The term is applied to the two major international conflicts that occurred during the 20th century:
In terms of human technological history, the scale of these wars was enabled by the technological advances of the Second Industrial Revolution and resulting globalization that allowed global power projection and mass production of military hardware, but wars on such a scale have not been repeated due to the onset of the Atomic Age and the resulting danger of mutual assured destruction.
Origins of the term "world war"
The term "World War" was coined speculatively in the early 20th century, some years before the First World War broke out, probably as a literal translation of the German word Weltkrieg. German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the word in the title of his anti-British novel Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume ("The World War: German Dreams") as early as 1904, published in English as The coming conquest of England. Also, the term was used as early as 1850 by Karl Marx in The Class Struggles in France, as well as his associate Friedrich Engels. Rasmus B. Anderson in 1889 describes 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). The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first known usage in the English language to a Scottish newspaper, the People's Journal in 1848: "A war amongst the great powers is now necessarily a world-war."
It was recognized that the complex system of opposing alliances–the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire vs. the French Third Republic, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire was likely to lead to a worldwide conflict in the event of war breaking out. Due to this fact, a very minute conflict between two countries had the potential to set off a domino effect of alliances, causing mass war. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that 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 fighting far more widely than in the pre-colonial era.
Other languages have also adopted the "World War" terminology. For instance, in French, "World War" is translated as "Guerre Mondiale"; in German, "Weltkrieg", which, prior to the war, had been used in the more abstract meaning of a global conflict; in Italian, "World War" is translated as "Guerra Mondiale"; in Spanish and Portuguese, "Guerra Mundial", in Danish, "Verdenskrig" and in Russian, "Мировая война" (Mirovaya Voyna).
Speculative fiction authors were noting the concept of a Second World War at least as early as 1919 and 1920, when Milo Hastings wrote his dystopian novel City of Endless Night. In English, the term "First World War" was used by Charles à Court Repington as a title for his memoirs, published in 1920, having originally discussed the matter with a Major Johnstone of Harvard University in September 1918. The term "World War I" was coined by Time magazine in its issue of June 12, 1939. that same article, 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. One week earlier, the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad used the term on its front page, saying "The second World War broke out yesterday at 11 a.m."
Large-scale wars throughout history (in chronological order)
This table possibly contains original research. (May 2015)
There have been numerous wars with battles spanning two or more continents throughout history, including:
|Log. mean estimate[not in citation given]||Highest
|Greco-Persian Wars||Mainland Greece, Thrace, Aegean Islands, Asia Minor, Cyprus and Egypt||499 BCE||449 BCE||50 years|
||Mainland Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily||431 BCE||404 BCE||27 years|
|Wars of Alexander the Great||Thrace, Illyria, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Babylonia, Persia, Sogdiana, India||335 BCE||323 BCE||12 years|
|Wars of the Diadochi||Macedon, Greece, Thrace, Anatolia, the Levant, Egypt, Babylonia and Persia||322 BCE||275 BCE||47 years|
|First Punic War||285,000+||285,000+||285,000+||Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa||264 BCE||241 BCE||23 years|
|Second Punic War||616,000+||616,000+||616,000+||Italia, Sicily, Hispania, Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, North Africa, Greece||218 BCE||201 BCE||17 years|
|Roman–Seleucid War||Greece and Asia Minor||192 BCE||188 BCE||4 years|
|Roman–Persian Wars||Mesopotamia, Syria, Southern Levant, Egypt, Transcaucasus, Atropatene, Asia Minor, Balkans||92 BCE||629 CE||721 years|
|First Mithridatic War||Asia Minor, Achaea and the Aegean Sea.||89 BCE||85 BCE||4 years|
|Great Roman Civil War||Hispania, Italia, Graecia, Illyria, Aegyptus, Africa||49 BCE||45 BCE||4 years|
|Byzantine–Sassanid wars||Caucasus, Asia Minor, Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia||502 CE||628 CE||126 years|
|Muslim conquests||Mesopotamia, Caucasus, Persia, Levant, North Africa, Anatolia, Iberia, Gaul and Greater Khorasan||622 CE||1258 CE||636 years|
|Arab–Byzantine wars||Levant, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Crete, Sicily, Southern Italy||629 CE||1050s CE||~421 years|
|Crusades||1,000,000||1,700,000||3,000,000||Iberia, Near East (Anatolia, Levant, Palestine), Egypt, Holy Land||1095 CE||1291 CE||197 years|
