koppel.” She disliked her given name, however, and persuaded her parents to call her “Mimi.” She attended the University of Vienna, married, moved to Krakow, and had a son. After Germany invaded Poland, she smuggled her son to safety while she and her husband were confined to Krakow’s Jewish ghetto.
Ayman al-Zawahiri (b. 1951) was an Egyptian surgeon and terrorist who combined forces with Osama Bin Laden to create Al-Qaeda and assumed leadership of the group after Bin Laden’s death. Zawahiri was born into comfortable family circumstances and grew up in a suburb of Cairo. He was radicalized at a young age, heavily influenced by reading Sayyid Qutb’s call for violent jihad. Zawahiri founded his first militant cell at the age of 15. He continued to plot the overthrow of Egypt’s secular government even as he earned his medical degree and became a surgeon.
He was arrested in 1981 for participating in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Zawahiri was imprisoned and repeatedly tortured during his nearly three-year-long trial. He was convicted of gun possession and released in 1984. He eventually made his way to Afghanistan, a country he had visited before his arrest. There he met Bin Laden, became his personal physician, and persuaded the wealthy Saudi to focus his efforts on attacking the United States anywhere and not just in the Middle East.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky (b. 1946) was an ultranationalist Russian politician and frequent presidential candidate who championed the idea of restoring the Russian empire. Zhirinovsky was born in what was then Alma-Ata (now Almaty), the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. His father was a Polish Jew, his mother Russian. His father was deported to Poland when Zhirinovsky was young, and he took the last name of his mother’s deceased first husband. He excelled at school and was accepted at the Institute of Oriental Languages at Moscow State University. There he studied Turkish and literature.
He had an unremarkable career until Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed political repression in the late 1980s. Zhirinovksy started his own political party and called on the Kremlin to restore the glories of the Russian empire. He ran six times for president. He never won more than 10 percent of the vote. His party, however, repeatedly won parliamentary races, giving him a seat in the Duma. He was a misogynist and antisemite. On several occasions he attacked women lawmakers and journalists.
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