World War II is remembered for its cruelty and ferocious violence, a global conflict that claimed the lives of nearly 60 million people. It was a war that featured no shortage of heinous individuals — these 14 being among the very worst.
When putting together this list, I decided to exclude some of the most obvious high-level personalities, including Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Herman Göring, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, and Japanese ministers Hideki Tojo and Fumimaro Konoe. Their contributions to the war are firmly established, so it's not worth repeating them here. Instead, I present to you a list of individuals (in no particular order) whose participation in the war was no less malign, but whose overzealousness, opportunism, and ideological fervor worked as force multipliers. Here are 14 heinous individuals who made World War II far more miserable than it needed to be.
Referred to by Northwestern University historian Michael Allen as "the vilest individual in the vilest organization ever known," Austrian SS Leader Odilo Globočnik had a lead role in Operation Reinhard — the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jews in the General Government district of occupied Poland.
Over the course of his tenure, over 1.5 million Jews were killed in the Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek death camps — camps that he himself helped to organize and supervise. In fact, historians think it likely that Globočnik came up with the idea of using gassing facilities after being "inspired" by the Nazi euthanasia programs.
Corrupt and completely without scruple, Globočnik exploited Jews and non-Jews as slave laborers in his own forced labor camps. Later in the war he was re-assigned to German-occupied Italy, the OZAC, where he converted an old rice mill into a detention center equipped with a crematorium. There, thousands of Jews, partisans, and political prisoners were interrogated, tortured and murdered. Globočnik was captured by Allied forces on May 31, 1945. He committed suicide on the same day by taking a cyanide pill.
Usually it's Germany that's remembered for its atrocities and concentration camps, but Italy was complicit in war crimes as well.
Nicknamed "the black beast" by his own men, the Italian fascist General Mario Roatta killed tens of thousands of Yugoslav citizens in reprisals and forcibly relocated thousands more to their deaths in severely depleted concentration camps. Historians James Walston and Carlo Capogeco claim that the annual death rate in Croatia's Rab concentration camp was higher than the average mortality rate in Buchenwald. In 1942, Roatta implemented a scorched earth policy in the Yugoslav territories in an effort to "de-Balkanize" and "ethnically clear" the region. Writing home, one of his soldiers wrote: "We have destroyed everything from top to bottom without sparing the innocent. We kill entire families every night, beating them to death or shooting them." (Image: Italia Mistero/CC.)
Disturbingly, Roatta, like many other Italian war criminals, were never tried after the war. He lived in Rome until his death in January 1968.
Far from being the only Nazi doctor guilty of atrocities, Josef Mengele has remained a notorious historical figure owing to his cold, detached demeanor, the cruelty of his medical experiments, and the fact that he was never captured.
As a devout adherent of Nazi pseudo-science, Mengele used his position at Auschwitz to further his research goals by experimenting on human subjects — often with complete disregard for their welfare and in violation of sound scientific principles. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum explains more:
He had a wide variety of other research interests, including a fascination with heterochromia, a condition in which an individual's two irises differ in coloration Throughout his stay in Auschwitz, Mengele collected the eyes of his murdered victims, in part to furnish "research material" to colleague Karin Magnussen, a KWI researcher of eye pigmentation. He himself also conducted several experiments in an attempt to unlock the secret of artificially changing eye color. Less famously, he zealously documented in camp inmates the progression of the disease Noma, a type of gangrene which destroys the mucous membrane of the mouth and other tissues.
Mengele firmly endorsed the doctrine of National Socialist racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments which aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews or Roma to various diseases. He also attempted to demonstrate the "degeneration" of Jewish and "Gypsy" blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his "test subjects" died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.
After the war, Mengele escaped to Brazil, where he died of a drowning accident in 1979.
These men, along with several others, were responsible for one of the most heinous and despicable acts of the Second World War — the Nanking Massacre.
By some accounts, the Second World War officially got started in 1937 with the Japanese Imperial Army's invasion of China. Later that year, after Japanese troops launched a massive attack on the city of Nanking, Chinese soldiers retreated to the other side of the Yangtze river. Over the course of the next horrible six weeks, Japanese troops committed what is now known as the Rape of Nanking — a terrible episode in which an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed and some 20,000 women raped.
