World War II made giant reputations—from Winston Churchill’s to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, from Joseph Stalin’s to Charles de Gaulle’s. Tempered in the furnace of battle, these men, and many others, emerged as titans not merely famous today, but sure to be known to millions for years to come. But are those reputations justified?
Do the familiar faces of the Second World War deserve the accolades awarded them? After all, many leaders shamelessly manipulated the media to help gain and maintain their celebrity. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill admitted, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
So to what extent has history treated these revered figures too generously? To answer to that question I asked 16 distinguished historians of World War II to nominate the conflict’s most overrated leader. I had expected that nationalist pride might influence selection—that a British historian wouldn’t name a fellow Briton; that a Russian would avoid embarrassing a countryman, and so on. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nor were commonly revered figures sacrosanct. Indeed, no one seemed off limits.
Max Hastings found the question difficult—not because the celebrated British historian couldn’t think of a leader who did not deserve his reputation, but because he sees too many candidates to choose from. “A basic fact about leaders in Western democracies is that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill constantly found themselves imprisoned by propaganda,” Hastings explained. “When you appointed a general or an air marshal or an admiral, the newspapers and the radio for months thereafter built him up into a great popular hero. Once he’d been built into a great popular hero he became fantastically difficult to sack.
“There is an almost endless roll call of inadequate commanders allowed to become so famous that they couldn’t be fired,” Hastings said. “There’s no doubt, for example, that Charles Portal, chief of the British Air Staff, would have loved to sack RAF Bomber Command head Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris in the winter of 1944–1945, but couldn’t because propaganda had told everybody this was Bomber Harris, the master of Britain’s bomber offensive—a great popular figure.”
Hastings is surely right to name Bomber Harris. As the historian himself demonstrates in his brilliant Bomber Command (1979), Harris became almost obsessed with pursuing the destruction of German cities, when a more strategic approach to target selection might well have more greatly benefitted the Allied cause.
Geoffrey Wawro, director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, chose one of the conflict’s most famous Americans—General George S. Patton. “Because there have been so many books about him, and because of the movie starring George C. Scott, Patton has become an iconic figure very much attached to everything Americans think about the Second World War,” Wawro said. “But there was a dark side to Patton: He was pitiless about American casualties. After the liberation of Paris, when they were moving on Germany, he attacked Metz in a frontal assault against German troops and tanks entrenched behind a river barrier, and took awful casualties. This was something Patton was willing to do in order to keep the momentum moving forward, but also to assure his own fame. He was energetic, aggressive—a great American hero. He didn’t lack bravery and wasn’t trying to pass the burden to his troops. But there was something about Patton’s generalship that was a little bit crude for the 20th century.”
Conrad Crane, chief of Historical Services for the Army Heritage and Educational Center, named American icon Omar Bradley, the hugely popular “GI’s General.” Explains Crane: “Bradley did a lot of great things. But his image as the soldier’s general was a creation of war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Bradley was too cautious at very critical times in 1944, and I don’t think he reacted well at the Battle of the Bulge. He was a good general, a very good manager, and a good man to command the massive formation that he did, but a lot of his key decisions were less than they could have been.”
David Cesarani, a British historian and author of five books on the war, nominates Britain’s most famous military commander: Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, who led a variety of Commonwealth troops in the Eighth Army and later the 21st Army Group. “Let’s remember, Montgomery was running coalition warfare,” said Cesarani. “He was first of all running an Imperial Army in North Africa with lots of allies, not all of whom he got on very well with: New Zealanders, Australians—he was constantly having arguments with them, treating them rather badly. And there was his inability to hold together the coalition forces in Normandy. I think Montgomery is grossly overrated as a military leader and his political ineptitude is absolutely breathtaking. How he ever became the chief of the Imperial General Staff after the Second World War beggars the imagination.”
Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery were, of course, instrumental in winning the war, so their ranking as “overrated” by distinguished countrymen is surprising. What about the losing Italian or German commanders—or even defeated Axis leaders like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini? But I realized that in my original query I had emphasized inflated reputation, not who, in absolute terms, was the worst leader.
That distinction may explain the choice of British historian Andrew Roberts. He nominated the American general who commanded the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy: Mark W. Clark. “I don’t see why Americans are very fond of Mark Clark,” Roberts said. “Yes, he captured Rome, but so ham-fistedly that he allowed yet another German army to escape. Clark should have been able to catch three German armies in Italy, but each of them managed to extricate themselves. Clark is, partly just through absurd Anglophobia, a useless commander to have on your team. He is vainglorious, boastful, and pushy and aggressive, as were great commanders like Patton, Montgomery, and others. But Clark doesn’t seem to have any personal redeeming features, as those other commanders have.”
Renowned British military historian Antony Beevor named the great hero of the Pacific War, General Douglas MacArthur. Recognizing MacArthur as “a brilliant propagandist and self-publicist,” Beevor maintained that MacArthur’s “attempts to influence strategy in the Pacific were probably totally wrong.” Beevor criticized MacArthur’s “island hopping” strategy of progressing systematically from island to island, and argued that the strategy the U.S. Navy chose of bypassing some islands and moving forward only toward those that could be used as forward air bases for the bombing of Japan was much more sensible. MacArthur’s plan, Beevor said, would simply have “ground down the American forces.”
