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In every country and government type, there is always one person at the political top who makes the key decisions and determines the national policy, or leads to it - the national leader. This essay lists the national leaders of the countries which participated in World War 2.
Some of these leaders were clearly the aggressors, while others led the war against aggression. Some leaders succeeded, while others failed to stand against stronger powers. Some leaders were caught in the middle between stronger countries and were forced to take a side, while others were able to remain neutral and save their nations from the war.
Adolf Hitler - Nazi dictator of Germany (1933-45), planned and started World War 2, committed suicide at the end of the war (read detailed Adolf Hitler biography (7 minutes read) page).
General Hideki Tojo - Prime minister of Japan (October 1941 - July 1944). With a long militarist tradition, Japan became extremely militarist and aggressive in the 1930s and was practically governed by military leaders. Tojo, an aggressive army General, became minister of war in July 1941 and prime minister in October 1941. After a short attempt to improve relations with the US failed, he ordered to go to war and attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He gradually took more ministerial roles, and in Feb. 1944 also made himself the commander in chief, like Adolf Hitler did. When he realized that Japan was going to lose the war he resigned. The military continued to control Japan until the end of World War 2, which came when the Emperor Hirohito which was until then passive, ordered to surrender in order to prevent further inevitable destruction of Japan. After the war Tojo was executed for his responsibility to Japan's war crimes.
Benito Mussolini, was the prime minister of Italy (1922-1943). A former journalist, he went to politics and formed the Fascist party, whose ideology, Fascism, called for a one-party state, total obedience, patriotic nationalism, and aggressive militarism. The ideology and its implementation in Mussolini's Italy influenced Adolf Hitler's own ideology, Nazism, which was a combination of Fascism with extreme racism. Initially Mussolini led a right-wing coalition, but later Italy became a one party state. His treatment of unemployment made Mussolini popular, but the military aggression of Fascism led to its failure. Mussolini was eager to demonstrate the "strength" of his regime by invading weaker neighbors. In 1935 he invaded and occupied the peaceful Ethiopia from Italy's nearby colony in East Africa. In 1936, the two Fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, signed an alliance. In 1939 he invaded and occupied his small neighbor Albania, and Mussolini then enhanced his alliance with Hitler to a full military alliance. Mussolini knew that his military was not very effective, but when the Germans defeated the French and British forces in mid 1940 he thought it was safe enough for him to attack Britain and the collapsing France too and declared war, and in October 1940 he also invaded Greece, and was repelled. Mussolini had a million soldiers in Libya, and he sent them to attack the small British force in Egypt. The Italian Navy and Air Force attacked British ports and shipping in the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar in the West to Haifa (Israel) in the East. Despite its numerical strength and the fact that British forces in the Mediterranean were greatly outnumbered and very stretched, the Italian military could not defeat them anywhere, and was severely beaten by the British, and simply had to call for the help of the much more capable Germans. Even with German help, the British forces only lost their positions in Greece and kept fighting fiercely from their island bases in Malta, Gibraltar, and in North Africa. Mussolini's Italy became a German puppet, and even sent troops to participate in Germany's invasion of Russia. Eventually, British and American forces eliminated the Italian and German forces in North Africa and followed in July 1943 with an invasion of Sicily in South Italy. It was clear that Italy was losing the war, so several days after the invasion Mussolini was replaced and arrested in a remote mountain castle. Hitler sent commandos to rescue his friend from captivity. In April 1945, when German defence in North Italy collapsed, Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans and executed .
Winston Churchill kept warning of the Nazi danger in pre-war years. He was elected prime minister of Great Britain after the total collapse of the appeasement policy of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain failed to understand that aggressors like Hitler can not be appeased. Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940, at the same day when the German Blitzkrieg invasion of France began. After the quick collapse of the French military, Britain itself was under a threat of a German amphibious invasion, and was attacked by the full force of the German Luftwaffe. It was also under a maritime siege by the German U-boat submarines. At these very difficult and dangerous times, Churchill, "the British Lion", excelled as a wartime leader. His fighting spirit raised the morale of the British people. He also forged a strong alliance with the US. Churchill is one of the main World War 2 leaders, and one of the most prominent national leaders in history.
