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World War Two Key Individuals

Get to know all the important people that were involved in WWII by reading our profiles and essays.

Neville Chamberlain

Neville was Chamberlain’s middle name but he used this in preference to Arthur. He was prime minister of Britain from 1937 until 1940, meaning he was responsible for the decision to go to war against Nazi Germany after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. However, he was a key advocate of appeasement, his previous policy towards Hitler before the war. Chamberlain believed that the Nazis were capable of negotiation and prior to 1939, he perceived Soviet Russia to be a more serious threat to world peace. This led to little British protest over the formation of the Anschluss in 1938 and also the acceptance of German occupation of the Sudetenland later that year. The iconic image of Chamberlain returning from the Munich Conference and waving a copy of the signed agreement that he claimed represented ‘peace in our time’ proved misguided and he was the first to admit to the ‘bitter disappointment’ of having to go to war. After the BEF proved unable to stop the initial advance of the German troops in Norway, Chamberlain resigned in 1940.

Winston Churchill

Churchill enjoyed a long career prior to the war, working as a journalist during the Boer War, as Minister of Munitions during World War One and then in various Conservative party positions before war broke out again in 1939. He was a critic of appeasement from the outset and so when it became clear that this had failed and Britain would be forced to endure a long conflict, it seemed appropriate for him to take over as prime minster following Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940. Churchill’s ‘bulldog’ spirit has been widely praised, represented by his refusal to surrender even after the retreat from Dunkirk. For the British public, his rousing speeches during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain were of great psychological importance and helped to mobilise the entire population. As victory became apparent by May 1945, polls placed his approval rate at 83%. Churchill also made huge efforts to secure the co-operation of the Grand Alliance, travelling thousands of miles to meet with allies and co-ordinate strategy. He achieved a good working relationship with both Roosevelt and Stalin during the war, despite criticising Stalin’s expansionist ambitions in 1946. By this point however, he had lost the 1945 election after his wartime popularity as a coalition leader failed to ensure Conservative victory.

Joseph Stalin

It was difficult for his American and British allies to trust Stalin, partly because his communist beliefs were seen as threatening to the Western capitalist system, but also because of his widespread purging of the Soviet people during the 1930s. This tension was exacerbated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact that Stalin signed in August 1939, revealing his willingness to co-operate with Hitler and his desire to expand into Polish territory. However, Stalin’s actions must be understood in context; Russia had suffered more than any other nation during WW1 and the exclusion of the Soviets from the Munich Conference left them vulnerable. Stalin must have suspected that the Nazi-Soviet Pact offered limited protection but he was initially paralysed by the German invasion of 1941. Within a few weeks though, he committed his nation to a dogged defence of their territory, before launching counter-attacks that took the Soviets all the way to Berlin by 1945. The role of the Soviets was of immeasurable importance to allied victory, particularly because Britain and America delayed opening the second front to relieve pressure in the east. This, alongside Stalin’s determination for the Soviet Union to dominate Eastern Europe after Germany’s defeat, would bring the Russian leader into increasing conflict with his Western allies as the conflict drew to a close.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party from 1921 and Fuhrer of Germany from 1933 to 1945, holding complete dictatorial power over the state and the armed forces. Hitler was of Austrian descent and was influenced during his formative years by anti-Semitic and Social Darwinist ideas that would dominate his thinking throughout his adult life. His obsession with blood purity was combined with a nationalistic desire to restore German pride and this motivated him to pursue lebensraum (or ‘living space’) to the east of Germany. By rapidly increasing German military capacity and convincing his close neighbours that he was willing to avoid all-out war through diplomatic means, Hitler created a formidable war machine that at first seemed unstoppable. He was not only responsible for the misery caused by the German invasion and occupation of much of central and eastern Europe, but he also used the war as a means to pursue his abhorrent desire to rid his territories of Jews and others who he considered to be ‘untermensch’ (or subhuman). Hitler remained resolute until Berlin entered by Soviet troops in April 1945, prompting his suicide.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The US President proved a popular war-time leader. He forged strong working relationships with the other members of the Grand Alliance and was skilled at interacting with the American public and the media, using ‘fireside chats’ to justify the decisions he took. After the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Roosevelt announced that the US would enter the war against the Axis powers and US troops saw action in Europe, the Pacific and North Africa. Since the US was never invaded or bombed directly, the war had many positive consequences for civilian society, creating jobs and boosting the economy through war-time production. This ensured that Roosevelt was largely immune from criticism, even though he controversially interned 110,000 Americans of Japanese origin and decided not to directly attack the concentration camp network, despite publically condemning the genocide whilst it was still underway. Roosevelt died of a cerebral haemorrhage whilst still in office in April 1945, a month before VE day.