World war


World war

world war is “a war engaged in by all or most of the principal nations of the world”.[1] While a variety of global conflicts have been subjectively deemed “world wars”, such as the Cold War and the War on Terror, the term is widely and usually accepted only as it is retrospectively applied to two major international conflicts that occurred during the 20th century: World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45).


Origin of the term

The Oxford English Dictionary cited the first known usage in the English language to a Scottish newspaper, The People’s Journal, in 1848: “A war among the great powers is now necessarily a world-war.” The term “world war” is used by Karl Marx and his associate, Friedrich Engels,[2] in a series of articles published around 1850 called The Class Struggles in FranceRasmus B. Anderson in 1889 described an episode in Teutonic mythology as a “world war” (Swedish: världskrig), justifying this description by a line in an Old Norse epic poem, “Völuspá: folcvig fyrst i heimi” (“The first great war in the world”.)[3] German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the term “world war” in the title of his anti-British novel, Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume (The World War: German Dreams) in 1904, published in English as The Coming Conquest of England.

In English, the term “First World War” had been used by Charles à Court Repington, as a title for his memoirs (published in 1920); he had noted his discussion on the matter with a Major Johnstone of Harvard University in his diary entry of September 10, 1918.[4]

The term “World War I” was coined by Time magazine on page 28b of its June 12, 1939 issue. In the same article, on page 32, the term “World War II” was first used speculatively to describe the upcoming war. The first use for the actual war came in its issue of September 11, 1939.[5] One week earlier, on September 4, the day after France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad used the term on its front page, saying “The Second World War broke out yesterday at 11 a.m.”[6]

Speculative fiction authors had been noting the concept of a Second World War in 1919 and 1920, when Milo Hastings wrote his dystopian novel, City of Endless Night.

Other languages have also adopted the “world war” terminology, for example; in French: “world war” is translated as guerre mondiale, in GermanWeltkrieg (which, prior to the war, had been used in the more abstract meaning of a global conflict), in Italianguerra mondiale, in Spanish and Portugueseguerra mundial, in Danish and Norwegianverdenskrig, and in Russianмировая война (mirovaya voyna.)

First World War

World War I occurred from 1914 to 1919. In terms of human technological history, the scale of World War I was enabled by the technological advances of the second industrial revolution and the resulting globalization that allowed global power projection and mass production of military hardware. It had been recognized that the complex system of opposing military alliances (the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires against the BritishRussian, and French Empires) was likely to lead to a worldwide conflict if a war broke out. Due to this fact, a very minute conflict between two countries had the potential to set off a domino effect of alliances, triggering a world war. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that such a war would be worldwide, as the colonies’ resources would be a crucial strategic factor. The same strategic considerations also ensured that the combatants would strike at each other’s colonies, thus spreading the wars far more widely than those of pre-Columbian times.

War crimes were perpetrated in World War I. Chemical weapons were used in the First World War despite the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 having outlawed the use of such weapons in warfare. The Ottoman Empire was responsible for the Armenian genocide—the murder of more than 1,000,000 Armenians during the First World War—and the other late Ottoman genocides.

Second World War

The Second World War occurred from 1939 to 1945 and is the only conflict in which nuclear weapons have been used. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, were devastated by atomic bombs dropped by the United States. Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, was responsible for genocides, most notably the Holocaust, the killing of 6,000,000 Jews and 11,000,000 others persecuted by the Nazis. The United States, the Soviet Union, and Canada deported and interned minority groups within their own borders, and largely because of the conflict, many ethnic Germans were later expelled from Eastern Europe. Japan was responsible for attacking neutral nations without a declaration of war, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is also known for its brutal treatment and killing of Allied prisoners of war and the inhabitants of Asia. It also used Asians as forced laborers and was responsible for the Nanking massacre where 250,000 civilians in the city were brutally murdered by Japanese troops. Non-combatants suffered at least as badly as or worse than combatants, and the distinction between combatants and non-combatants was often blurred by belligerents of total war in both conflicts.[7]

The outcome of World War II had a profound effect on the course of world history. The old European empires either collapsed or were dismantled as a direct result of the wars’ crushing costs and, in some cases, their fall was due to the defeat of imperial powers. The United States became firmly established as the dominant global superpower, along with its ideological foe, the Soviet Union, in close competition. The two superpowers exerted political influence over most of the world’s nation-states for decades after the end of the Second World War. The modern international security, economic, and diplomatic system was created in the aftermath of the wars.[8]

