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.
He was born in Ludwigshafen, in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. A member of the Hitler Youth during World War II, he joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after the war’s end. He rose through the party’s ranks, serving in the Rhineland-Palatinate’s legislature and as its premier, before becoming chancellor of West Germany in 1982.
He spent the first eight years of his chancellorship mending wounds with France and making cracks in the Iron Curtain through outreach to East Germany’s Erich Hoenecker and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Kohl seized the moment when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989.
He negotiated the reunification of Germany, over the doubts of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand, but with the full support of U.S. President George H. W. Bush. Reunification became official on October 3, 1990.
Two months later Kohl was elected as chancellor of a newly unified Germany. For the next eight years, he navigated the challenges with reunification. Just as important, he pushed ahead with the European project.
Working closely with Mitterrand, he championed the creation of the European Union and the Euro. Kohl’s tenure as chancellor—second in length only to that of Otto von Bismarck —ended in 1998 when the Social Democratic Party defeated the CDU.
When Kohl passed, he was given an “ EU state funeral,” a testament to his commitment not just to a united Germany, but to a united Europe as well.
Martin McGuinness (b. 1950) was a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander who was instrumental in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. Born in Derry, Northern Ireland to a devout Catholic family, McGuinness grew up in Derry’s Bogside neighborhood, which saw some of the worst clashes during the Troubles.
He quit school at fifteen and joined the IRA three years later. British authorities imprisoned him twice in the early 1970s for his activities. By the late 1970s, he was a senior IRA leader and suspected of helping plot dozens of murders, possibly including the assassination of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Earl Mountbatten in 1979.
In the 1990s, McGuiness and Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, abandoned their strategy of violence and came to the negotiating table. The result was the historic April 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought the Troubles to an end. In 1997, McGuinness was elected to the House of Commons and held his seat until 2013.
In keeping with Sinn Fein’s policy of abstentionism, however, he refused to take his seat. He was subsequently elected to Northern Ireland’s Assembly and became Sinn Fein leader and deputy first minister in 2007. Under Northern Ireland’s unique power sharing agreement, McGuinness served alongside his long-time foe Ian Paisley.
In 2012, McGuinness shook hands with Queen Elizabeth, a turn of events that once was unthinkable.
Noriega was born in Panama City and raised by his godmother. After high school, he attended a military academy in Peru before joining Panama’s National Guard. He eventually became a close ally of General Omar Torrijos, who seized power in a coup in 1968. After Torrijos’s mysterious death in 1981, Noriega consolidated his power over the Panamanian military.
Two years later he became the country’s leader. Noriega had an odd relationship with the United States, serving first as a willing partner in the fight against drugs, then flipping sides and selling secrets to America’s adversaries. He also went on to enable Panama’s drug traffickers.
America’s patience wore thin at the same time Noriega’s approval ratings in the country plummeted. In December 1989, Panamanian troops shot and killed an American Marine. President George H. W. Bush responded by ordering more than twenty-seven thousand troops to Panama “to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega.”
That last goal was achieved on January 3, 1990, when Noriega surrendered. He was convicted of drug charges in 1992 and spent the next eighteen years in U.S. prison. In 2010 he was extradited to France to face money laundering charges there.
Petrov was born near Vladivostok, Russia. After studying at the Soviet Air Defense Force’s Kiev Higher Engineer Radio-Technical College, he joined the Air Defense Force. He was eventually assigned to monitor the early warning system at the Serpukhov-15 command center outside Moscow.
In the early hours of September 26, 1983, Petrov heard alarms sound and the word “LAUNCH” came across the screen—five U.S. ballistic missiles were headed toward the Soviet Union. Despite an immensely stressful situation, Petrov didn’t lose his wits.
He had a “ gut feeling ” that he was witnessing a false alarm. He knew that the early warning system was temperamental, and he reasoned that an authentic U.S. attack would involve hundreds of missiles, not just five.
So Petrov told his superiors it was a false alarm. He was right; the early warning system had mistaken sunlight reflecting off of clouds as a missile launch.
Petrov’s role as “ the man who saved the world ” didn’t come to light until 1998, when the former head of the Soviet Air Defense’s Missile Defense Units wrote a memoir. Petrov’s actions, or better yet, his decision not to order action, became the subject of a movie in 2014.
Born in Saint-Brieuc, France, Rousseau had a knack for languages. During the Nazi occupation, she worked as a local interpreter. She developed a rapport with the Germans and began passing on information she overheard. She was arrested in 1941, but eventually released. She then began working in Paris, again as an interpreter.
This time Rosseau was privy to more sensitive war information. Working with the French Resistance under the code name “Amniarix,” Rousseau gave the British details about how work on the V-1 and V-2 was progressing. A British attempt in 1944 to smuggle her to London failed and led to her capture and internment in three concentration camps.
She met her husband, Henri de Clarens, at one of the camps. She became ill while imprisoned. Toward the end of the war, the Red Cross helped negotiate her release. After the war, she worked as a translator for the United Nations. In 1993, the CIA awarded her the Seal Medallion for her efforts during World War II.
She said of her contributions to the war effort, “What I did was so little. Others did so much more. I was one small stone.” Sometimes small stones make big ripples.
Mário Soares (b. 1924) oversaw Portugal’s transition to democracy in the 1970s.
Born in Lisbon, Soares grew up a critic of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar —the fascist dictator who ran Portugal for more than forty years. As a young man, Soares was imprisoned and forced into exile for his political activism on several occasions. That didn’t stop him from opposing Salazar.
Trained as a lawyer, Soares defended Salazar’s political opponents. He championed decolonization and founded Portugal’s Socialist Party. Salazar died in 1970 and was succeeded by Marcello Caetano, who was ousted from power in the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Political wrangling quickly ensued. Soares eventually emerged as Portugal’s prime minister. He served from 1976 to 1979, and then again from 1983 to 1985.
