Influential people who caused, influenced and fought during the Second World War.
Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945) Dictator of Nazi Germany from 1933-45. During the 1930s, Hitler sought to gain ‘lebensraum’ for Germany – claiming Austria, Czechoslovakia and finally invading Poland. Hitler’s initial success encouraged him to invade Russia, which ultimately would over-stretch his war-machine. Hitler’s regime also pursued the extermination of Jews and other ‘non-Aryan’ minorities in concentration camps across Europe. He committed suicide in May 1945 – shortly before Germany’s final surrender.
The Big Three
The Big Three were the Allied leaders of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, who represented Great Britain, Soviet Union and the United States in the alliance against Germany and Japan.
Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) – Churchill was elected Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940, when Britain and her Empire stood alone against Hitler. Churchill was influential in refusing to seek a deal, but continue to fight and resist. Churchill took an active direction in the war effort, and his speeches helped to bolster morale during the difficult years of 1940 and 1941.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) – US President 1932 – 1945. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Allied cause and offered generous war loan to Britain. After Pearl Harbour, he led the US in declaring war on both Japan and Germany. The entry of the US tipped the balance of power, and by 1944, the US provided the majority of troops in the D-Day landings.
Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) Leader and dictator of the Soviet Union. Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939. He was shocked when Germany invaded in 1941, but he was the figurehead in rallying Russian resistance to the invading German war machine. Stalin was a ruthless leader, but after Stalingrad, the tide of war was turned, and the Red Army began to advance towards Berlin.
Other leaders of WWII
Harry Truman (1884 – 1972) American President from January 1945. Truman oversaw the end of the war in Europe. Truman also approved the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of the Second World War, he helped find the United Nations.
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) Fascist dictator of Italy. Mussolini was head of the Italian government from 1925-43. He sought to create a new Roman Empire and allied Italy with Germany. After the fall of Italy to Allied troops, he was executed by Italian partisans.
Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970) When France surrendered to the Germans, Charles de Gaulle escaped to England and provided a focal point for the Free French who wished to resist the German occupation. De Gaulle became the symbol of the French resistance and triumphantly returned to Paris in 1944.
Neville Chamberlain (1869 – 1940) Chamberlain was British Prime Minister from 1937-40. He initially sought a policy of appeasement with Hitler to allow the UK to re-arm and also in the hope another war could be avoided. After the invasion of Poland, Chamberlain led Great Britain into war with German. The early years of the war were considered a failure, and after humiliating setbacks, he was replaced by Churchill.
General Josip Tito. (1892 – 1980) Leader of the Yugoslavian resistance. Tito’s partisans caused considerable damage to the German occupiers and are considered the most effective resistance movement in occupied Europe.
Emperor Hirohito (1901 – 1989) During the 1930s, Hirohito was the official Head of State of Japan. He oversaw the militarization of society and the Japanese attempt to conquer China and South East Asia.
Hideki Tojo (1884 – 1948) A general of the Imperial Japanese Army. Tojo was Prime Minister from October 17, 1941, to July 1944. Tojo was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbour and other measures of aggression. He was executed for war crimes in 1948.
Haile Selassie (1892 – 1975) Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930. Selassie became an inspirational figure in the movement for African independence for the way he resisted the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during the 1930s.
Chiang Kai-shek (1887 – 1975) Leader of Chinese Nationalist forces. Led Chinese troops against the Japanese invasion of mainland China. In 1942, China became an Allied power, and Chiang Kai-Shek led nationalist forces.
Dwight Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) A five star General in US Army, Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander for the D-Day invasion of occupied Europe. (1944-45)
General Patton (1885 – 1945) US Commander during Second World War, Patton distinguished himself in Africa, Sicily and the liberation of France – especially during the Battle of the Bulge.
Erwin Rommel (1891 – 1944) ‘The Desert Fox’ was admired by both his troops and enemies developing a reputation for invincibility. He was a commander during the invasion of France (1940) and achieved striking victories in North Africa war. In 1944, Rommel was put in charge of defending the Atlantic Wall, but disillusioned with Hitler he became part of the failed bomb plot and was forced to take his own life.
Bernard Montgomery (1887 – 1976) British General during World War Two. Led Allied troops to the first major victory of the war (El Alamein) when it was desperately needed. He also led British divisions during Operation Overlord and the liberation of occupied Europe.
Friedrich Paulus (1890 – 1957) German military officer promoted to Field Marshall, commanding the Sixth Army, during the Battle of Stalingrad. Defied Hitler’s orders to surrender, signalling the decisive shift of momentum on the Eastern Front. Taken prisoner by the Russians, he became a critic of Nazi Germany.
Erich von Manstein (1887 – 1973) German officer who devised a plan for the invasion of France. Manstein was promoted to General Field Marshall, taking an active role in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Kursk. He clashed with Hitler over military strategy and was removed from his post in March 1955.
Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943) Japanese Commander in Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Yamamoto was responsible for the naval actions at Pearl Habour and the Battle of Midway. He was popular with his men, and when his plane was shot down in 1943, it was a blow to Japanese War morale.
Georgy Zhukov (1896 – 1974) Russian commander. Zhukov rose to Chief of General Staff. During the Second World War, he played a decisive role in battles on the Eastern Front. Including the Battle of Kursk and the final Battle for Berlin. Zhukov was a Russian representative during the German surrender.
Konstantin Rokossovsky (1896 – 1968) Marshall of the Soviet Union. Rokossovsky was responsible for planning and executing Operation Bagration between June and August 1944. This broke the resolve of the German army and led to major Russian advances on to the edges of the Third Reich.
