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Key Leaders in European History

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Louis XIV of France 1638 - 1715

Known as “The Sun King” or “the Great”, Louis is remembered as the apogee of the absolute monarch, a style of rule whereby the king (or queen) has total power invested in them. He led France through an age of great cultural achievement in which he was a key patron, as well as winning military victories, expanding the borders of France and securing the Spanish succession for his grandson in the war of the same name. The aristocracy of Europe began to mimic that of France. However, he has been criticised for leaving France vulnerable to rule from someone less able.

Peter the Great of Russia (Peter I) 1672 – 1725

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Sidelined by a regent as a youth, Peter grew up to become one of Russia’s great emperors. Determined to modernise his country, he went incognito on a fact finding expedition to the West, where he worked as a carpenter in a shipyard, before returning to both push the borders of Russia to the Baltic and Caspian seas through conquest and reform the nation internally. He founded St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad during World War 2), a city built from scratch and created a new army along modern lines. He died leaving Russia as a great power.

Frederick the Great of Prussia (Frederick II) 1712 - 1786

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Under his leadership Prussia expanded its territory and rose to become one of the leading military and political powers in Europe. This was made possible because Frederick was a commander of probable genius, who reformed the army in a manner later imitated by many other European powers. He was interested in enlightenment ideas, for instance banning the use of torture in the judicial process.

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769 - 1821

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Taking full advantage of both the opportunities offered by the French Revolution, when the officer class was greatly convulsed, and his own considerable military ability, Napoleon became First Consul of France after a coup before crowning himself Emperor. He fought wars across Europe, establishing a reputation as one of the great generals and reformed the French legal system, but wasn’t free of mistakes, leading a disastrous expedition into Russia in 1812. Defeated in 1814 and exiled, defeated again in 1815 at Waterloo by an alliance of European nations, he was again exiled, this time to St. Helena where he died.

Otto von Bismarck 1815 - 1898

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
As Prime Minister of Prussia, Bismarck was the key figure in the creation of a united German empire, for which he served as Chancellor. Having led Prussia through a series of successful wars in creating the empire, Bismarck worked hard to maintain the European status quo and avoid major conflict so the German Empire could grow and become commonly accepted. He resigned in 1890 with a sense of having failed to stop the development of social democracy in Germany.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin 1870 - 1924

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Founder of the Bolshevik party and one of Russia’s leading revolutionaries, Lenin might have had little impact if Germany hadn’t used a special train to deliver him into Russia as the 1917 revolution unfolded. But they did, and he arrived in time to inspire the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. He went on to head the communist government, overseeing the Russian Empire's transformation into the USSR. He has been labelled as history’s greatest revolutionary.

Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965

Herbert A French / Library of Congress
Herbert A French / Library of Congress
A mixed political reputation earnt before 1939 was completely rewritten by Churchill’s actions during World War 2, when Britain turned to his leadership. He repaid the trust easily, his oratory and ability as Prime Minister driving the nation forward to eventual victory over Germany. Along with Hitler and Stalin, he was the third key European leader of that conflict. However, he lost the 1945 election and had to wait until 1951 to become peacetime leader. A sufferer of depression, he also wrote history.

Stalin 1879 – 1953

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Stalin rose through the ranks of Bolshevik revolutionaries until he controlled all of the USSR, a position he secured by ruthless purges and the imprisonment of millions in work camps called Gulags. He oversaw a programme of forced industrialisation and guided Russian forces to victory in World War 2, before establishing a communist dominated eastern European empire. His actions, both during and after WW2, helped create the Cold War, causing him to be labelled as perhaps the most important twentieth century leader of all.

Adolf Hitler 1889 – 1945

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A dictator who came to power in 1933, German leader Hitler will be remembered for two things: a programme of conquests which started World War 2, and the racist and anti-Semitic policies which saw him attempt to exterminate several peoples of Europe, as well as the mentally and terminally ill. As the war turned against him he grew increasingly insular and paranoid, before committing suicide as Russian forces entered Berlin.

Mikhail Gorbachev 1931 –

Jonathan Wood / Getty Images
Jonathan Wood / Getty Images
As "General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union", and thus leader of the USSR in the mid 1980s, Gorbachev recognised that his nation was falling economically behind the rest of the world and could no longer afford to compete in the Cold War. He introduced policies designed to decentralize the Russian economy and open up the state, called perestroika and glasnost, and ended the Cold War. His reforms led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991; this was not something he had planned.
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