He pushed ahead with decolonization and Portugal’s integration into the European Economic Community. In 1986, Soares became Portugal’s first civilian president since 1926. He served two terms, finally stepping down from political life in 1996. Soares’ political success probably owed something to his refusal to ever slow down.
He was often called “sempre em pé,” which is Portuguese for “always on his feet.” That’s not a bad philosophy to follow.
Ali Abdullah Saleh (b. 1947) dominated Yemeni politics for three decades.
Born in Bayt al-Ahmar in North Yemen. Saleh chose the military over school. He aligned himself with Colonel Ahmad Husayn al-Ghashmi, one of the leading figures in North Yemen’s 1974 military coup. In 1977, the coup’s leader, Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, was assassinated.
Al-Ghashmi took his place, but was himself assassinated less than a year later. Saleh was the next man up. Odds were high that he would meet the same fate al-Hamdi and al-Ghashmi. But Saleh defied the odds. That’s not to say that he ruled efficiently (he didn’t) or that he was a just leader (he wasn’t).
In 1990, he succeeded in uniting North and South Yemen, creating the Republic of Yemen. He succeeded in foiling several attempts to oust him from power. His luck ran out in 2011 when the Arab Spring came to Yemen. He was severely wounded in a June 2011 bombing and spent months in Saudi Arabia recuperating.
In February 2012, he acknowledged reality and relinquished his presidency. But as Yemen plunged into chaos Saleh remained active behind the scenes. He threw in his lot with the Houthi rebels —making him an enemy of his former benefactor, the Saudis.
Earlier this month, Saleh changed sides and threw his lot in with Saudi-backed forces. His luck finally ran out. Houthi forces killed him as he fled the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
Jalal Talabani (b. 1933) was a Kurdish leader and former president of Iraq.
He was born in Kelkan, a village in northeastern Iraqi Kurdistan, to a prominent family. He lived and died as an advocate for Kurdish independence. His political role model was Mao Zedong. He founded the Kurdish Student Union when he was only thirteen and was instrumental in the early years of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In 1975, he helped form a new Kurdish political party—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. As he rose to prominence, he earned the title “Mam Jalal” (“Mam” being the Kurdish word for uncle). He became a national political figure after Saddam Hussein ’s overthrow in 2003.
Talabani was the president of the National Governing Council, which was charged with drafting a new constitution for Iraq. He was appointed as president of Iraq in April 2005 before being popularly elected in 2006. Throughout his life, he was a pragmatist who could and did change sides over the course of his career.
By age nineteen he had self-published (with the help of his mother) two collections of poems. His poems often focused on the Caribbean, using his command of the English language to highlight the region’s natural beauty as well as the legacy left behind by European colonialism.
He first made his name internationally with the publication in 1962 of a collection of poems, In a Green Night. In 1981, Walcott became a professor at Boston University, where he taught until 2007 and founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theater.
In 1990, Walcott published his epic poem “ Omeros , ” a loose retelling of Homer’s epic set in the Caribbean. His Nobel citation describes his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.” Writing talent ran in Walcott’s family.
His twin brother Roderick was a successful playwright.
She was born in Kokang, Burma in the northern part of the Shan state to a rich and powerful ethnic Chinese family. She was unconventional from the start. She preferred boys clothing, refused to bind her feet in keeping with custom, and pined for her brothers’ girlfriends.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that she abandoned aristocratic life to live in the jungles with opium smugglers. There she built a militia known as “Olive’s Boys” that drew from defeated Chinese Nationalist troops who, with arms supplied by the CIA, continued the fight from Burma. They paid their bills trafficking raw opium in Southeast Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle.
In 1952, Burmese officials arrested Yang and sentenced her to five years in prison. In 1959, one her brothers abdicated as the leader of the Shan state. Yang quickly took command of the region’s army and became its de facto ruler for four years. During this time she supposedly began a relationship with Wah Wah Win Shwe, an award winning Burmese actress that continues to generate speculation more than half a century later.
In 1963, Yang was again arrested. She spent another six years in prison, where she was repeatedly tortured. In 1989, the Burmese government recruited Yang to help broker peace deals with ethnic rebel groups in Kokang. She forged a peace agreement that lasted until 2009. She spent her later years living in Muse, Myanmar, on the border with China.
Other significant world figures who died this year included:
M. Cherif Bassiouni was an Egyptian-American jurist who helped establish war crimes tribunals for Libya and Yugoslavia;
Liliane Bettencourt was an heiress to the L’Oréal fortune and world’s richest woman;
Vitaly Churkin was a Russian diplomat who served as Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 2006-2017;
Johnny Halliday was the French Elvis Presley;
Roman Herzog was the second president of a reunified Germany;
Ahmed Kathrada was a South African anti-Apartheid activist who spent a quarter of a century in prison for resisting minority white rule;
Christine Keeler had an affair with a leading Conservative Party official that shocked Britain and helped bring down a British government;
King Michael of Romania had the pro-Nazi dictator during World War II arrested and then went into exile when the communists came to power in Romania.
Emma Morano was an Italian woman who is believed to have been the last living person born in the nineteenth century;
Marina Popovich was a record-breaking Soviet test pilot;
Qian Qichen was a former Chinese foreign minister;
Arseny Roginsky was as Soviet dissident and Russian human-rights activist;
Andimba Toivo ya Toivo was the leader of Namibia’s independence movement;
Etienne Tshisekedi was a longtime opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo;
Simone Veil was a former French health minister and first woman to become president of the European Parliament;
Sima Wali was a human rights activists for women in Afghanistan.
James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Corey Cooper and Benjamin Shaver contributed to the preparation of this post.
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