Institutions such as the United Nations were established to collectivize international affairs, with the explicit goal of preventing another outbreak of general war. The wars had also greatly changed the course of daily life. Technologies developed during wartime had a profound effect on peacetime life as well, such as by advances in jet aircraftpenicillinnuclear energy, and electronic computers.[9]

Third World War

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, there has been a widespread and prolonged fear of a potential Third World War between nuclear-armed powers. The Third World War is generally considered a successor to the Second World War[10] and is often suggested to become a nuclear war at some point during the course of said Third World War, devastating in nature and likely much more violent than both the First and Second World Wars; in 1947, Albert Einstein commented that “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”[11][12] It has been anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities and has been explored in fiction in many countries. Concepts have ranged from purely-conventional scenarios, to limited use of nuclear weapons, to the complete destruction of the planet’s surface.

Other global conflicts

Various former government officials, politicians, authors, and military leaders (including James Woolsey,[13] Alexandre de Marenches,[14] Eliot Cohen,[15] and Subcomandante Marcos[16]) have attempted to apply the labels of the “Third World War” and “Fourth World War” to various past and present global wars since the closing of the Second World War, for example, the Cold War and the War on Terror, respectively. Among these are former American, French, and Mexican government officials, military leaders, politicians, and authors. Despite their efforts, none of these wars are commonly deemed world wars.

Wars described by some historians as “World War Zero” include the Seven Years’ War[17] and the onset of the Late Bronze Age collapse.[18]

The Second Congo War (1998–2003) involved nine nations and led to ongoing low-intensity warfare despite an official peace and the first democratic elections in 2006. It has often been referred to as “Africa’s World War”.[19] During the early-21st century the Syrian Civil War and the Iraqi Civil War and their worldwide spillovers are sometimes described as proxy wars waged between the United States and Russia,[20][21][22][23] which led some commentators to characterize the situation as a “proto-world war” with nearly a dozen countries embroiled in two overlapping conflicts.[24]

Wars with higher death tolls than the First World War

The two world wars of the 20th century had caused unprecedented casualties and destruction across the theaters of conflict.[25] There have been several wars that occurred with as many or more deaths than in the First World War (16,563,868–40,000,000), including:

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
Event Lowest
Location From To Duration (years)
Three Kingdoms 36,000,000[26] 40,000,000[27] China 184 280 96
An Lushan Rebellion 13,000,000[28] 36,000,000[29] China 755 763 9
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[30] 40,000,000[28] Eurasia 1206 1324 118
Conquests of Timur 15,000,000[31] 20,000,000[31] Asia 1369 1405 37
Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty 25,000,000[32] 25,000,000 China 1616 1662 47
Taiping Rebellion 20,000,000[33] 100,000,000[34][35][36] China 1851 1864 14
World War II 40,000,000[37] 85,000,000[38] Global 1939 1945 6
Cold War 22,345,162 +94,000,000 Global 1947 1991 44

Wars spanning multiple continents[edit]

There have been numerous wars spanning two or more continents throughout history, including:

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
Event Lowest
Location From To Duration (years)
Late Bronze Age collapse EgyptAnatoliaSyriaCanaanCyprusGreeceMesopotamia 1200s BCE 1150s BCE 40–50
Greco-Persian Wars GreeceThraceAegean IslandsAsia MinorCyprusEgypt 499 BCE 449 BCE 50
Peloponnesian War GreeceAsia MinorSicily 431 BCE 404 BCE 27
Wars of Alexander the Great ThraceIllyriaGreeceAsia MinorSyriaBabyloniaPersiaAfghanistanSogdianaIndia 335 BCE 323 BCE 12
Wars of the Diadochi MacedonGreeceThraceAnatoliaLevantEgyptBabyloniaPersia 322 BCE 275 BCE 47
First Punic War 285,000
[citation needed]
400,000[28] Mediterranean SeaSicilySardiniaNorth Africa 264 BCE 241 BCE 23
Second Punic War 616,000
[citation needed]
770,000[28] ItalySicilyHispaniaCisalpine GaulTransalpine GaulNorth AfricaGreece 218 BCE 201 BCE 17
Roman–Seleucid War GreeceAsia Minor 192 BCE 188 BCE 4
Roman–Persian Wars MesopotamiaSyriaLevantEgyptTranscaucasusAtropateneAsia MinorBalkans 92 BCE 629 CE 721
First Mithridatic War Asia MinorAchaeaAegean Sea 89 BCE 85 BCE 4
Great Roman Civil War HispaniaItalyGreeceIllyriaEgyptAfrica 49 BCE 45 BCE 4
Byzantine–Sassanid wars CaucasusAsia MinorEgyptLevantMesopotamia 502 CE 628 CE 126
Muslim conquests MesopotamiaCaucasusPersiaLevantThe MaghrebAnatoliaIberiaGaulKhorasanSindhTransoxania 622 1258 636
Arab–Byzantine wars LevantSyriaEgyptNorth AfricaAnatoliaCreteSicilyItaly 629 1050 421
Crusades 1,000,000[39] 3,000,000[40] Iberian peninsulaNear EastAnatolia, the LevantEgypt. 1095 1291 197
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[30] 40,000,000[28] Eurasia 1206 1324 118
Byzantine–Ottoman Wars Asia MinorBalkans 1265 1479 214
European colonization of the Americas 2,000,000[41] 100,000,000[42] Americas 1492 1900 408
Ottoman–Habsburg wars HungaryMediterraneanBalkansNorth AfricaMalta 1526 1791 265
First Anglo-Spanish War Atlantic OceanEnglish ChannelLow CountriesSpainSpanish MainPortugalCornwallIrelandAmericasAzoresCanary islands 1585 1604 19
Dutch–Portuguese War Atlantic OceanBrazilWest AfricaSouthern AfricaIndian OceanIndiaEast IndiesIndochinaChina 1602 1663 61
Thirty Years’ War 3,000,000 11,500,000 Europe, mainly present-day Germany 1618 1648 30
Second Anglo-Spanish War CaribbeanSpainCanary IslandsSpanish Netherlands 1654 1660 6
Nine Years’ War EuropeIrelandScotlandNorth AmericaSouth AmericaAsia 1688 1697 9

War of the Spanish Succession

EuropeNorth AmericaSouth America 1701 1714 13
War of the Quadruple Alliance SicilySardiniaSpainNorth America 1718 1720 2
Third Anglo-Spanish War SpainPanama 1727 1729 2

War of the Austrian Succession

EuropeNorth AmericaIndia 1740 1748 8

Seven Years’ War

1,500,000[28] EuropeNorth AmericaSouth AmericaAfricaAsia 1754 1763 9
American Revolutionary War North AmericaGibraltarBalearic IslandsIndiaAfricaCaribbean SeaAtlantic OceanIndian Ocean 1775 1784 8

French Revolutionary Wars

EuropeEgyptMiddle EastAtlantic OceanCaribbeanIndian Ocean 1792 1802 9

Napoleonic Wars

[citation needed]
7,000,000[43] EuropeAtlantic OceanMediterranean SeaNorth SeaRío de la PlataFrench GuianaWest IndiesIndian OceanNorth AmericaSouth Caucasus 1803 1815 13
Crimean War 255,000[44] 1,000,000[45] SicilySardiniaSpainSoutheastern EuropeBlack Sea 1853 1856 3

World War I

15,000,000[46] 65,000,000[47] Global 1914 1918 4
Map of participants in World War II.png

World War II

40,000,000[37] 85,000,000[38] Global 1939 1945 6
Cold War Map 1980.svg

Cold War

22,345,162 (casualties by all wars started in the Cold War with Gulf WarVietnam WarKorean WarAlgerian WarIran–Iraq WarNigerian Civil War or Soviet–Afghan War included)[48][circular reference] +94,000,000 (22 million people killed by all civil wars started in Asia, South America and Africa + number of people killed in Asia and Europe by the Communist governments, with casualties of Soviet famine of 1946–47Cambodian genocideCultural Revolution, and Great Leap Forward included)[49][circular reference] Global 1947 1991 44
Battlefields in The Global War on Terror.svg

War on Terror

272,000[50] 1,260,000
Global 2001 present 17