Every era in history has produced heroes, trailblazers, and icons whose impact has lasted generations. Their stories, breakthroughs, and ideas have paved the way for development, freedom, and the betterment of mankind, leaving their successors with a brighter world than the one they were first born into.
Such figures have been politicians, religious figures, intellectuals, and ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. Some are known worldwide, and some go unsung, but all have left their marks nonetheless.
It is impossible to mention everyone who has made the world a better place, even when narrowed down to specific eras.
Despite that difficulty, though, it’s important to honor as many of those as we can. And with the world seemingly right on the precipice of ushering in yet another new era, it’s a perfect time to look back and highlight some of the most influential and heroic names to leave their marks on the world during the 20th century and beyond.
Each person on this list impacted history in their own way, guiding the course of history through leadership, inspiration, patriotism, and valor. To avoid attempting to rank their lives and stories, we’ve shared the following 18 names in chronological order—honoring them all for what they’ve done without trying to value one over another.
1. Winston Churchill
30 November, 1874 – 24 January, 1965
Churchill remains one of the most prominent historical figures of the Second World War, largely due to his staunch opposition to the rise of fascism and successful military campaign leading Great Britain to victory during the conflict.
Churchill’s legacy has been one of the most heavily scrutinized in the modern western world since his death in 1965, with academics debating his imperialist beliefs against his strong opposition to the anti-Semitic views of the Nazi Party and his passionate speeches against Hitler and the Axis powers. The Nobel Literature Prize winner and Order of Merit recipient remains one of the key heroes in World War II, though, and his ability to bring a nation together in Great Britain during that period of turmoil was second to none.
2. Raoul Wallenberg
4 August, 1912 – disappeared 17 January, 1945
The military campaigns against Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and the rest of the Axis powers during World War II were some of the most important military campaigns in the modern world.
Behind the scenes, though, countless individuals worked tirelessly to save as many human lives as they could. That’s where Wallenberg came into play; although not quite as famous or well-remembered as military strategists like Winston Churchill and George Patton, his crucial work saving an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust puts him among the bravest individuals to come out of the 20th century.
Wallenberg saved so many Jews by issuing illegal but official-looking “protective passports” to Hungarian Jews while working as a diplomat in Budapest, giving out the false documents to prevent the deportation of the recipients. He was presumably executed in 1945, although the work he started ultimately included as many as 350 individuals working to save lives and had a tremendous impact on the survival rate of the Hungarian Jewish population.
3. General George S. Patton
November 11, 1885 – December 21, 1945
Few military commanders in U.S. history have managed to amass quite the honor and prestige for their successful strategy like George Patton.
One of the most influential commanders during World War II, Patton was in charge of the Western Task Force and was instrumental in the training and strategizing of the troops in combat. He managed to lead his troops across Europe following the invasion of Normandy, exploiting every German weakness he could find to begin the ultimate wearing down of the Nazi forces.
Although described as “intemperate” in nature, Patton and the Third Army liberated Buchenwald concentration camp following the Normandy invasions, and he made a practice of leading German townspeople through the camps for impact. In a war that was publicly fought by leaders with ornate speeches, and was privately defended against by spies and resistance movements, Patton was one of the key figures on the battlefield proper.
4. D-Day soldiers
Date of service: 6 June, 1944
On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy, France, executing what is still known as one of the largest seaborne invasions in human history.
The invasion and subsequent battles went far better than that first landing day. Although the German Nazi forces lost an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 men during the invasion, the Allied forces—made up of soldiers from Great Britain, the United States, France, Norway, Poland, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and Australia—suffered a believed 10,000 casualties themselves, with over 4,000 confirmed dead following the invasion.
Despite that first day’s series of losses, though, the Normandy invasion became a pivotal point in the recapture of mainland Europe for the Allied forces from Nazi Germany, which led to the eventual end of the European side of the war. Countless soldiers who went into what was largely a suicide mission on that first day saved countless lives by giving up their own, and their sacrifice remains one of the most universally honored worldwide to this day.
5. Witold Pilecki
13 May, 1901 – 25 May, 1948
Not many would willingly allow themselves to be imprisoned in a concentration camp for the sake of gathering information.
Polish military officer Witold Pilecki, though, is quietly one of the most important figures of the Second World War on the side of the Allied forces. Not only did he help found the Secret Polish Army as a part of the resistance against the German occupation in his home country, but he spent two and a half years in Auschwitz gathering information for the Allied forces and organizing an uprising among those at the camp.
Although he was later executed for show in 1948 by the communist regime in Poland—and his acts of patriotism and bravery were hidden until the late 1980s from both his fellow countrymen and the rest of the world—Pilecki is largely considered one of the most courageous figures from World War II.
6. Mahatma Gandhi
2 October, 1869 – 30 January, 1948
The British rule in India is one of the last vestiges of a waning imperialist era spanning centuries. The sheer size of India, coupled with the immense economic value that the nation held for Great Britain as a colony, resulted in exploitation of native peoples, bloody uprisings, and constant turmoil.