Joseph Stalin was the very brutal Communist dictator of Russia (1928-1953). In the years before World War 2 Stalin murdered or imprisoned almost all of Russia's senior military officers, and millions of other Russian citizens, in a paranoid and unprecedented wave of political terror. This clearly weakened Russia and further encouraged Hitler to attack it. The pre-war pacifist strategy, military weakness, and anti-Communism of Britain and France led Stalin in August 1939 to decide that making a deal with Hitler is a better way to protect Russia from Hitler than making an alliance with Britain and France against him. As part of the deal Russia invaded half of Poland after Hitler started World War 2 by invading Poland. In June 1941, after conquering the rest of Europe, Hitler did what he promised for 18 years and invaded Russia. In addition to the great weakness caused by the absence of experienced senior officers because of Stalin's political murders, Stalin further damaged the Russian military's ability to fight by first obsessively ignoring all the intelligence warnings of the incoming German invasion, and later by obsessively enforcing a rigid and very wasteful defensive strategy which helped the German military to achieve tremendous victories in the summer of 1941 and brought the Germans all the way to Moscow. Only then Stalin realized that he must allow his Generals to fight the war more professionally, not obsessively. He made the brilliant General Zhukov his top military advisor and also sent him to command the forces directly in key battles. This finally allowed the huge Russian military to exploit its full potential and succeed. After the war ended, Stalin's horrible political terror quickly returned and continued until his death.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States of America (1933-1945) initially followed a very strong political demand to remain neutral and isolate the country from foreign wars, but he realized that the Nazi aggression was a global threat and the total opposite to the values of democracy and freedom, and persuaded the Congress to allow selling weapons to Britain and France, later declaring that the US will become the "arsenal of democracy". In May 1941, when German expansion and its attacks on British shipping to the US increased, he declared a state of national emergency, and realistically assumed that US forces will eventually have to participate in fighting against Nazi Germany. When Germany invaded Russia, he extended the military aid to Russia too, and enormous amounts of American military equipment and material were transferred to Russia during the war, allowing the Russian military industry to focus on mass production of the main weapon systems and ammunition.
Despite the strong sympathy of the American public in support of Britain and against Nazism, only an attack on the US could persuade the American public to go to war. The attack eventually came from the opposite direction when Japan surprise attacked the US naval and air bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 7, 1941. The destructive surprise attack ended American isolationism and the US joined the war and allied with Britain and Russia to defeat the aggressors Axis of Nazi Germany, militarist Japan, and Fascist Italy. The mighty American industry went into full war production effort which dwarfed those of both allies and enemies, allowing the relatively small US military forces to rapidly grow to a mighty force, and defeat Japan and help Britain and Russia defeat Germany and Italy. President Roosevelt died in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war, and was succeeded by vice president Harry S. Truman.
Edouard Daladier was prime minister of France three times in 1933,1934, and again in April 1938. A supporter of the appeasement policy, he was not willing to go to war despite Hitler's series of pre-war aggression acts. In march 1940, already in World War 2, and with the French military passively deployed along the Maginot line of border fortifications, Daladier was replaced by Paul Reynaud, but remained in government as war minister. Two months later the German military shocked passive France in a surprise Blitzkrieg invasion and quickly defeated the large French military which was not ready for this kind of war, neither in spirit nor in equipment and tactics. Shortly before the French surrender, prime minister Reynaud replaced war minister Daladier with Charles De Gaulle, which was just a tank division commander, but he was the only commander in the French military which had some success against the invading Germans, and warned before the war of the weaknesses of the French military. De Gaulle's appointment was much too late to save France, and when France surrendered, De Gaulle fled to Britain and led the "free French" forces until the end of the war and later became post-war president of France. Daladier and Reynaud were arrested by the French puppet government established after the surrender and were handed to the Germans and imprisoned until the end of the war. Daladier shamelessly returned to French politics after the war for 12 more years and was a strong opponent of president De Gaulle.
King Zog of Albania - went to exile when Albania was invaded in 1939 by Italy. Albania remained occupied until the end of the war and then became a Communist dictatorship.
