Who Were the Most Important Leaders of WWII?

The most prominent wartime leaders differed significantly, ranging from totalitarian to democratic. Whether elected or not, they took their countries to war, affecting millions of people for decades after.

Jan 11, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

most important leaders of ww2


Throughout World War II the principal Allied heads of state were Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill. The three Axis leaders included Hideki Tojo, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. Not all of these leaders would live to see old age. World War II ‘s notable leaders are much more well-known than those in the Great War. Their rise to power made them critical leaders during the war, whether through determination, force of personality, or political acumen. Each had different reasons for seeking power.


Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler World War II
Adolf Hitler.


Few names are more synonymous with World War II than Adolf Hitler. The German dictator was the mastermind that caused the war. His hatred of Jews, Communism, and the economic ruin of Germany from the Versailles Treaty are only several reasons for his actions. Austrian by birth, Hitler ruled Germany in 1933 after being elected President. He brutally but skillfully consolidated his power quickly. Opponents were sent to concentration camps, jailed or killed.


Hitler believed Germans to be superior and deserved living space at the expense of others. His iron will and self-confidence appealed to many Germans living under challenging conditions. Germany’s annexations and initial victories bolstered Hitler until the Allies combined efforts led to the Nazi’s defeat. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, as the Soviet armies surrounded Berlin. 


Winston Churchill

Churchill circa 1940 world war II
Churchill circa 1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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Churchill was Great Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, known for his speeches. He was elected in 1940 and came to power at Britain’s lowest ebb, the Battle of Britain. Never considering surrender, he was always looking for ways to defeat the Axis. Churchill’s political skills were formidable. He called for supporting Joseph Stalin to keep Germany focused in the East. He and President Roosevelt created a friendship, which in turn helped Britain gain American aid. At home, his speeches kept Britons inspired to keep fighting. 


Occasionally, Churchill did make poor wartime choices. He had a temper and cantankerous personality, alienating leaders like Charles De Gaulle. Another was over pledging Britain’s help, as in 1941, when trying to defend Greece and Crete, which the Germans conquered. However, Churchill successfully led Britain through World War II until 1945, and he passed away in 1965.


Benito Mussolini

Mussolini in Milan world war II
Mussolini in Milan.


Also known as Il Duce, Mussolini was the first Fascist dictator. He came to power in 1922 using mob tactics and violent threats, preaching strength and national pride. Though Mussolini improved the infrastructure of roads, rebuilt the economy, and improved Italy’s status as a power, he was still a totalitarian.  Mussolini banned political parties, labor unions, or anything seen as a threat by his party, the Blackshirts. By the late 1930s, his Fascist party became anti-Semitic, like the Nazis. Jews were banned from jobs or imprisoned. 


Mussolini joined the Axis in 1940, declaring war on Britain and France. He ordered disastrous invasions of North Africa, Ethiopia, and Greece. Only German military intervention prevented disaster. The disasters continued until Sicily’s capture by the Allies in 1943, when he was deposed and became a German puppet. As the Axis retreated in April 1945, Mussolini was captured in Milan by his enemies and executed.


Franklin Roosevelt

FDR on radio
FDR on radio. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Popularly called FDR, Roosevelt was President of the United States from 1933 to 1945, and the only U.S. President to serve three terms. He asked Congress to declare war on December 8, 1941, after Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s charisma enabled him to inspire people. Cleverly, he used radio with his “Fireside Chats” to maintain morale at home. FDR’s charm also helped him to cultivate relationships with Churchill and Stalin. Roosevelt’s economic policies to bolster the economy from the Great Depression worked. His New Deal led the recovery slowly. Meanwhile, entering the war made the economy surge as America re-armed and helped its allies.


His experience with crises, like the Depression, helped him manage the war. Also, in 1939, Roosevelt ordered a military buildup, convinced America eventually would be at war. Sadly, Roosevelt’s health declined, especially in 1944, and he passed away on April 12, 1945.


Joseph Stalin

Stalin at Teheran Conference
Stalin at Teheran Conference. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Few dictators are infamous as Stalin, the Soviet leader. Stalin took control of the Soviet Union in 1924, only passing away in 1953. His brutality helped the Soviet Union survive the war through rapid industrialization, total disregard for life, and severe political repression. He was usually inflexible but could compromise, like the non-aggression Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement with Germany to avoid war. 


However, Stalin’s ever-present paranoia could be deadly. He was often suspicious of his allies, demanding territorial concessions. His 1930s purges killed millions of people, crippling his military and economy just as the Germans invaded in 1941. Any surviving officers were afraid to say no; many knew what their fate was should they lose a fight. During WWII, Stalin’s armies beat the Germans using blunt force, losing millions of soldiers.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.