After the war, those in charge were held to account. General Iwane Matsui was found guilty of "deliberately and recklessly" shirking his legal duty to "to take adequate steps to secure the observance and prevent breaches" of the Hague Convention. Likewise, General Hisao Tani was tried by the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal and sentenced to death. Other leaders who were responsible died before the war ended, including Prince Kan'in and Isamu Cho, the latter of whom issued the infamous "kill all captives" memo. (Images: Government of Japan/CC)
One of the many advantages of winning a war is the benefit of not having to account for all the nasty things required to win it. Such was the case for British Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris and American Air Force General Curtis LeMay, both of whom were responsible for civilian bombing campaigns that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths across both Germany and Japan — and for questionable gain. Whereas bombing campaigns against industrial and military targets yielded tangible results, historians have consistently shown that terror campaigns against civilians did very little to change the outcome of the war. (Image: BAF)
During the Second World War, Harris directed Allied Bomber Command. Convinced that war from the air could be decisive, he famously said:
The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.
His tone was undeniably vindictive. But more to the point, Harris believed that mass bombing of civilians would turn the German population against Hitler. His "whirlwind," he thought, could end the war in months. To that end, he organized raid after raid, including those on Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, and most controversially, on Dresden at a time when the war was most certainly lost for Germany. Writing in his memoirs, Harris never wavered from his convictions: "In spite of all that happened... bombing proved a relatively humane method."
Over at the Pacific Theater, LeMay was waging his own brutal campaign against civilians. In the six months leading to the surrender of Japan, LeMay's firebombing raids resulted in an estimated 500,000 deaths and the displacement of five million inhabitants. The most infamous of these raids happened from March 9 to 10 (exactly 70 years ago this week) when raids over Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000 civilians, marking it the most deadly single assault on civilians during the Second World War. But unlike Harris, LeMay was fully cognizant of his own brutality, remarking after the war: "Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time... I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal." (Image: USAF)
SS Special Commando Oskar Dirlewanger was one of the most depraved persons to wear a Nazi uniform, which is saying something given the extent of his regime's brutality. He was an alcoholic and drug addict, a child molester, and a man prone to severe violence. Over the course of his various tours, his unit was responsible for more atrocities than any other.
In 1940, Heinrich Himmler put Dirlewanger in charge of a special Poacher's Brigade comprised of convicted criminals, all of them former hunters. After being stationed in occupied Belarus, Dirlewanger and his men engaged partisans, but they also killed civilians whose villages were in the wrong place. His preferred method of mass execution was to herd the local population inside a barn, set it on fire, and then shoot anyone who tried to escape with machine guns. Dirlewanger is estimated to have killed at least 30,000 people during his Belarus tour alone.
As noted by historian Timothy Snyder, "in all the theatres of the Second World War, few could compete in cruelty with Oskar Dirlewanger." He was arrested on June 1, 1945 and reportedly beaten to death by his Polish captors.
Largely ignored by history, Hans Frank governed and terrorized Nazi-occupied Poland from 1939 to 1945. As Hitler's former lawyer, he tried to model his ruling style after the fuhrer. Known as the "Butcher of Poland," it was under his rule that millions of lives were taken. As noted by historian Chris Klessmann, he may not have been the most powerful man in the Third Reich, but "he was one of those chiefly responsible for the bloody German reign of terror in Poland."
His indifference to human suffering knew no bounds. In 1940 he was quoted as saying: "In Prague, big red posters were put up on which one could read that seven Czechs had been shot today. I said to myself, 'If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper.'"
Frank was one of 10 war criminals hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.
Prior to the war, the Japanese government put Dr. Shirō Ishii in charge of the "Anti-Epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau." More commonly known as Unit 731, it was in reality a covert biological and chemical research and development unit.
