I wrote yesterday about ten Americans who died in 2023 who shaped U.S. foreign policy during their lifetimes. But people elsewhere also 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.
Silvio Berlusconi (b. 1936) was an Italian media tycoon who served three times as Italy’s prime minister and whose career was dogged by allegations of corruption and other misdeeds. Berlusconi was born and raised in Milan. He studied law at Milan’s State University but set his sights on being an entrepreneur rather than a lawyer. He became a successful real-estate developer and then turned to television. He eventually set up three television networks that became known for showing racier and lighter fare than could be found on Italy’s government-run channels. A corruption scandal in the early 1990s ended the careers of his political patrons. Berlusconi responded by forming his own party, the center-right Forza Italy, ahead of the 1994 elections. Making full use of his media empire, he won and was sworn in as prime minister just four months later. That coalition government lasted just nine months. However, Berlusconi had established himself a dominant figure in Italian politics. In 2001, he became prime minister once again. He held onto the post for five years. After spending two years in the opposition, he regained the prime ministership in 2008. By the time he stepped down in 2011, he was mired in a range of sex scandals and his legal troubles were mounting. He managed to skirt most of the charges against him, but he was convicted in 2012 of tax fraud and barred from holding office for six years. His attempts to return to power once the ban expired failed.
Jacques Delors (b. 1925) was a French politician who in his decade as president of the European Commission championed the creation of a single European market and the creation of the euro. Delors was born in Paris to a family of modest means. He attended the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) and earned a degree in economics. While in school he began working at France’s central bank. He became active in the trade union movement, and he was named to France’s economic planning commission in 1962. In 1969, he began advising France’s Gaullist prime minister on social issues. When that government collapsed, Delors became a professor and joined the Socialist Party. He won a seat in the European Parliament in 1979. He became France’s finance minister two years later when Francois Mitterrand was elected president. In 1985, Delors was named the president of the European Commission, the executive body of what was then the European Community. In that post, he championed European integration. He helped secure approval of the Single European Act of 1986, which facilitated the movement of people, goods, and capital among the European Community’s then-dozen member states. In 1989, he led the drafting of the Delors report, which laid the intellectual foundation for the euro. His efforts to further European integration culminated three years later with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, authorized the creation of the euro, and committed member states to pursuing joint foreign policy and security goals.
Jiang Yanyong (b. 1931) was a retired Chinese military surgeon who exposed Beijing’s coverup of the 2003 SARS epidemic and who was arrested for demanding that the Chinese government acknowledge the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Jiang was born to a wealthy family in Hangzhou and grew up in Shanghai. He decided at an early age to become a doctor. He succeeded and enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army, where he specialized in surgery. Like many other educated Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang was denounced as a counterrevolutionary and sent to a labor camp. After five years, he was declared “rehabilitated” and allowed to return to Beijing, where he eventually became the chief of surgery at a local hospital. The SARS virus first emerged in China in November 2022, but Chinese officials withheld information about the disease for three months. The World Health Organization issued its first warning about the virus in March 2023, but within weeks Chinese officials declared that transmission of the disease had been halted after just a dozen of cases. Jiang was enraged by what he knew to be a lie. He sent an email exposing the Chinese government’s coverup of SARS. Beijing eventually acknowledged the disease’s spread and took steps to halt it. Jiang won praise from some Chinese officials for being a whistleblower on SARS. However, when he subsequently called for public acknowledgement of the many Chinese people who died while protesting in Tiananmen Square, he was placed under house arrest and forced once again to undergo “political rehabilitation.”
Thulani Maseko (b. 1970) was a Swazi human rights lawyer who lobbied to end Eswatini’s absolute monarchy. Maseko was born in Bhunya, Eswatini. He earned a law degree in what was then called Swaziland, and in 2010-11 he was a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at American University’s Washington College of Law, where he earned a master’s degree in international legal studies. In Eswatini, he had a long history of using the law to challenge the government. He called for the end of absolute rule by King Mswati III, who has ruled the country since 1986, living in luxury while most of Eswatini’s citizens live in poverty. In 2014, Maseko wrote articles for the Nation, Eswatini’s only independent newspaper, criticizing the country’s lack of judicial impartiality. Shortly after, Maseko was arrested and convicted of contempt of court. He spent more than a year in prison. He was eventually allowed to appeal his conviction after the judge who presided over his trial was found guilty of corruption. In 2018, Maseko sued the Eswatini government after Mswati changed the country’s name from Swaziland to Eswatini without public or parliamentary approval. After Mswati responded to pro-democracy protests in 2021 with a brutal crackdown, Maseko led the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a coalition of political parties and civil society groups seeking to bring democracy to Eswatini. On January 21, 2023, two unidentified gunmen shot Maseko through a window while he was sitting in his living room with his wife and two children. The Eswatini government blamed Maseko’s assassination on “unknown criminals.”