Despite the violent methods used by the British to defend their rule of India, though, the leader of the last (and successful) independence movement—Mahatma Gandhi—has stood as a pillar for peaceful rebellion and nonviolent, civil disobedience for over a century. His successful tactics and ideals regarding Indian independence and worldwide civil rights have proven to be an inspiration across nations, and his primary push against discrimination and unfair taxation among the Indian working class made him far more than simply a political figurehead.
7. Oskar Schindler
28 April, 1908 – 9 October, 1974
Many know his name even in modern times, thanks to the popular film “Schindler’s List.” While the movie was based on a historical fiction novel detailing events and interactions that never actually took place, though, the titular character—Oskar Schindler himself—was very much real, and was responsible for saving the lives of 1,200 Jews in Poland and Germany.
A businessman by trade, Schindler was actually a member of the Nazi Party leading up to and during World War II. While he joined the party due to an opportunistic nature and a head for business profits, his evolution to become emotionally invested in saving the lives of his thousand-plus Jewish employees remains one of the most heroic turnabout stories from the Second World War.
8. Sophie Scholl and The White Rose
9 May, 1921 – 22 February, 1943
Not many can say that they’re willing to lose their lives fighting for what’s right at the early age of 21, and even fewer are willing to put their lives on the line through activism rather than military civil service.
German student Sophie Scholl was beheaded for treason at age 21, though, following her heavy involvement with the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance movement. Initially a nonviolent movement founded by a group of young adults including Sophie’s brother Hans, the White Rose drew Scholl’s attention when she realized that the anti-Nazi pamphlets they were authoring and distributing had been written, in part, by her brother. Using letters from her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, Scholl and the other students of the White Rose detailed the horrifying behavior of the German soldiers on the Eastern Front and the atrocities being committed against Jews, citing faith to advocate for nonviolent resistance to the Nazi Party.
On her way to her beheading, Scholl’s final words were documented, and have become a source of inspiration for many:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail,” she said, “when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
9. Dalai Lama
6 July, 1935 – present
The current Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup, but his birth name is far less important to the world than the actions he’s taken while serving as one of the most important religious and spiritual leaders in modern history.
A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the 14th Dalai Lama has been living as a refugee in India since 1959—where he learned the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and has used them as a guide to speak out on topics such as nonviolent civil dissent, women’s rights, reproductive health, education rights, and interfaith dialogue. His views in the realm of human rights are made all the more crucial worldwide given his position of esteem in the religious community, and his perseverance in promoting interfaith unity and communication has been a crucial tool in combating religious extremism worldwide.
10. Friedrich Hayek
8 May, 1899 – 23 March, 1992
The last century has seen the most dramatic shaping of the market economy in history. The advent of the globalized economy, often meeting incredible challenges, has in some cases succeeded in creating, and in other cases laid the groundwork for, unmatched peace, prosperity, liberty, and justice.
A shared recipient of the Nobel Economic Prize for his work concerning classical liberalism, Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek is considered a pioneer for his lifelong study of market economies, their morals, and the “fatal” flaws of socialism and communism—both which his work refutes.
His experiences of serving during World War I and of what caused the war led him to study economics, where his main insight was that free markets guide themselves, and ultimately lead to a more productive, free and well-off society. He concludes that government intervention into the intricacies of markets contributes to economic instability, and historically, collapse.
Hayek provides the most well-known foil to John Maynard Keynes and Keynesian economics.
11. Sir Roger Scruton
February 27, 1944 – present
Education is a precious commodity when a nation falls under the fist of tyranny. Fortunately, there are teachers of moral fiber and courage who make their way into such hostile environments to bring knowledge to those who live there.
English professor, philosopher, and writer Sir Roger Scruton is one such man. Scruton adopted conservative views after having witnessed the May 1968 student protests in France, which threatened revolution.
He went on to become a professor at Birkbeck College from 1971 to 1992. But perhaps his most notable achievement was between 1979 and 1989 when he entered then-communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. There he actively supported dissidents and an underground academic network.
Scruton helped smuggle in books, gave lectures, and helped arrange an external degree program, which involved printing books and smuggling papers out of the country. He was eventually detained by authorities in 1985 and expelled from the country.
Scruton was later awarded the Czech Medal of Merit by President Václav Havel in 1998, and was knighted Sir Roger Scruton during the Queen’s 2016 Birthday Honours.
12. Mikhail Gorbachev
2 March, 1931 – present
For early millenials, Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most influential figures in their lifetime. The former Soviet politician was a key figure in the dismantling of the oppressive Soviet regime in present-day Russia, working to eventually topple the very government he led for its final half decade after years of working to end the Cold War.
Alongside American president Ronald Reagan, the former Soviet president was responsible for one of the most iconic moments in the last 40 years. Reagan’s famous command, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” signifies the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the modern-day fight for freedom in Russia and the surrounding nations.
Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, getting recognized for his tremendous efforts to re-shape the Soviet Union to create an atmosphere of openness after decades of tyranny and oppression.
