Time magazine’s most surprising people of the year

An image of Adolf Hitler in front of copies of Time Magazine
Adolf Hitler was named Time's Man of the Year in 1938. Image: Left Hiter via German Federal Archives | CC BY-SA 3.0 DE: Right: Time Magazines - Shutterstock

In late 1927, editors at Time magazine collectively facepalmed over the fact they hadn’t yet devoted a cover to Charles Lindbergh, the pilot who’d become a global sensation earlier that year by flying solo cross the Atlantic. As they’d missed the boat on the original news story, Time needed an excuse to belatedly put Lindbergh on the cover. So, they came up with the concept of the ‘Man of the Year’, beginning an annual tradition – since re-named Person of the Year – that still triggers discussion and debate to this day.

Politicians, business titans, activists and religious leaders are among those who’ve been declared Time’s Person of the Year. Some choices may seem surprising or even shocking at first glance, but that’s because the designation isn’t necessarily supposed to mark someone out as worthy of praise. Instead, the Person of the Year is any individual who’s had the biggest impact, for better or for worse. Here are some of the most striking examples from across the past century.

Adolf Hitler – 1938

The fact that Hitler was named Man of the Year in 1938 has long provoked disbelief among those who aren’t aware of Time magazine’s morally neutral criteria for selection. In Hitler’s case, he was selected because of his malign influence in Europe, and the magazine was absolutely vehement in its condemnation. The cover of the issue depicted the dictator playing a gothic organ draped with dead bodies, while the article poured scorn on the ‘horrified and apparently impotent world’ for allowing Hitler to re-establish Germany as a military power. It also powerfully and accurately described the Nazi leader as ‘the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today.’

Joseph Stalin – 1939 and 1942

Hitler’s closest rival in the pantheon of 20th Century despots, Joseph Stalin was twice ‘awarded’ the title Man of the Year. The first time, it was for doing the unthinkable by signing a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. As Time put it, at one stroke Stalin had ‘not only sacrificed the good will of thousands of people the world over sympathetic to the ideals of Socialism, he matched himself with Adolf Hitler as the world's most hated man.’ In 1942, however, the turmoil of the war led Time to take a very different tone. This time round, it praised the Soviet dictator for standing resolute against Hitler in what the magazine described as the ‘year of blood and strength’.

Henry Kissinger – 1972

Serving as National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger was one of the dominant figures of the Cold War, helping to forge closer relations with the USSR and – significantly – China. In 1972, he and President Richard Nixon were named Men of the Year for ‘accomplishing the most profound arrangement of the Earth’s political powers since the beginning of the Cold War.’ However, many have long regarded Kissinger as a ruthless Machiavellian strategist and war criminal, citing his involvement in the secret American carpet-bombing of Cambodia, among other things. There was certainly a collective raising of eyebrows when he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Vietnam war. Singer Tom Lehrer famously commented that ‘Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.’

Ayatollah Khomeini – 1979

One of Time’s most controversial picks for Man of the Year was the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Islamic cleric had become the Supreme Leader of Iran in 1979, following the overthrow of the pro-Western Shah. The same year, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking dozens of staffers hostage. Time magazine slammed Khomeini as a glorified terrorist, saying ‘the revolution that he led to triumph threatens to upset the world balance of power more than any other political event since Hitler's conquest of Europe.’ While this was obviously a highly critical take, the magazine’s decision to ‘award” Khomeini the Man of the Year title nevertheless triggered backlash in the US, largely because the embassy siege was still going on (and would in fact not end until 1981).

George W. Bush – 2000 and 2004

The 2000 US presidential election was one of the most polarising political debacles in the nation’s history, with George W. Bush just scraping to victory after a recount. Those who believed Al Gore should really have become president may well have been incensed by Bush being named Person of the Year, even though Time did acknowledge that ‘the candidate with the perfect bloodlines comes to office amid charges that his is a bastard presidency.’ Perhaps even more controversial was Bush’s 2004 citation as Man of the Year. In the midst of the bitterly contentious Iraq War, Time dubbed Bush an ‘American revolutionary’ who had reshaped politics to ‘fit his 10-gallon-hat leadership style’.

Rudy Giuliani – 2001

The selection of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as Person of the Year in 2001 was entirely uncontroversial at the time. His steadfast leadership during the carnage of 9/11 had led to Giuliani being hailed as ‘America’s mayor’, propelling him to global fame and even earning an honorary knighthood from the Queen. Decades later, many now find themselves unable to recognise the man whom Time had hailed for ‘having more faith in us than we had in ourselves’. Now better known for his loyalty to Donald Trump, corruption allegations, and his call for ‘trial by combat’ at a rally of Trump supporters shortly before the storming of the US Capitol, Rudy’s trajectory since being named Person of the Year has confused and baffled many of his one-time admirers.

Mark Zuckerberg – 2010

As with Rudy Giuliani, Mark Zuckerberg was a far more venerated figure when he was named Person of the Year than he is today. Time hailed the Facebook founder’s achievement as a digital revolutionary, saying that ‘in less than seven years, Zuckerberg wired together a twelfth of humanity into a single network’. The issue also provided fascinating up-close insights into the social network and the man himself (‘His default expression is a direct and slightly wide-eyed stare that makes you wonder if you've got a spider on your forehead’). Since then, Zuckerberg has faced global calls for greater accountability, with former employees turned whistleblowers Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen speaking out about how the platform has been used to spread fake news, weaken democracy and even cause psychological harm to children.