Located near the city of Harbin, the facility housed some 3,000 personnel. Ishii noted that a doctor's "god-given mission" is to block and treat disease, but he made it clear that the work "upon which we are now about to embark is the complete opposite of these principles."During the war, he presided over a team that experimented with some of the world's most horrible diseases, including anthrax, plague, gas gangrene, smallpox, botulism, and others. Chinese prisoners — and even some Allied POWS —were used as guinea pigs and forced to breathe, eat, and receive injections of the pathogens. Historian Sheldon H. Harris of California State University estimates that more than 200,000 Chinese were killed in germ warfare experiments, while many others died in related blights. (Image: Government of Japan/CC)
PBS's American Experience explains what happened to Oshii after the war:
No doubt aware that his activities constituted war crimes of the highest order, Ishii faked his own death in late 1945 and went into hiding. When American occupation forces learned that Ishii was still alive, they ordered the Japanese to hand him over and investigators from Camp Detrick began interrogations. At first Ishii denied any human testing had taken place but, aware that the Soviets also wanted to talk to him and their methods might not be so mild, he later offered to reveal all the details of his program in exchange for immunity from war crimes prosecution. Anxious to learn the results of experiments that they themselves had been unable to perform, the American military accepted Ishii's offer, and approval was then given by the highest level of government. Ultimately Ishii's materials proved to be of little value, but the United States kept its end of this dubious bargain.
Disturbingly, biological weapons were never mentioned in the Japanese war crimes trials. Ishii was never held accountable for his crimes, dying a free man in 1959.
Lavrentiy Beria was to Joseph Stalin what Heinrich Himmler was to Adolf Hitler — a psychotic, vicious, and callous right-hand man.
Though mostly known for terrorizing Soviet citizens in the pre- and post-war years, Beria took on a number of responsibilities during the Second World War. As Marshal of the USSR in command of the NKVD, he was responsible for anti-partisan operations on the Eastern Front. It was Beria's NKVD, with Stalin's approval, that killed some 22,000 Polish officers, police, doctors, and others in the Katyn Massacre of 1940. He also mobilized millions of prisoners held in Gulag camps, forcing them to contribute to the Soviet Union's wartime production.
During the war, Beria was also put in charge of vast swaths of the Soviet Union. He launched a project called "Death to Spies" in which the NKVD arrested and killed a significant number of retreating soldiers. Beria also organized mass deportations of Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and many other ethnic groups. After the war, he was put in charge of punishing and executing "collaborators" who supposedly supported the Germans — including a large number of innocent people, including Russian POWs. In the end, and in conjunction with Joseph Stalin, he was responsible for millions of Russian deaths.
It's also worth noting that Beria was a prolific sexual predator; as noted by Martin Sixsmith of the BBC, "Beria spent his nights having teenagers abducted from the streets and brought here for him to rape. Those who resisted were strangled and buried in his wife's rose garden."
In 1953, Beria was found guilty by the new Kruschev administration of treason, terrorism, and counter-revolutionary activity during the Russian Civil War. According to official accounts, a rag had to be stuffed into his mouth during the execution to silence his wailing.
Heinrich Himmler served Adolf Hitler as Reichsführer of the SS and was as a leading member of the Nazi party. Far from the crackpot he's often made out to be, he was the ideological and organizational driving force behind the rise of the SS. But among his litany of egregious activities, he is mostly remembered for his role in actualizing Hitler's desire for a "final solution" to the "Jewish problem."
As noted by the USHMM:
It was Himmler whom Hitler entrusted with the planning and implementation of the "Final Solution." In his most quoted speech, that of October 4, 1943, in Poznan to a gathering of SS generals, Himmler explicitly justified the mass murder of the European Jews in the following words: "In front of you here, I want to refer explicitly to a very serious matter….I mean here…the annihilation of the Jewish people…. Most of you will know what it means when 100 corpses lie side by side, or 500 or 1,000…. This page of glory in our history has never been written and will never be written….We had the moral right, we were obligated to our people to kill this people which wanted to kill us."
To that end, Himmler formed the Einsatzgruppen and built the extermination camps. Along with Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich, he oversaw the killing of some six million Jews, around 200,000 to 500,000 Roma, and many others.