I wrote yesterday about ten Americans who died in 2022 who shaped U.S. foreign policy during their lifetimes. But Americans are not the only ones who influence world affairs. 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. Abe earned his undergraduate degree at Seikei University in Tokyo, and then spent a year at the University of Southern California. 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. He became prime minister for the first time in 2006. His ascension to the job marked a pivot point in Japanese politics; he was the first prime minister born after World War. He lasted less than a year, citing health concerns in his resignation. While Abe was down, he was not out. He returned to the prime minister’s office in 2012 and held onto the job for eight years, surpassing the record for longevity set by his great-uncle. Abe worked to rejuvenate the Japanese economy, expand Japan’s regional and global influence, and strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe was assassinated while campaigning for fellow LDP members, leaving behind a complicated legacy.
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. In February 1977, de Bonafini’s twenty-six year old son, Jorge, a member of a Marxist-Leninist party, became one of the desparecidos. A second son and a daughter-in-law soon followed. As de Bonafini searched Buenos Aires for Jorge, she discovered that other mothers were also searching for missing children. De Bonafini helped organize the women. They started weekly protests in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square directly opposite Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo continued to hold the government to account even after members of the group themselves became desparecidos. The ruling junta collapsed in 1983, and the new democratic government created a truth commission to investigate the dirty war. De Bonafini criticized the investigation and resulting trials as too narrow in scope, a view that only hardened after the government granted an amnesty to many Argentine security officers. 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 that reflected Britain’s vast former imperial holdings. Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in 1947. He became a naturalized British citizen and took the the title “Duke of Edinburgh.” The couple had four children. The oldest, Charles, became King Charles III up on her death. Elizabeth II’s reign saw vast changes in Britain’s role in the world. Many British colonies won their independence, and some rejected having the British monarch as their head of state. Press coverage also turned more aggressive, as tabloids looked to publish details about the royal family’s private life. Indeed, Elizabeth called 1992 “Annus Horribilis” after taped conversations that Prince Charles and Princess Diana had with their respective lovers were leaked and the tabloids feasted on three of her four children divorcing. Throughout it all she continued to carry out her mostly ritual duties. 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 then studied law at Moscow State University. After graduating, he returned to Stavropol and spent the next twenty-two years slowly rising up the communist party hierarchy. Gorbachev curried favor with Soviet leaders, particularly Yuri Andropov, and in 1980 he was named to the Politburo. Over the next five years, the Soviet Union went through three leaders. In March 1985, Gorbachev was named general secretary. 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. It likely also guaranteed the demise of the Soviet Union. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union. Six days later it joined the ash heap of history.
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. In the late 1970s he was assigned to help create special trade and investment zones designed to take advantage of China’s economic opening to the world. In 1985, he was made mayor of Shanghai. Two years later, he was named to the Politburo. Shanghai avoided the democracy protests that rocked Beijing in 1989, which led to Jiang being the compromise candidate to become general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party after his predecessor was ousted for refusing to crack down on student protestors. 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. During that time, he pushed market reforms and engineered China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. The result was double digit economic growth that transformed China and made it a global economic power. He continued to exercise influence behind the scenes after leaving office, though Xi Jinping eventually curbed the power of the “Shanghai Faction” that Jiang led.
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 protestors adopted many of its songs in demonstrations that rocked the country in 2007 as part of what became known as the Saffron Revolution. Moved by the protests, Phyo Zeya Thaw organized hip-hoppers into their own anti-government group, Generation Wave. He was arrested in 2008 and spent the next three years in prison. 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. He instead helped lead opposition to the junta. Phyo Zeya Thaw was arrested on terrorism charges in late 2021 and convicted in a sham trial. He was hanged in July 2022, along with three other pro-democracy activists Ko Jimmy (Kyaw Min Yu), Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw.