King George II of the politically unstable Greece and his dictatorial prime minister Ioannis Metaxas insisted to remain neutral in World War 2, and repelled an Italian invasion which followed, but in 1941, shortly after Metaxas' death, the mighty Germany military came to help the weak Italian invaders and, despite support by a British military force, Greece was occupied by the Germans until it was liberated by the British in 1944. After the liberation Greece fell back into political instability which resulted in a civil war.
King Leopold III of Belgium - was imprisoned by the Germans after the poorly equipped Belgian military was crushed by German Blitzkrieg invasion in May 1940. After the war, Leopold was accused of collaborating with the Germans and forced to remain in exile.
Queen Wilhelmina of Holland and her government fled to London when Holland was invaded by the German military despite its neutrality. Holland surrendered after five days of German Blitzkrieg.
King Haakon VII of Norway rejected repeated German demands to surrender, demands that came after a sudden amphibious and airborne German invasion which ignored Norway's declared neutrality and good relations with Germany. The German invasion forces shocked and quickly overwhelmed the surprised Norwegian defenses in all major cities except the capital, which enabled King Haakon and the government to escape to a remote small village. From that small village the king managed to broadcast his message of resistance to the Norwegian people. After narrowly escaping a German air attack which totally destroyed that village, the king and government fled to northern Norway, which still fought. When the small Norwegian military, and British forces which landed in northern Norway to help them, failed to stop the Germans, the king and government were evacuated to Britain, and Norway remained under German military occupation until the end of World War 2. Persistent Norwegian resistance, and Hitler's worry of a second British landing, made him keep a huge garrison of 300,000 German troops in Norway until the end of the war, practically reducing this massive force from the German army's order of battle.
Edward Smigly-Rydz, the military dictator of Poland fled abroad when the obsolete Polish army was crushed by the German Blitzkrieg invasion in September 1939. Two weeks after the Germans invaded, Poland was also invaded by Russia, following its secret agreement with Hitler. In June 1941, Nazi Germany occupied the Russian-held part of Poland when it attacked Russia. Following Hitler's racist theory and orders, the Nazi occupation of Poland was extremely brutal. The Nazi plan was to gradually decimate the Polish people and to reduce the remaining Poles to slaves. The 3 million jews of Poland were to be killed to the last one, either by murder or by being worked and starved to death as prisoners in the Nazi death camps. This organized genocide plan was gradually implemented by Nazi Germany during over five years of Nazi occupation of Poland. It cost the lives of nearly 3 millions Polish jews and millions of Christian Poles, destroyed the country, and deliberately caused tremendous human suffering. After World War 2 Poland became a Communist dictatorship under Russian influence.
Dr. Edvard Benes was the elected president of Czechoslovakia between 1935 and October 1938 when he resigned when the appeasement policy of his French and British allies led them to support Hitler's demand to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. His successor, Dr. Emil Hacha, surrendered the rest of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in march 1939, under a threat of immediate German invasion, and was later arrested. Czechoslovakia remained under Nazi occupation until the end of World War 2. Dr. Benes led the Czech government-in-exile and after the war became president of Czechoslovakia again, but two years later, under strong Russian pressure, the country became a Communist dictatorship and Benes resigned and died shortly after.
King Christian X of Denmark and his government immediately decided to surrender, in the morning when the German surprise invasion started. The king remained in his country, and until late in the war there was very little Danish resistance to the occupation. In 1943 the king was put under house arrest. Denmark was liberated by The Allies at the end of World War 2.
General Jan Smuts, prime minister of South Africa (1919-1924,1939-1948). A veteran of the South African Boer War, in World War 1 he fought in the African campaigns and became a British army General and was a member of the British war cabinet. After World War 1 he returned to South Africa and became prime minister. When World War 2 started he led to South Africa's decision to join the war beside Great Britain and became prime minister again and minister of defence and commander in chief of the South African military. Churchill appreciated Smuts as a strategist and as a friend.
William King, prime minister of Canada joined World War 2 beside Great Britain when the war started.
Robert Menzies, prime minister of Australia, joined World War 2 beside Great Britain when the war started.
Michael Savage, prime minister of New Zealand joined World War 2 beside Great Britain when the war started.
