Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan - the shortlist for Time Magazine’s Person Of The Year reflected how big a year the Nationalist Right had in 2016.
While Trump was the eventual winner, even Nigel Farage, the man who secured the referendum in which we voted to leave the EU, was on the list of those who could be named the biggest newsmaker of the year.
If you think this year’s shortlist has some interesting characters, previous winners show that authoritarian strongmen have always been a popular choice for the accolade, which is awarded to the person who did the most to shape the news of the past year, for good or ill.
The most controversial choice is also the best-known...
1938: Adolf Hitler
“Hitler became in 1938 the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today,” was how Time described its decision to name the Nazi leader and German leader Man Of The Year. His invasion of Poland the following year triggered the Second World War that killed millions. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Hitler shot himself in his Berlin bunker in April, 1945, rather than be captured by the invading Russians.
1939 and 1942: Joseph Stalin
Stalin murdered millions in the Soviet Union in his three decades as its leader. He murdered political opponents without hesitation and deported his citizens to Siberia for the most trivial allegations of disloyalty to the Soviet cause. Making him Man Of The Year the first time, Time noted how he had established a Cult of Personality, writing: “Joseph Stalin has gone a long way toward deifying himself while alive. No flattery is too transparent, no compliment too broad for him. He became the fountain of all Socialist wisdom.” Three years later Stalin, by now a crucial ally to the West in the war against Germany, won a second time.
1957: Nikita Khrushchev
Time named Stalin’s successor Man Of The Year the year the Soviets sent the first man-made satellite into space. He condemned Stalin and sought to undo much of his legacy. But his decision to send tanks to crush the 1956 uprising in Hungary showed the regime would still resort to force to crush dissent. “In 1957’s twelve months, Nikita Khrushchev, peasant’s son and cornfield commissar scorned by the party’s veteran intellectuals, disposed all his serious rivals — at least for the time,” the magazine wrote.
1971 and 1972: Richard Nixon
Before the Watergate scandal brought him down, Richard Nixon was Man Of The Year two years running. The man who famously kept an enemies’ list is remembered for his authoritarian streak. “He reached for a place in history by opening a dialogue with China,” Time wrote of him the first time he got the award. “He doggedly pursued his own slow timetable in withdrawing the nation’s combat troops from their longest and most humiliating war... with a flair for secrecy and surprise that has marked his leadership as both refreshingly flexible and disconcertingly unpredictable.” In 1974, Nixon became the first president to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal.
1979: Ayatullah Khomeini
In 1979, Khomeini led a revolution that turned Iran into an Islamic Republic that was deeply hostile to the West. When Time made him Man Of The Year, the country was holding 52 Americans hostage, seized from its embassy in Tehran. They were held for over a year. “Rarely has so improbable a leader shaken the world,” Time wrote of Khomeini. In 1980 Iran went to war with neighbouring Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died on both sides over eight years.
1978 and 1985: Deng Xiaoping
The Chinese leader won the accolade twice, the second time in 1985 for “sweeping economic reforms that have challenged Marxist orthodoxies”. He did not reform the police state and the military clampdown on the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, which happened just before his retirement, killed hundreds, maybe thousands.
2007: Vladimir Putin
If Putin is Time Person of The Year in 2016, it will be for the second time. After eight years as Russian president, former KGB agent and strongman Vladimir Putin had rescued Russia when it was “on the verge of becoming a failed state”, Time said of him in 2007. His persistence had put the country “back on the map and he intends to redraw it himself”, Time said.
But the magazine was wary of Putin, whom it derided for his opposition to democracy and free speech, saying he could take Russia back to repression it knew in Soviet times. “Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse.”