Another influential British historian, Richard Overy—a professor at the University of Exeter and author of many books on the war—nominated the highest-ranking American in Europe—the Supreme Commander himself, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Now, he’s somebody who has had, on the whole, a pretty good press,” said Overy, “because people like him as he doesn’t do anything particularly horrid. The problem with Eisenhower is that his skills are managerial and diplomatic. He plays almost no part really in constructing, organizing, and carrying through the operations. Yet Eisenhower is the name that always comes up: Eisenhower does this, Eisenhower orders that, Eisenhower conquers France, and so on. I have no particular beef against Eisenhower, it’s just I think that his reputation has been greatly inflated. He is a very effective manager, but in the end the manager works only because he has all these sub-managers who are able to do the things that are needed to be able to defeat the Germans.”
I suppose Professor Overy’s view is understandable: Eisenhower was very much a management figure. But my own experience with big international corporations leads me to believe that the ability to meld disparate groups and nationalities to further a common aim is a rare skill. It’s hard to imagine another World War II general who could have achieved as much as Eisenhower did. Had Patton or MacArthur or Clark run the Allied operation, for instance, their monstrous egos would most likely have caused a total breakdown in the British-American relationship.
On the other hand, it is easy to understand Polish historian Anita Pra because the man she named was instrumental in giving away the entire eastern half of her country to Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943. żmowska’s pick. That’s “I think it was Roosevelt,” she said. “Roosevelt is playing an American game, so it’s very heavy on propaganda, but if we’re talking about a gap between pronouncements and delivery I think that maybe this is the biggest one.”
Prażmowska might as well have chosen Churchill: He, too, connived with FDR to pacify Stalin by arranging one of the greatest demographic changes in European history—all behind the Poles’ backs. But only one of my survey subjects ranked Churchill as most overrated leader—British social historian Juliet Gardiner. And her view of the wartime Prime Minister is complicated: “Churchill was both the best leader and the most overrated,” she said. “I think he was a fantastic shortterm crisis/wartime leader. Churchill was always fantastic in a crisis; on a single issue—brilliant. But he made a lot of very stupid military decisions, or tried to make them, to interfere— though you’ve got to read the diaries of Lord Alanbrooke, chief of the British Imperial General Staff, to see that. By 1942, 1943, Churchill was not a good wartime leader.”
The third of the “Big Three” Allied leaders—Joseph Stalin—received a vote, from Soviet expert Robert Service. “Stalin was a divided personality, he was an exceptional politician, and he was a dominant leader,” Service, a professor at University of Oxford, said. “He brought the political and the military sides of the war together, but he fought a disastrous war in other respects. He produced the worst farming system the world has ever known: Soviet collective agriculture. He made it possible that many Soviet people in the unoccupied areas might starve to death. He deported peoples who were not collectively responsible for collaborating with the Germans. It was said that if there hadn’t been so many Ukrainians he would have deported all of them as well. He purged so many Red Army officers who had done no wrong. A lot of the damage done to the Soviet war effort was done before 1941 by Stalin, and a lot of the triumph of the Soviet war effort has to do with some of the slackening of this brutality between 1941 and 1945.”
Restricting his consideration to his countrymen, Russian historian Kirill Anderson named Stalin’s most famous military commander. “On the Soviet side, I think the most overrated individual was Marshal Georgi Zhukov,” he said. “The best military leader is not the one that wins most of the battles, but the one that saves most of his soldiers. And for Zhukov, the number of losses among his soldiers wasn’t very important.”
Anderson’s arguments against Zhukov did not convince me. I remember, years ago, talking to Soviet soldiers who felt that Zhukov’s inspiring leadership kept Moscow from falling to the Germans in late autumn 1941. Yes, Zhukov was ruthless, but after a hard-fought victory, it’s difficult to criticize a general for ruthlessness when that very ruthlessness may have been the factor that won the battle.
Similarly, I’m not sure I agree with William Hitchcock. Hitchcock, professor of history at the University of Virginia, nominated the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle. “I am among other things a French historian, so it pains me to have to name Charles de Gaulle,” he said. “That’s not to say that he’s unimportant or insignificant, but de Gaulle, like so many Second World War figures, would rest on his laurels and build up a reputation about himself after the war that had much to do with his alleged achievements during the war. He’s an extraordinary figure and a fascinating man who had a lot of courage and a lot of guts, but he overrated himself and his contribution to winning the Second World War and to leading France in its time of need—sometimes at the expense of the local Resistance inside France itself. Much of de Gaulle’s political appeal from 1945 on in France had to do with him as being the man of June 18, 1940, who saved France in its hour of need: off he went to London, rallied France behind him, stood steadfast, created space for France at the table of the great powers, and so on. Much of this is myth.”