Austria is a German speaking sister country of Germany. Most Austrians supported the unification with Hitler's Nazi Germany in 1938. Hitler himself was originally Austrian. So during World War 2 Austria was a fully integrated part of Nazi Germany.
King Boris III of Bulgaria allied with Hitler's Germany in March 1941. Bulgaria participated in the German invasion of its former enemies Greece and Yugoslavia, but refused to participate in Hitler's invasion of Russia. Boris III also refused to Hitler's request to transfer Bulgarian jews to Germany, knowing that they will be mass-murdered as part of the Nazi genocide of jews. Boris III died in 1943, shortly after a meeting with the furious Hitler in which he persisted in his refusal to participate in the war against Russia. In 1944 Bulgaria was invaded by Russia and later became a Communist dictatorship under Russian influence.
Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Shek, the two rival leaders in China's civil war, suspended their domestic struggle when Japan, which already occupied North-East China and Korea, invaded China's coastal region and heartland in 1937 and occupied a large part of them. After Japan attacked the US in December 1941, the US allied with China and supported its war against the Japanese invaders. Japan held a huge army force in China during the war, but when US forces were getting close to Japan, it could no longer transfer reinforcements from China to the Pacific islands, because by then its Navy and merchant shipping were decimated by US forces. After the end of World War 2 the China civil war resumed. It ended in 1949 with the communists, led by Mao Tse Tung controlling the entire continental China, and Chiang Kai Shek and his party controlling the large island Formosa, where they established a separate independent country, Taiwan.
General Francisco Franco, the Fascist military dictator of Spain (1939-1975) wisely managed to keep his country neutral. Spain was exhausted from a long civil war (1936-1939) in which Franco's side received massive military support from Hitler's Germany. Despite this support, Franco refused Hitler's request to join the war against Britain. Hitler then said he would "prefer to have 3 or 4 teeth extracted than suffer another meeting" with Franco.
Antonio Salazar, the dictator of Portugal (1932-1968), remained neutral in World War 2. He ignored the Japanese invasion of Portugal's colonial territory in the far East. In October 1943 he allowed The Allies to use the strategic Azores islands in the center of the Atlantic Ocean as a base for long range aircraft.
Ion Antonescu, the defense minister of Romania was made prime minister in September 1940. Shortly after becoming prime minister he met Adolf Hitler, allied with him, mainly to protect Romania from a possible Russian invasion because of their hostile territorial conflict, and allowed the German military to deploy in Romania. Four months later the Romanian Fascist party rebelled against him, but Hitler favored Antonescu and ordered the German military to support him. Since then Antonescu was practically a Nazi-backed dictator. In June 1941 the Romanian army participated in the German invasion of Russia, and suffered heavy losses in the major Russian counter-attack near Stalingrad. In August 1944 the Russian army occupied Romania. Antonescu was arrested, and was later executed as a war criminal.
Admiral Miklos Horthy, the dictator of Hungary (1920-1944) initially remained neutral, but his fear of Stalin's Communist Russia pushed him to ally with Hitler's Germany and join the war beside it in late 1940. In 1941 Hungary participated in the German invasions of Yugoslavia and Russia. As Germany began to lose the war Horthy began negotiating with The Allies. As a result, the Germans occupied Hungary, but Horthy still maintained a limited control. When Russian forces invaded Hungary in October 1944 Horthy declared armistice and was immediately imprisoned (in Germany) by the retreating Germans. After the war he retired to Portugal and Hungary became a Communist dictatorship puppet of Russia until Communism collapsed in the late 1980s.
King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the only African country never colonized by Europeans, fled to Britain when Ethiopia was occupied by 400,000 Italian soldiers which invaded from their nearby colony in East Africa. The only reason for the Italian invasion was Benito Mussolini's desire to demonstrate his power and expand his territory. The performance of the invading Italian military was so poor that even with 400,000 men, tanks and aircraft, and even the use of forbidden chemical warfare, it needed six months to occupy the poorly armed Ethiopia. In 1941, already in World War 2, the Italian forces in Ethiopia were beaten by a smaller but much more capable British force, and Haile Selassie returned to his country.
Carl Mannerheim, was a key figure and the top military leader of Finland for three decades in various roles. Mannerheim was chairman of the national defense council in 1931-1939, then commander in chief until 1944 under president Risto Ryti, when he finally agreed to be a candidate and was elected president of Finland until his retirement in 1946. At the end of 1939 Russia invaded Finland only because Russia's 2nd largest city, Leningrad, was considered too close to the Finn border. The small Finn army very skillfully held their line of fortifications designed by Mannerheim, using a variety of commando tactics against the invaders, until they were defeated by the overwhelming mass of the much larger Russian invasion force. This war convinced Adolf Hitler and others that the huge Russian military became ineffective after the political "purges" by Stalin, which eliminated most of Russia's high ranking officers. When Hitler invaded Russia a year later, Finland was a natural ally, and it participated in the German attack, retook the territory it lost to Russia in the 1940 cease fire agreement, and participated in the lengthy German siege of Leningrad. In mid 1944, the much stronger and more experienced Russian army invaded Finland again and defeated the Finn army. Mannerheim, then president, signed a peace agreement and ended the war for Finland.
Per Hansson was the prime minister of the neural Sweden. Sweden's military was not modern and with neighbors like Hitler and Stalin neutrality was no guarantee. Sweden was also the strategically important source of more than half the iron consumed by the German military industry. Sweden's neutrality was saved by its remoteness and its willingness to continue to provide the German military industry with all the iron it needed. A military buildup which began before the war and continued until the end of the war also helped keep Sweden out of the war.
Switzerland is a federation led in rotation by a group of seven elected members. Famous for its neutrality, its high mountains, and as a banking and diplomatic center, the Swiss government knew that with highly aggressive neighbours like Hitler and Mussolini they must backup neutrality with a strong military position, and immediately when the war started the Swiss military fully deployed in defensive positions along the expected path of a German invasion and negotiated calling for French military support in such case. The mountains make Switzerland a natural fortress and its capable army is known to be highly trained in mountain warfare, so Hitler preferred to leave it in peace, surrounded from all sides by Axis territory.
Pibul Songgram was the pro-Japanese military dictator of Thailand during World War 2. Initially Thailand declared neutrality and signed non-aggression pacts with France and Britain, but in 1941, after France surrendered to Germany, Thailand invaded the French colonies in Laos and Cambodia. Japan was accepted by both sides as a mediator and, like the Romans did 2000 years ago, Japan exploited its role for its own interest and practically took control over both Thailand and the French colonies, and Pibul became a Japanese puppet and joined the war beside Japan, although the Thai public was more in favor of Britain. In summer 1944 Pibul was replaced by a pro-American government.
Reza Pahlavi, the dictator (self-declared king) of oil-rich Iran declared neutrality but maintained strong commercial relations with Germany which worried its neighbors Russia and Britain (which then controlled Iran's neighbors Iraq, Pakistan, and India). After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, Britain and Russia demanded that Germans will be expelled from Iran, and when Pahlavi refused, British and Russian forces rapidly invaded Iran in August 1941 and as a result Pahlavi exiled and was replaced as king by his 22 years old son Mohamad Reza Pahlavi. Iran was used until the end of the war as a route for transferring British military support to Russia. After the war the young Pahlavi became a very corrupt king who spent the endless richness of Irani oil, until he was removed in 1979 by a popular uprising led by religious fundamentalists, which replaced Pahlavi's corrupt and oppressive dictatorship with a much worse new type of highly oppressive and aggressive Islamic-totalitarian dictatorship which lost its initial popular support and made the formerly peaceful Iran one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Manuel Quezon was re-elected as president of the Philippines in November 1941, but a month later his country, a US ally with US military presence, was invaded and occupied by the Japanese. Quezon formed a exiled government in the US where he died in 1944. The Philippines were liberated in 1945 by US forces.
Prince-Regent Paul of Yugoslavia was an ally of Germany and Italy. In March 27, 1941 he was replaced in a pro-Allies military coup, and ten days later the German Luftwaffe massively bombarded Belgrade, the capital of its former ally, and the German military invaded and occupied the country until the end of the war.