Thought I’d throw down a quick post since its been a while. Incidentally, I do have a couple of posts on the way in the near future that may be interesting to three or four of my seven readers. Look for those in the next week or two. In the meantime, a little quickie (yeah, right) answer to this question from the Wondering Junior: who were the important people in W2?
Now, I’m going to assume that our friend the Wondering Junior meant the important people of WW2 and not the IRS clerks that developed the W2 form. With that clarification out of the way we can continue.
Asking who the important people were in WW2 is a little like asking someone to name all the cast members in a war movie based on a Cornelius Ryan book; the list is long and illustrious, full of prominent and familiar names. So, we’ll have to narrow things down a bit to prevent this post from needing the longest day to complete (Get it? Cornelius Ryan? Longest Day? I know, don’t say it). We’ll look at a few major players from each of the major belligerents. We’ll pick at least on political and one military leader from Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, and the US. Let’s start with the bad guys.
Adolph Hitler: Nazi dictator of Germany – You’ve got to think that Hitler is one of the most recognizable names the world over. You could make the argument that without Adolph Hitler there would not have been a World War 2, at least not on the scale of what is was. He was a charismatic public speaker, rallying the German masses to support the Nazi cause of domination and ethnic purity. His hatred for the Jews spawned the terrible “Final Solution” which included death camps, sterilization, and human experimentation, and lead to the extermination of about 6 million Jews and about 5 million other “undesirable” persons, such as Slavs and gypsies. An Austrian by birth, he served in the German army in WWI, never rising above the rank of corporal, and yet he took command of the German wermacht, or armed forces, during the war. Before his death by suicide in the wars final days, stress and paranoia had turned him into a raving, suspicious wreck, with uncontrollable trembles, bordering on dementia.
Joseph Goebbels: Nazi propaganda minister – Goebbels lead Nazi Germany’s campaign of propaganda to instill in the German people the “ideals” of the Nazi party. He controlled all forms of communication in Germany. He and his wife poisoned their seven children before committing suicide themselves as the Red Army closed in on Berlin.
Herman Goering: Luftwaffe chief and Nazi party leader – Goering was a WWI flying ace who transformed the German air force, the Luftwaffe, into a formidable force. Was the heir apparent to the Fuehrer, but was captured in the closing days of the war. While on trial for war crimes at Nuremburg after the war, he committed suicide in his cell.
Erwin Rommel: General and Field Marshall – Perhaps Germany’s most well known general. Scored early victories in the war in France and became famous for leading his Afrika Corps against the British in North Africa. Implicated in a plot against Hitler later in the war, he was given the “opportunity” to commit suicide rather than be shot by firing squad.
Did you notice a trend there on how things ended up for these guys? On to Japan.
Hideki Tojo: General and Prime Minister – Tojo was a leader in the military junta that controlled Japan. He led the Japanese army in its war with China and became Prime Minister just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was complicit in war crimes against those living in Japanese controlled areas of Asia, which included human experimentation. He was captured, tried, and in 1948, hanged.
Hirohito: Emperor – The Emperor at first sought to avoid war with the West, but was eventually swayed by the army and navy. Ordered the Japanese surrender of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki against the will of many military commanders, some of who attempted a coup which failed. Somewhat controversially, was not implicated or charged with any war crimes though some claim many of these were committed with his knowledge and even at his behest. Died in 1989.
Isoroku Yamamoto: Admiral – Yamamoto was the admiral who devised the Pearl Harbor attack plan. He had opposed virtually all of Japan’s aggressive maneuvers prior to that, including the invasion of Manchuria and the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, but in loyalty to his country fought on anyway. While his famous “all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant” quote, referring to the attack on America at Pearl, is likely apocryphal, he is documented as warning, “I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success.” Yamamoto was killed when his plane was shot down by American P-38’s while inspecting forward units
Benito Mussolini: Fascist dictator of Italy – Mussolini was really the inventor of fascism, though his brand was initially a much less racist version than Hitler’s. Like Hitler, a talented orator and motivator. Il Duce, as he was called, invaded Ethiopia and what is now Somalia in Africa. Italy was not a strong military power, and had to be bailed out by Germany on several occasions. After things deteriorated for Italy during the war, Mussolini was dismissed as Prime Minister and arrested by order of King Emmanuel. He was later rescued by German special forces and set up by Hitler as a kind of puppet ruler in northern Italy. Captured by communist partisans while attempting to flee Italy at the close of the war, he and his mistress were executed and their bodies hung upside down from a gas station.