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 Koranic studies at the University of Mosul, served for a brief time in the Iraqi army, and then earned a master’s degree in Koranic 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). He was arrested in 2008, and while a prisoner at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison, he became an informant. The information he provided enabled the U.S. military to locate and kill Baghdadi’s second-in-command, and likely other ISIS militants as well. Qurayshi was released from prison in 2009 and returned to ISIS. He eventually became a close aide to Baghdadi, in part because his degrees in Koranic studies gave him significant religious credentials. 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. He was killed trying to escape, and in 1942 Reinhardt was sent to the Płaszów forced-labor camp because her secretarial skills were deemed useful. In 1944, as the Soviet Red Army marched toward Krakow, the Germans began to move the prisoners at Płaszów to the Auschwitz death camp. Schindler ran an enamelware factory that used prison labor. Horrified by what he was seeing, he worked to save as many prisoners as he could. He insisted that his workers were essential to the German war effort and received authorization to relocate them to a prison camp in Czechoslovakia. Reinhardt worked as Schindler’s assistant, typing up the names of Jewish prisoners who would be classified as essential and spared from near-certain death. The list had to be repeatedly retyped as Schindler added more names. Reinhardt was a skilled stenographer but just a two-fingered typist. Schindler’s “essential workers” eventually reached Czechoslovakia and were liberated in May 1945. Reinhardt was reunited with her son after the war, married, had a daughter, and lived in New York’s Upper West Side for fifty years before moving to Israel in 2007.
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. The two spent the early 1990s in Sudan, but were eventually expelled and returned to Afghanistan. There they plotted the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and finally the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan sent Zawahiri into hiding. He assumed leadership of Al-Qaeda after U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six killed Bin Laden in 2011, but the group’s capabilities had by then been severely diminished. Zawahiri was killed by a U.S. drone strike as he stood on the balcony of house in Kabul.
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. Zhirinovsky also attended law at night and began his career as a lawyer. He sought membership in the Communist Party but was rejected, either because of his bombastic behavior or his involvement in a kickback scheme. 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. He initially denied news reports in 1994 that his father was Jewish. He later acknowledged his Jewish heritage but insisted he was an ethnic Russian. Zhirinovsky’s outrageous behavior and language prompted his critics to dismiss him as a bigot and clown. But as Zhirinovsky lay dying of COVID-19, Vladimir Putin was using his ultranationalist arguments to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Other significant world figures who died in 2022 included: Haleh Afshar was an Iranian-British scholar who championed the rights of Muslim women. Luis Echeverría Alvarez was president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976 and was accused of waging a “dirty war” against leftist opponents. Vadim V. Bakatin was a liberal Russian politician who served as the last chairman of the K.G.B. Khalid Balti was a senior leader and spokesman for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the largest militant organization in Pakistan and an ally of the Taliban. Bao Tong was a top Chinese Communist Party official who became a dissident after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Ela Bhatt was a lawyer who advocated gender equality for women workers in India. Andrew Van der Bijl was a Dutch Christian missionary who smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. Hilton Cheong-Leen served on Hong Kong’s Urban Council for thirty-four years and earned the title “Hong Kong’s mayor.” Greta Ferusic was a Bosnian architect who survived both Auschwitz and the Siege of Sarajevo. Mario Fiorentini was the most decorated of Italy’s World War II resistance fighters. Werner Franke was a molecular biologist who along with his wife exposed East Germany’s extensive sports doping program.
Monique Hanotte was a member of the Belgian resistance who helped smuggle as many as 140 Allied airmen out of German-occupied Belgium during WWII. Antonio Inoki was a popular Japanese wrestler and legislator who helped secure the release of forty-one Japanese hostages on the eve of the Persian Gulf War. Johnny Johnson was a former officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force and the last surviving participant of the 1943 Dambusters Raid. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan oversaw a period of remarkable economic growth and political stability in his eighteen years as ruler of the United Arab Emirates. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was president of Mali from his election in 2013 until his ouster in a coup in 2020. Mwai Kibaki was the third president of Kenya. Gerda Weissmann Klein was a Holocaust survivor whose story was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary. Leonid Kravchuk was the first president of an independent Ukraine. Evgeny Maslin was a Soviet general who helped secure the Soviet nuclear arsenal after the Soviet Union collapsed. Peng Ming-min was a leading advocate for Taiwanese independence.
Fidel Ramos was president of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998. Nafis Sadik was a doctor, reproductive rights activist, and former executive director of the UN Population Fund. David Sassoli was an Italian lawmaker who was president of the European Parliament. Wolfgang Schwanitz was the last head of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Stanislav Shushkevich was the first leader of post-Soviet Belarus and a critic of current Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen master who urged Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the Vietnam war. Jerzy Urban was a spokesperson for the Polish Communist Party who loved to joust verbally with Western reporters. Mikhail Vasenkov was the leader of a Russian spy ring in the United States whose exploits inspired the TV series “The Americans.” Zhang Sizhi was a Chinese lawyer who defended Chinese dissidents.
Sinet Adous, Elia Ching, John David Cobb, and Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series: