Who's the Most Important Person of the Twentieth Century?

I want to scream out "Gavrilo Princip!" Here's a man who single-handedly sets off a chain reaction which ultimately leads to the deaths of 80 million people.

Top that, Albert Einstein!

With just a couple of bullets, this terrorist starts the First World War, which destroys four monarchies, leading to a power vacuum filled by the Communists in Russia and the Nazis in Germany who then fight it out in a Second World War. Considering that all Princip wanted was to bring Bosnia under Serb control, it's a bit ironic that after a century of very messy history, it isn't. Everything about the world has changed drastically over the last century, except that.

Most historians consider this century to have begun in 1914, so in essence, Gavrilo Princip is the man who created the 20th Century.

Some people would minimize Princip's importance by saying that a Great Power War was inevitable sooner or later given the tensions of the times, but I say that it was no more inevitable than, say, a war between Nato and the Warsaw Pact. Left unsparked, the Great War could have been avoided, and without it, there would have been no Lenin, no Hitler, no Eisenhower. Princip is one of the few individuals ever to make history.

My vote for number two VIP would go to Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who brought the century to an end.

(The photo of Gavrilo Princip was stolen from the World War One Image Archive).

What Real Historians Say:

If my opinion isn't good enough for you, then let's take a look at what other historians have to say. The best way to do this is to check the indexes to their books. If the book spends twice as many pages discussing Winston Churchill as it does discussing Margaret Thatcher, then it's safe to say that this historian thinks Churchill is the more history-worthy of the two. If an historian spends more time trashing Hitler than he does praising Gandhi, then he considers Hitler more important than Gandhi -- whether he's willing to admit it or not. All we have to do is count the index entries for 20th Century VIPs in several history books, average them all out, and we've got our list. (If you'd like more details on my statistical methodology (and who wouldn't!), click here.)

1 Adolph Hitler 10.05%
2 Iosif Stalin 6.44%
3 Mao Zedong 5.26%
4 Nikita Khrushchev 3.85%
5 Winston Churchill 3.68%
6 Franklin Roosevelt 3.56%
7 Lenin 3.51%
8 Benito Mussolini 3.25%
9 Mikhail Gorbachev 3.23%
10 Charles DeGaulle 3.20%

The Second World War stands out as the most prominent event of the Century. Of the 10 most frequently mentioned individuals in recent history, half were leaders of countries during the war, and two others led nationless armies in the war (Mao & DeGaulle).

Although this is sometimes called "The American Century", it's clear from the list that professional historians find events in Russia much more interesting than events elsewhere. Four of our Top Ten are leaders of the Soviet Union. It's easy to see why: from the Russian Revolution to Yalta to the Cold War to Glasnost, international relations have often revolved around what mischief the Russians were up to. Overlapping with this focus on Russian is a focus on the history of Communism.

Let's move on to the next ten:

11 Ch'iang Kai-shek 3.08%
12 Dwight Eisenhower 2.60%
13 Ronald Reagan 2.11%
14 Richard Nixon 1.95%
15 Woodrow Wilson 1.91%
16 John F Kennedy 1.80%
17 James Carter 1.67%
18 Fidel Castro 1.53%
19 Gamal Nasser 1.42%
20 Mohandas Gandhi 1.36%

Numbers 11 and 12 continue the World War Two grand slam from the top ten, but we're finally getting a peek at some other trends. We've now reached heavy discussion of American history, with six US presidents all in a row. It's almost as if no two historians can agree on who the second most important US president of this century has been; however, this sudden flood of lightweights has no-doubt has caused you to wonder where Theodore Roosevelt is. (as in "Carter!? You put Carter ahead of Teddy Roosevelt? What kind of a pinhead are you?") Good question. Historians generally begin the 20th Century with the First World War, so TR misses out.

Also at this level, we've reached the first of our VIPs to not rule a country - Gandhi. Also, our highest ranked Moslem (Nasser) and our highest Latin American (Castro)

Now for the next ten:

21 Harry Truman 1.13%
22 Leon Trotsky 1.07%
23 Leonid Brezhnev 1.01%
24 Francisco Franco .98%
25 Tito .93%
26 Lyndon Johnson .92%
27 Jawarharlal Nehru .87%
28 Neville Chamberlain .86%
29 John Maynard Keynes .83%
30 Douglas MacArthur .79%

We've picked up three more non-heads of state -- Trotsky, Keynes and MacArthur -- but by now you're probably noticing that everyone on the list is a politico of some sort, even the ones who aren't actually rulers. Well, that's what historians focus on. Sure, they might toss in a few token chapters on the arts and sciences, but when they do, they usually discuss anonymous trends rather than individual acomplishments.

On to the next ten:

31 John Foster Dulles .79%
32 Nikolai II .73%
33 Kemal Mustafa Ataturk .70%
34 William Clinton .67%
35 Theodore Roosevelt .66%
36 George Bush .66%
37 Henry Kissinger .62%
38 Anthony Eden .60%
39 Erich von Ludendorff .59%

Once we reached number 30, we got to the point where the margin of error is almost the same as the score itself, so you should be careful about reading too much into this batch, but now's probably the time to point out that among the 50 people that historians go on and on about, not one is a woman. While you're pondering the implications of that [n.1], we'll move on to the next batch, which is interesting because we finally -- finally -- get to see other fields of human endeavor besides killing people and bossing them around:

40 Henry Ford .55%
41 Albert Einstein .55%
42 James Joyce .54%
43 Harold Macmillan .54%
44 Conrad Adenauer .53%
45 David Lloyd George .52%
46 Hafez Assad .50%
47 Anwar Sadat .46%
48 Alfred Hitchcock .45%
49 Pablo Picasso .45%
50 Sigmund Freud .44%

So it looks like Picasso is the top painter of the century, Joyce the top writer, Hitchcock the top film maker, Ford the top businessman, Einstein the top scientist, and Freud the top figurer-out of people.

If we want to allocate the scores of the top 50 according to nation, we get this heirarchy:

Have you noticed yet that none of these people are Japanese? Most historians treat the Japanese as a hive with no discernable individuals. This is an oversight which you should probably rectify if you're planning to write a history of the 20th Century. It's not that I'm being PC; it's just that I'm curious how the Japanese got to be such big shots.

If we group our top leaders by political system we've got:

So the next time that you hear someone complain that Fascism gets all the bad press, while no one ever publicizes the sins of Communism, you can tell them that they're mistaken; the average history of the Twentieth Century gives Communism 3 pages of coverage for every 2 pages it gives Fascism.

Popular Culture

So far, I've been using serious pipe-puffing scholars to determine who the century's big shots have been, but now let's apply that same analysis to books which are directed at the popular market. I averaged out a few not-quite-academic lookbacks at the 20th Century:

  • David Wallechinsky's Twentieth Century : History With the Boring Parts Left Out (1995)
  • People Weekly's : The Most Intriguing People of the Century (1997)
  • Time : Great Events of the 20th Century (1997)

... and got this list:

Rank Name Score
1 Adolf Hitler 4.99%
2 John F. Kennedy 3.47%
3 Winston Churchill 3.39%
4 Franklin Roosevelt 3.05%
5 Martin Luther King 3.04%
6 Richard Nixon 2.92%
7 Marilyn Monroe 2.72%
8 Albert Einstein 2.30%
9 Ronald Reagan 2.06%
10 Elvis Presley 2.03%
11 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis 1.82%
12 Charlie Chaplin 1.78%
13 Theodore Roosevelt 1.77%
14 Mao Zedong 1.74%
15 Harry Truman 1.48%
16 Charles Lindbergh 1.45%
17 Iosif Stalin 1.42%
18 Robert Kennedy 1.39%
19 John Lennon 1.37%
20 Pablo Picasso 1.31%

Now, these are the faces we think of when somebody says "Twentieth Century", not Jawarharlal Nehru or John Maynard Keynes. We picture Martin Luther King telling everyone that he has a dream; Marilyn Monroe's dress billowing in the breeze; Winston Churchill flashing us an inspirational V for Victory; John F. Kennedy at the Vienna Wall declaring "Ich bin ein Wiener!"; Harry Truman's dress billowing in the breeze. Sure we don't know much history, but these images aren't history; they're the mythology of our times.



"... not one is a woman."

It's probably rather rude for me to bring up this question without even trying to answer it myself, so my take on this is that women have generally been forbidden or discouraged from participating in the more history-worthy professions such as politics, business and the military. In fields which are considered more ladylike, such as literature, women have proven every bit as productive as men. For example, women (Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Margaret Mitchell, Toni Morrison) wrote 4 of the top 10 books on the Madison Public Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, while Edith Wharton, Amy Tan, Ayn Rand, Willa Cather, Ursula Leguin, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing (to name a few) help fill out the next 90.


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Last updated April 1999

Copyright © 1999 Matthew White