Hans Modrow (b. 1928) was one of East Germany’s last leaders. Modrow was born in the village of Jasenitz, Germany, which is now the Polish town of Police. In 1945, Modrow was pressed into the service of the Volkssturm (People’s Militia), a doomed effort to stave off Germany’s defeat. He was captured by Soviet troops, sent to a de-Nazification camp in Moscow, and became a communist. When he returned to what had become East Germany, he became active in Communist Party politics. By 1973, he was party chief in Dresden and viewed as a reformer by virtue of his refusal to accept the perks that most of his party colleagues considered their right. Modrow didn’t reach the top of East German politics until November 8, 1989, the day before the Berlin Wall fell, when he was named to the country’s Politburo. Ten days later, he was prime minister. The post conveyed little authority initially; power was vested instead in the Communist Party’s general secretary. But he resigned in December, leaving Modrow leading the country. Facing continued domestic protests, he agreed to share power with opposition groups. By February 1990, Modrow dropped his opposition to German reunification and instead sought to craft a deal under which a neutral Germany would have a joint parliament. The proposal gained no traction. He then lost in the May 1990 elections that he called, and by that October Germany was reunified. Modrow went on to serve in the German Parliament and later in the European Parliament.
Pervez Musharraf (b. 1943) was a Pakistani army chief of staff who seized power in a 1999 coup and who spent his last years living in exile. Musharraf was born into an Urdu-speaking family in Delhi. When he was four, his family fled to what became Pakistan after the partition of India turned violent. His father became a diplomat for the new Pakistani state, and the family spent seven years living in Turkey. In 1961, Musharraf entered the Pakistan Military Academy. He was commissioned as an officer three years later. He was decorated for braving during Pakistan’s 1965 war with India over the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Five years later he fought with an elite commando unit in Pakistan’s 1971 civil war. He rose steadily through the ranks. In 1998, he was appointed army chief of staff. In that post, he directed the Pakistani military during the Kargil conflict with India that began in May 1999. Five months later, he led a coup after learning that Pakistan’s prime minister intended to fire him. Musharraf initially supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. He reversed course, however, after 9/11 and backed the U.S. war on terror. That support, combined with his efforts to marginalize Islamist militants and other missteps, fueled a backlash. In November 2007, he imposed emergency rule. The move only inflamed resentments against him. In August 2008, he resigned and went into exile. He returned from exile in 2013, only to leave once again to avoid facing criminal charges for decisions he made in office.
Solomon Perel (b. 1925) was a German Jew who stayed alive during World War II by joining the Hitler Youth. Perel was born in Peine, Germany. He was ten when the Nazis imposed the Nuremberg Race Laws, which legalized persecution of Jews. His family moved to Poland seeking a better life. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the family was forced to live in a ghetto. At his parents’ urging, he fled to Soviet-controlled territory, ending up in an orphanage in Grodno in what is now Belarus. After the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Perel fled to Minsk, where he was captured. Knowing he faced almost certain death if it was discovered he was Jewish, he hid his identification papers while waiting to be interrogated by German soldiers. When asked if he was Jewish, he said he was a German named Josef Perjel. The soldiers accepted his answer and made him a member of their unit. Because he could speak Russian, he served as an interpreter; one of the captured Soviets he helped interrogate was Joseph Stalin’s son. Perel’s commanding officer arranged for him to be sent to a Hitler Youth school in Germany. For three-and-a-half years he lived, as he described it, “a split personality—a Nazi by day and a Jew by night.” Near the war’s end, he was sent to the Western Front. He was captured by American soldiers and his impersonation ended. Perel’s autobiography became the 1990 film Europa Europa, which won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.
Ahmed Qurei (b. 1937) was a Palestinian politician who served as the prime minster of the Palestinian National Authority and was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to mutual recognition. Qurei was born in Abu Dis, a village on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. In his early twenties, he moved to Saudi Arabia where he worked for the Arab Bank. In 1968, he joined Fatah, the Palestinian resistance group led by Yasir Arafat, and moved to Beirut. There he founded the Samed Foundation, the PLO’s economic wing. Later, Qurei became the director general of the PLO’s department of economic affairs and planning. In 1992, he met secretly with an Israeli academic in London. That meeting led to talks with Israeli officials, with Qurei as the lead Palestinian negotiator, that produced the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority to provide Palestinians with limited self-government in the West Bank and Gaza. With the signing of the accords, Qurei returned to Abu Dis hoping to begin building a Palestinian state. However, the momentum for a final agreement soon faltered, a trend he was unable to reverse during two stints as prime minister. Qurei was the Palestinians’ chief negotiator once again in 2000 when President Bill Clinton hosted Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in a bid to strike a deal. He withdrew from the negotiations, however, after Clinton accused him of negotiating in bad faith.