Roosevelt, of course, famously loathed de Gaulle. But, as Hitchcock says, “de Gaulle made it so easy for anyone to loathe him. He was so difficult, so obstreperous, so unwilling to be flexible, so unwilling to take a second-tier position, when he was lucky even to be in the room and be taken seriously by Churchill, who went out of his way for the first couple of years of the war to try to bring de Gaulle into the tent. Churchill made a great crack about how the heaviest cross he had to bear during the war was the cross of Lorraine—the symbol of the Free French—and you could see why: It was very, very difficult to have to deal with a man of such ego, such national pride, and yet so little real meaningful power.”
There’s a great deal of truth in what Hitchcock says. In many ways de Gaulle was impossible and thought ridiculously highly of himself. But to me that was de Gaulle’s greatest strength. The only weapons he had at his disposal in the dark days after the French capitulation were his own dignity and self-respect. Through sheer force of personality, he managed to transfer those characteristics onto a people whose wartime conduct had left them much to be ashamed of.
Distinguished Japanese-born Harvard historian Akira Iriye looked to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo for a culprit. “One of the most overrated leaders of World War II would have to be the Japanese emperor,” he told me. Iriye believes that Hirohito was “overrated by his own people, who died and lived in the belief that the nation of which he was the 124th ‘god’ in an ‘unbroken’ line of succession could not possibly lose the war, but also overrated by postwar apologists as a man of peace. If he had been, he would not have agreed to all the disastrous decisions made in his name during 1931–1941, and during the war he would have taken every opportunity to bring the aggressive war to its speedy conclusion.”
There can be little dispute about the leader that British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore nominated: the war’s greatest tyrant. “Hitler’s hugely overrated,” said Sebag Montefiore. “He got incredibly lucky [at the start of the war]. Poland was a tiny country that depended on cavalry. He also got incredibly lucky with France. And after that he thought he was absolutely unbeatable, which was a disastrous mistake. He made more and more mistakes and became less and less educable. Stalin, on the other hand, became more and more educable as the war went on—which is unexpected from the ‘man of steel’—but by the end, after 1942–1943, he actually became quite a competent commander in chief.”
Adam Tooze, a professor at Yale and a German expert, nominates one of the Führer’s intimates: architect Albert Speer, the Reich’s Minister of Armaments and War Production. “His contribution to the war effort has been grossly exaggerated,” said Tooze. “That Speer could become everybody’s favorite Nazi by the early 1970s I think is both inexplicable and quite distasteful. He had full knowledge of the Holocaust and the extraordinary violence being dealt out to slave laborers, and deserved capital punishment at Nuremberg along with the other major war criminals. What’s remarkable is that he managed, by virtue of the exaggeration of his war record, to present himself as a more civilized person. So two legends, as it were, feed each other.”
The final nomination comes from Robert M. Citino, visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Citino, a specialist on German military history, names one of the Nazi regime’s most talented commanders: General Heinz Guderian—“one of the fathers of what came to be known as blitzkrieg or armored warfare, and a man with a wonderful operational career in the early battles—France in 1940 and the first campaigning season in the Soviet Union,” Citino said. “Hitler sacked him in December of 1941, so he wasn’t around for Stalingrad. He was brought back in 1943 as Inspector General of Armored Troops and helped put the German war effort—at least in terms of armored forces in the East—back on a more sensible footing.
“But after the war Guderian wrote a book called Panzer Leader in which he blamed the defeat on Hitler and said that if the officer corps’ advice had been followed things would have gone differently. He posed as an enemy of Hitler’s and as someone who opposed Hitler’s worst excesses in terms of racial war and internal suppression of dissent. But we now know that Guderian was as loyal to Hitler as they come. He participated in the so-called ‘people’s courts’ or courts of honor against German officers who had taken part in the resistance. He handed out death sentences to men with whom he had fought side by side. As a field commander, if I were asked to take Objective City B, I might still call Heinz Guderian, wherever he is in the hereafter, and see if we could work out some terms. But as an arbiter of what is right and wrong, and the notion that there still can be morality even in wartime, he’d be the last person I’d call.”
So there we have it. Sixteen world-class historians named 16 different people as the war’s most overrated leader: Guderian, Speer, Hitler, Hirohito, de Gaulle, Zhukov, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Clark, Montgomery, Bradley, Patton, and “Bomber” Harris—each received one vote.
Given that spread, I’m casting the deciding vote. And I, without hesitation, agree with Simon Sebag Montefiore that Adolf Hitler was World War II’s most overrated leader. Hitler, of course, has a terrible reputation today—rightly reviled as one of the most loathsome individuals ever to walk the planet—but there are still those who, even as they condemn his crimes, emit an almost sneaking admiration for his “military genius.” They are mistaken. Recent historical work on Hitler—much of it pioneered by Professor Tooze—illustrates a Nazi war effort doomed from the start. It’s impossible to see how Hitler could ever have achieved his ludicrously ambitious military goals. So he was not only the worst war criminal in history, but militarily idiotic as well. If that doesn’t make him the conflict’s most overrated leader I don’t know what else could.
Still, that’s only my view. Who gets your vote?
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.