Arthur Harris (1892 – 5 April 1984) Harris was head of RAF Operation Bomber Command 1942-45. He led the intense bombing of Germany to undermine morale, hit industrial production and provide an aerial second front. His actions were controversial for the high number of German civilians who died in the bombing raids.
Leading Nazi figures
Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1 May 1945) Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels radio broadcasts throughout the war were influential in shaping German public opinion. He called for ‘total war’ and was put in charge of closing down businesses not essential to the war effort. Goebbels also preached a virulent ‘anti-Semitism’ and encouraged the persecution of Jews.
Herman Goring (1893 – 1946) Goring was a committed Nazi, who founded the Gestapo in 1933. He was made Commander of the Luftwaffe and was influential in managing the German economy. He lost favour with Hitler after the massive Allied bombing in the later part of the war.
Heinrich Himmler (1900 – 1945) Himmler was a leading member of the Nazi party and one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich. Himmler set up the SS and the system of extermination camps used in the Holocaust. He also oversaw the Gestapo. Briefly appointed military commander during the last months of the war. Himmler attempted to open terms with the Allies. After his capture, he committed suicide.
Vasily Zaytsev (1915 – 1991) Russian sniper who fought during the desperate Battle of Stalingrad. Zaytsev killed 225 enemy soldiers during the battle
Douglas Bader (1910 – 1982) One of Britain’s top flying aces, who shot down at least 22 aircraft during the Battle of Britain and after. Even more remarkable since he lost both legs in an accident pre-war.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), American physicist who worked on the development of the Atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was in charge of the Manhattan project which led to the creation of the first atomic bomb, later dropped in Japan. He later campaigned against his own invention.
Frank Capra (1897 – 1991) – Italian-American film producer. During World War Two he joined the US Army Corps and produced propaganda films such as “Why we serve”. These were widely shown in Britain, the US and Canada and considered important for the home front.
Anne Frank (1929-45) – Young Jewish diarist. During her childhood, her family were forced into hiding from the Nazis. Living in difficult circumstances and close confinement with many other people, she retained good humour and a positive outlook on life. After the war and her tragic death, her father published her diary to worldwide acclaim.
People who resisted Hitler and the Holocaust
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945 ) was a Lutheran Pastor who was an influential critic of Hitler and Nazism, executed in 1945. He publically spoke against the Nazi policy of euthanasia and the murder of Jews. He was executed in a Nazi concentration camp, shortly before the end of the war.
Sophie and Hans Scholl (1921/ 1918 -1943) – The Scholls opposed the Nazi ideology of Hitler’s Germany and distributed anti-Nazi propaganda to students in Munich. Both were executed for high treason.
Wilhelm Franz Canaris (1887 – 1945) Head of the German Abwher, Canaris was a long-term opponent of Hitler’s rule. He promoted resistance and tried to work with the Allies to bring about Hitler’s downfall. Arrested and executed after the failed July plot.
Claus von Stauffenberg (1907 – 1944) An aristocratic German officer, Stauffenberg was a principal member of the resistance to Hitler within the Wehrmacht. He led the unsuccessful July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler and was shot soon after.
Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941 ) was a Franciscan priest who encouraged devotion to Mary and was committed to praying for those hostile to the Church. In 1941, he was arrested for sheltering Jews and sent to Auschwitz. He volunteered to take the place of a man condemned to death.
Oskar Schindler (1908 – 1974) An ethnic German who joined the Nazi party and bought a factory in Poland. He used his connections and his own money to successfully protect over 1,000 Jews who were employed in his factory.
Witold Pilecki (1901 – 1948) Pilecki was a soldier in the Polish army and after the German occupation, he joined the underground Polish resistance. In 1943, he volunteered to smuggle himself into Auschwitz concentration camp so he could report on the Holocaust to the allies. He then escaped Auschwitz and took part in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. In 1948, he was executed by the Stalinist secret police for retaining loyalty to the non-Communist Polish government.
Chiune Sugihara (1900 – 1986) Japanese diplomat who served as Vice-Consul to Lithuania during the Second World War. He helped several thousand Jews to escape from Lithuania by personally writing exit visas – despite the fact he was disobeying orders from Tokyo not to do so. It is estimated, because of Sugihara’s actions, 6,000 Jews were able to escape from Lithuania and avoid the holocaust. After the war, he was forced to resign from the Japanese civil service.
Spies of the Second World War
Odette Sansom (1912—1995) – British spy for SOE. Parachuted into France and worked for the French underground. Caught by the Gestapo, she was tortured and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Awarded George Cross and Legion d’honneur.
The Second World War
The Second World War by Antony Beevor at Amazon
The Second World War by Max Hastings
The Second World War by Max Hastings at Amazon
People of the First World War (1914 to 1918) The principal figures involved in the First World War from Germany, Britain, US and the rest of the world. Includes David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, the Kaiser and George Clemenceau.
People of the Cold War (1948 to 1990) Famous people who participated in the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the US/NATO allies.
Military figures – Famous military leaders and soldiers, including; Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Ataturk, Erwin Rommel, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower.
Inter-war era (1918 to 1939) A period of peace in between the two world wars. Characterised by economic boom and bust, and the growth of polarising ideologies.
Famous female spies – Female spies who risked their lives to enter enemy territory. Including many spies who volunteered for SOE and work for the French resistance in the second world war.