Shinta Ratri (1962) was an Indonesian transgender rights activist who founded an Islamic boarding school to help transgender women in Indonesia. Ratri was born and raised in Yogyakarta, a city on the island of Java. She transitioned as a teenager with the support of her family. She attended a university in Yogyakarta and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. While in school, she began to advocate for lesbian, gay, and transgender rights. In 1982, she and a friend established the Yogyakarta Waria (Transgender) Association. In 2008, she and two colleagues founded Pondok Pesantren Waria Al-Fatah. It remains the only Islamic boarding school in the world that serves transgender women, and it now hosts roughly forty students at a time. Ratri created the school so that transgender women would have a safe space to study the Quran and pray. She made it a point to tell every trans woman who came to the school that “being a trans woman is not a sin.” The school has endured tough times. In 2016, a mob of religious fundamentalists attacked the school, forcing it to shut down for five months. In 2019, Ratri was recognized with the Front Line Defenders Award for championing trans rights in the face of continued hostility to her mission. In accepting the award, she said: “I want as many people as possible to get to know about us [waria]. I hope the day will come when anyone can pray together at the same place without feeling uncomfortable.”
Wolfgang Schäuble (b. 1942) was a German politician who played a leading role in the country’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was left wheelchair-bound after a 1990 assassination attempt. Schäuble was born in Freiburg im Breisgau in southwestern Germany. He trained as a lawyer and early in his career worked as a tax adviser. He joined the conservative Christian Democrat Union (CDU) while still a teenager. In 1972, he won a seat in the West German parliament. He remained a member of parliament until his death. He became a favorite of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and he served as Kohl’s chief of staff for five years. Schäuble was interior minister in 1989 when the Berlin War fell. In that job, he helped lead the negotiations over German reunification. On October 12, 1990, just nine days after reunification took place, an assailant with a history of mental illness shot Schäuble in the face and spine, leaving him gravely injured. He nonetheless quickly returned to work and lobbied his colleagues to move Germany’s capital from Bonn back to Berlin. After Kohl lost his chancellorship in the 1998 elections, Schäuble became the head of the CDU and made Angela Merkel his deputy. He stepped down two years later, however, in the wake of a scandal over political donations. Merkel became chancellor in 2005 and made him interior minister. He served as finance minister from 2009 to 2017, where he played a critical role in addressing the eurozone debt crisis.
Other significant world figures who died in 2023 include: Martti Ahtisaari was a Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his role in negotiating the end of conflicts. Boniface Alexandre served as Haiti’s provisional president for two years after the country’s 2004 coup. Abdul Ati al-Obeidi was a Libyan prime minister who negotiated the end of the country’s nuclear weapons program. Henri Konan Bédié was a president of the Ivory Coast who continued to play a prominent role in politics after being deposed. Alvaro Colom was a president of Guatemala who backed a United Nations anti-corruption mission that later had him arrested on corruption charges. Constantine II was an Olympic gold medalist and king of Greece who intervened in national politics, bringing down an elected government and ushering in a military dictatorship that abolished the Greek monarchy. Albert del Rosario was a Filipino diplomat who served as the ambassador to the United States and as secretary of foreign affairs won an international arbitration over China’s territorial claims to the West Philippine Sea. Jayantha Dhanapala was a Sri Lankan diplomat who championed nuclear disarmament.
Bruce Haigh was an Australian diplomat whose efforts to help black activists in apartheid Africa were immortalized in the movie Cry Freedom. Robert Hébras was the last survivor of the massacre of villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, by a Nazi SS Division. Mukarram Jah was the nizam of Hyderabad who opted to become a sheep farmer in Australia. Jiang Ping was a Chinese legal scholar who advocated for the rule of law and helped write the legislation underlying China’s market economy. Gérard Latortue was an interim prime minister of Haiti following the country’s 2004 coup. Henri Lopes was an accomplished novelist and the former prime minister of the Republic of Congo. David Miranda was an openly gay Brazilian politician who aided in Snowden leaks. Giorgio Napolitano was Italy’s longest-serving president.
Gary Prado Salmón was a Bolivian general who as an army captain led the mission that captured Che Guevara. Freddie Scappaticci headed the Irish Republican Army’s internal security unit for a decade and may have been a British informant. Mircea Snegur helped the lead Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union and became the country’s first president. Lubomir Strougal was named prime minister of Czechoslovakia after Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring and remained in power for eighteen years. Laszlo Solyom helped lead Hungary’s transition to democracy and later became the country’s president. Arne Treholt was a rising Norwegian politician who was convicted of passing secrets to the Soviet Union. Volodymyr Andriyovych Vasylenko was a Ukrainian diplomat and legal scholar, who authored the legal assessment of the Holodomor ruling it a genocide. Fernando Villavicencio was an Ecuadorian presidential candidate who was assassinated at a campaign rally.
Sinet Adous, Michelle Kurilla, and Luca Zislin assisted in the preparation of this post.
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