The Most Controversial Military Leaders In History

War is brutally very destructive, but the military leaders mentioned on this list made it much worse in many ways. 

There is an absolutely massive amount of controversial military leaders in all of world history and the word converisal can mean many different things for this topic. What controverisal means in this article is the massive suffering caused by these military leaders in unjust ways. War is brutally very destructive, but these military leaders made it much worse in many ways.  In modern terms, most people adopted the term "war criminals" to these people. While this is a term not used in most of human history, it is one of the easiest ways to understand these leaders to a certain extent in today's standards.

This article will also only focus on leaders that greatly helped to strategize war plans, directly lead an army, or both. So this means people like Adolf Hilter and Joseph Stalin don't count towards this list since they were more of political leaders then military ones. If the leader engaged in active fighting or at least greatly militarily strategizing in unjustified acts of violence towards another group of people, then they could be on this list. The article is grouped in different eras of history all around the world. These are just some of the most controversial military leaders in all of world history.

8. Attila the Hun

Mór Than's painting The Feast of Attila, based on a fragment of Priscus. Image credit: Mór Than/Public domain.

At its height during the year 450 C.E, Attila controlled the vast swath of land of central and eastern Europe slaughtering, pillaging, and razing villages to the ground of the crumbling Roman Empire. Many accounts explain that Attila loved the thrill of war as historian Jordanes states from the 6th century C.E/. And according to Joshua J. Mark  on the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Attila was riding his troops on horseback in the Balkan area of Moesia “Destroying over 70 cities, taking survivors as slaves, and sending the loot back to his stronghold.”

7. Ghengis Khan

Wax sculptures of Genghis Khan (left) and his wife Börte (right) in Mongolia. Image credit: CeeGee/

Holding the second-largest empire in all of human history, Ghengis Khan also known as Chinggis Khan, built his empire, as many empires were built, with constant and brutal warfare. The conquered people of China, Russia, the Middle East, and more faced extremely harsh forms of attack and punishment. Terror and the massacring of defeated populations were the norm for Ghengis Khan. This was done all for the main reason of receiving wealth in the form of tribute from these conquered people. 

6. Walter Sansavoir

Reception of Walter Sans Avoir by the King of Hungary, who permitted him to pass through his territory with the Crusaders.

He was the main military leader under Peter the Hermit of the 1st People's crusade. Despite the crusade being against Muslims in the Holy Land, Sansavoir commanded the raiding and killing of Jews and Pagans in Germany, Eastern Europeans, and Byzantines. The people’s crusade did kill some Muslims of the Seljuq Empire, but they were ultimately crushed by them. While being very unsuccessful in terms of capturing Jermsulam, it greatly inspired more Christian crusades in the future prepared with much better armies leading to the death of many more people.

5. Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés. Image credit: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando / Public domain

As one of the most famous Spanish Conquistadors know today, Hernán Cortés sent out to conquer the Aztec Empire. He did this in the aim of gold, God, and glory which is now a common phrase many people know today in the relation of the early colonization of the Americas. The Aztec Emperor, Motechuhsoma, thought Cortés was the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl, so he treated Cortés and his soldiers with the utmost respect. Cortés, however, abused this kind of treatment and his band of soldiers set fire to the main temple as soon as the Aztecs realized something fishy about Cortés not being the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortés and his men then ran out with the most riches they could carry in the night now called La Noche Triste. They then conquered the Aztecs quite easily with a much larger force, smallpox, and much higher military technology like guns, cannons, and metal-plated armor. Cortes’s allies,  the Tlaxcalans, “were ruthless in their revenge and slaughtered men, women, and children,” writes Mark Cartwright on the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

4. Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, painted by Horace Vernet. Image credit: Horace Vernet/Public domain

The French Revolution sought a more inclusive French government, but then Napoleon took power thirsting for absolute power and the dream to conquer Europe with his French army. Napolean was an extremely successful military leader, but he ruled with an iron fist by allying, having nations dependent on France, or just simply conquering much of Europe by 1812. A great symbol of his power was when he did not wait for the Catholic Pope to crown him emperor during a ceremony. He instead plucked the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself showing the massive amount of power he had at the time.

3. Matsui Iwane

 More details Matsui riding into Nanjing on December 17, 1937. Image credit:

This Imperial Japan commander in 1937, a few years before the start of World War II in Europe, ordered one of the most horrendous massacres in the Chinese city of Nanjing. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered, many of them being non-soldiers, while the city was set aflame and looted. This atrocity was also named the Rape of Nanjing symbolically of the city being destroyed, but also literally as tens of thousands of women and girls were raped by Iwane’s Japanese soldiers. 

2. Oskar Dirlewanger

Oskar Dirlewanger

This twisted Nazi SS military leader shocked even other German Nazis as one would say, “[a] mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs.” He and his soldiers slaughtered and raped thousands in Germany, Poland, and modern-day Belarus, and Dirlewanger thoroughly enjoyed all of it. Many of the Jews and Slavs killed were not even armed as they were not even soldiers, but citizens and rebel fighters labeled as “bandits.”

1. Other Notable Controversial Military Leaders in History

Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina- The last Aztec leader and most brutal of all military leaders in the empire on the surrounding people and civilizations before the Spanish Conquest.

Robert E. Lee- A Confederate States Commander fighting for the unjust right of chattel slavery of Blacks in the former Southern United States at the time.

Vasily Blokhin- A Russian-Soviet executioner in the military that followed and executed Stalin's massive purges in the Soviet Union of political, military, and common citizens.

Ratko Mladić- Serbian military commander and war criminal in the Yugoslav crisis/Bosnian Genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

Théoneste Bagosora- Rwandan military officer in the Rwandan crisis/Rwandan genocide aganist the Tutsi poplatuion.


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