Ok, I don’t know any Italian military types. You’ll have to learn that on your own. On to the allies and their communist partner.
Joseph Stalin: Communist dictator – Stalin initially made a pact with Hitler and jointly invaded Poland with the Nazis. Pact ended when Germany invaded Russia. Suffering early reversals, in no small part due to a depleted Red Army officer core due to his paranoid purges, Stalin employed a scorched earth policy as his predecessors had done when invaded by Napoleon and Charles XII of Sweden. Ironically framed the war against the Nazis as the Great Patriotic War and this morale booster coupled with the victory at Stalingrad helped to turn the tide. Stalin was a thorn in the allies side immediately following Germany’s surrender, refusing to give up territory his Red Army occupied to its rightful possessors. Tensions soon escalated into the Cold War. Stalin died in 1953 as a result of a stroke.
Georgy Zhukov: General – Though he briefly fell out of favor with Stalin early in the war, his defense of Moscow put him back in good graces. Zhukov was instrumental in many of the crucial Red Army victories, including Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kursk, and the invasion of Germany itself. He died in 1974.
Vyacheslav Molotov: Foreign Minister – Along with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister of Nazi Germany, concluded the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union which called for the partition of Poland and the dividing up of the Baltic states. In the resulting Soviet-Finnish war of 1939 the Fins coined the term Molotov cocktail for homemade bombs. Throughout the wider war, Molotov was a tough negotiator with the other allies and secured their promise of a second front in Europe. He died in 1986 at the age of 96.
Winston Churchill: First Lord of the Admiralty & Prime Minister – Politically isolated before the war and one of the few who saw the danger of Hitler early one, became First Lord of the Admiralty when the war broke out. Not long after was appointed Prime Minister. Lead Britain with a steely resolve in the face of seemingly hopeless times, including during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Pressed President Roosevelt for help, which helped lead to the Lend Lease Act. Kept Britain in the fight until the US finally joined the war in 1941.
Bernard Law Montgomery: General – Skilled and boastful, Montgomery commanded the British army in North Africa to the first major allied land victory of the war, El Alamein. He was in command of armies that invaded Sicily, where he and US general George Patton developed a rivalry that wasn’t always friendly and which was further fueled by Montgomery’s actions and comments during the Battle of the Bulge. Operation Market Garden, a plan to cross into Germany via the Rhine River in Holland was his operation, though it was poorly planned and he ignored key intelligence. The operation was an allied disaster, despite Monty’s claim of it being “90% successful.” His armies did eventually cross the Rhine and Montgomery accepted the surrender of Germany in Denmark and Holland.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: President – Though the US was neutral at the war’s outset, Roosevelt did everything short of actual fighting to aid the allies. The Lend-Lease Act which provided Britain with badly needed supplies and equipment and the oil embargo on Japan in response to their aggression in Asia were major components of his policy. His most controversial act as President was Executive Order 9066 which called for the internment of those of Japanese descent on the West Coast. Met with Churchill, Stalin, and China’s Chang Kai-shek on various occasions to discuss strategy and post-war plans. Died after being elected to a fourth term in 1945.
Harry S. Truman: Vice President & President – Taking office after Roosevelt’s death, Truman initially very little about FDR’s war policies. He had been largely kept in the dark. A hard worker and quick learner, he rapidly got up to speed. Alone made the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to force their surrender.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: General – Commander of all allied forces in Europe. Presided over D-Day invasion of Normandy and was prepared to take full responsibility had it failed. Had to manage enormous personalities and egos in the likes of Patton and Montgomery. After the war became NATO commander and then President of the United States.
George S. Patton: General – Brilliant, eccentric, and controversial. A skilled tank commander, notoriously profane and religious. Commanded a huge dummy army in England prior to the Normandy invasion. Drove his tank battalions across central Europe after breaking out of France, all the way to Czechoslovakia. Famously slapped a soldier in a military hospital who was suffering from shell shock and called him a coward. He was forced to apologize for the incident. Died from injuries suffered in a car crash in 1945.
Ok, so maybe this wasn’t a quick post at all. But now you’ve got a little bit of an idea of who a lot of the major players were in the greatest conflict in the history of the world.