13. Margaret Thatcher
13 October, 1925 – 8 April, 2013
Through the 20th century, only one politician managed to hold office for three successive terms in Britain—and incredibly enough, that politician was also the first woman to be elected as prime minister: Margaret Thatcher.
The policies of Thatcher were some of the boldest and most impactful in recent U.K. history. Employing staunch opposition toward terrorists, unions, and even invasion of the Falkland Islands, Thatcher emerged victorious time and again, and furnished a new social, political, and economic moral in Britain, which lives on today.
Thatcher’s implementation of free market principles turned around the economy after years of financial struggle following World War II. And, her sweeping policy of privatization of government corporations made London a global center of commerce.
Dubbed “The Iron Lady” in the mid-80s by the Russians, Thatcher helped orchestrate the end of the Cold War, and cemented her name in history. Yet in her third term, her staunch determination found itself without the support it once had with an unpopular new tax bill, and resulted in her sad yet rightfully proud resignation.
14. Zhou Ziyang
17 October, 1919 – 17 January, 2005
Although a member of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (China being a one-party dictatorship to this day), during his tenure as a politician, Zhou Ziyang was one of the most progressive and open-market thinkers to operate within the Chinese government during the last century, whose actions resonate in the hearts of Chinese around the world to this day.
Zhou is widely known for his sympathy toward the student protesters during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, which ended tragically with thousands killed by the government. Breaking from the CCP’s hard-line policy, Zhou is remembered for his courageous and emotional plea to the students through loudspeaker in the midst of the standoff, in a bid to save their lives from impending doom. To this day, Chinese around the world honor his memory on the day of his death, much to the distaste of the still-ruling, communist authorities.
15. Wei Jingsheng
May 20, 1950 – present
One of the most prominent opponents of the Chinese communist dictatorship over the last half century, Wei Jingsheng has been an outspoken supporter of democratic policy and was imprisoned for “counter revolutionary activities” after publicizing a pro-democracy manifesto and served a 20-year sentence from 1973 to 1993, and a further three years from 1994 to 1997.
A seven-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, Jingsheng’s manifest “The Fifth Modernization” is his most well-known work, although his essays titled “Courage to Stand Alone—letters from Prison and Other Writings” have gained considerable renown as well for their thoughts, policies, and immense impact as statements written from his tenure in prison. Called the “Nelson Mandela of China,” his fights for human rights and democracy have become known not just among the Chinese, but worldwide.
16. Malala Yousafzai
July 12, 1997 – present
In a world where women are doctors, politicians, lawyers, and innovators, it can be hard to remember that there are still communities that strongly oppose a woman’s right to education.
Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai can tell you all too well just what lengths oppressive groups will go to in order to keep women away from books, though. The 21-year-old current Oxford University student was just 15 years old when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in retaliation for her activism in promoting women’s education—and although she’s become the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate for her work before and after the assassination attempt, she remains dedicated to raising more awareness for others than for herself.
In her bio, Yousafzai wrote that, “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is that of many girls.” To this day, she fights for equal rights and access to education for all, even with the target on her back so many years later.
17. Gao Zhisheng
20 April, 1964 – taken into custody August 2017
The Iron Curtain fell nearly three decades ago—but despite the fall of the Soviet regime in the early 1990s, a handful of oppressive communist regimes remain in place worldwide.
Despite the risk that inevitably comes with combating those, though, human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng made it his mission to document the human rights abuses and represent the religious and ethnic minorities facing persecution in China right to his disappearance in August 2017. Through multiple disbarrings by the Chinese government and both imprisonment and torture, Zhisheng refused to give up in the fight against one of the most oppressive governments still in place in the 21st century.
At the moment, Zhisheng has been missing for a little over a year—but despite this, his family continues to fight for what he believes in and hopes that he’ll be discovered someday soon.
18. David Kilgour and David Matas
Kilgour: February 18, 1941 – present
Matas: 29 August, 1943 – present
The Canadian-born force made up of former MP David Kilgour and Jewish human rights lawyer David Matas are an incredible ally to one of the most under-the-radar groups of persecuted individuals in the world: the Falun Gong community in communist China.
In June 2016, a 10-year investigation by Kilgour-Matas concluded that genocide of Falun Dafa prisoners was taking place in government-run military hospitals and transplant facilities throughout China. Reportedly, the genocide involves “organ harvesting,” which serves the dual purpose of stamping out the movement and of becoming a billion-dollar transplant business. Based on available data, the death-toll is estimated to exceed well over 100,000, and it is believed that it continues to this day.
The investigators have since traveled the globe sharing their findings with governments around the world, many of which have now passed legislation banning “transplant tourism” to China.
Amazingly enough, though, that’s just the pair’s most iconic act of activism. In addition to their investigation into the organ harvesting, both men have been heavily active in promoting Iranian democracy—with Kilgour even moving to the media sector in recent years to help promote bipartisan support for democratic advancements in Iran—and Matas is a crucial voice in the legal support of refugees and human rights victims.