|Mongol conquests||30,000,000||35,000,000||40,000,000||Eurasia||1206 CE||1324 CE||118 years|
|Byzantine–Ottoman Wars||Asia Minor, Balkans||1265 CE||1479 CE||214 years|
|European colonization of the Americas||2,000,000
|Americas||1492 CE||1900 CE||408 years|
|Ottoman–Habsburg wars||Hungary, Mediterranean, Balkans, North Africa and Malta||1526 CE||1791 CE||265 years|
|Eighty Years' War||The Low Countries
(worldwide colonial warfare)
|1568 CE||1648 CE||80 years|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)||Atlantic Ocean, English Channel, Low Countries, Spain, Spanish Main, Portugal, Cornwall, Ireland, Americas, Azores and Canary islands||1585 CE||1604 CE||19 years|
|Dutch–Portuguese War||Atlantic Ocean: Brazil, West Africa, Southern Africa; Indian Ocean: India, East Indies, Indochina; China||1602 CE||1663 CE||61 years|
|Thirty Years' War||3,000,000||5,900,000||11,500,000||Europe (primarily present day Germany)||1618 CE||1648 CE||30 years|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1654–60)||Caribbean, Spain, Canary Islands and Spanish Netherlands.||1654 CE||1660 CE||6 years|
|Nine Years' War||Mainland Europe, Ireland, Scotland, North America, South America, Asia||1688 CE||1697 CE||9 years|
||Europe, North America, South America||1701 CE||1714 CE||13 years|
|War of the Quadruple Alliance||Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Scotland, North America||1718 CE||1720 CE||2 years|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1727–29)||Spain and Panama||1727 CE||1729 CE||2 years|
||Europe, North America and India||1740 CE||1748 CE||8 years|
|American Revolutionary War||Eastern North America, Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic and Indian Oceans||1775 CE||1784 CE||8 years|
||Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia||1754 CE||1763 CE||9 years|
||Europe, Egypt, Middle East, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Indian Ocean||1792 CE||1802 CE||9 years|
|4,900,000||7,000,000||Europe, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Río de la Plata, French Guiana, West Indies, Indian Ocean, North America, South Caucasus||1803 CE||1815 CE||13 years|
|Crimean War||Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Scotland, North America||1853 CE||1856 CE||3 years|
||15,000,000||31,000,000||65,000,000||Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, China and off the coast of South and North America||1914 CE||1918 CE||4 years, 3 months, 1 week|
||40,000,000||58,000,000||85,000,000||Europe, Pacific, Atlantic, South-East Asia, China, Middle East, Mediterranean, North Africa and Horn of Africa, briefly North and South America||1939 CE||1945 CE||6 years and 1 day|
|Cold War||Global||1947 CE||1991 CE||44 years|
||272,000||585,000||1,260,000||Global (esp. in the Greater Middle East)||2001 CE||present||14 years|
Wars matching World War I by casualty count
There were a number of wars before the 20th century with as many or more casualties than the First World War (16,563,868 – 40,000,000), including:
|Log. mean estimate||Highest
|Three Kingdoms||36,000,000||37,000,000||40,000,000||China||184 CE||280 CE||96 years|
|Mongol conquests||30,000,000||35,000,000||40,000,000||Eurasia||1206 CE||1324 CE||118 years|
|Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty||25,000,000||25,000,000||25,000,000||Manchuria, China proper||1616 CE||1662 CE||47 years|
|Taiping Rebellion||20,000,000||32,000,000||100,000,000||China||1851 CE||1864 CE||14 years|
|Conquests of Tamerlane||15,000,000||17,000,000||20,000,000||West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Russia||1369 CE||1405 CE||37 years|
|An Lushan Rebellion||13,000,000||21,000,000||36,000,000||China||755 CE||763 CE||9 years|
Large-scale wars after 1945
World War I and World War II
Among the causes of the World Wars most commonly are named technological progress and industrialization. The technology of communication and warfare allowed to project power world-wide, while industrialization allowed mass production of military technology. A recent research stresses a geopolitical factor of circumscription or global closure.
The circumscription theory says that when political expansion reaches the last frontier of a system, warfare increases until it leaves only one player standing with all others eliminated. In this aspect, the modern world repeated the same pattern passed by pre-modern circumscribed civilizations. The world was politically filled towards the Twentieth century leaving no sovereign void. As a result, warfare drastically increased and the world inexorably proceeded towards unipolarity.
Classical geopoliticians and many other scholars perceived the fact of "the end of space"; many expected it to result in world-wide wars. One of them, French sociologist George Vacher de Lapouge, envisaged in 1899: "We conclude thinking about human hecatombs which the future reserves. The struggle among the contenders for universal domination will be long and necessarily merciless."
To sum up, at the most expansive phase of world history, the space for expansion abruptly ended resulting for the first time in total closure. But this time the factor of circumscription, already stronger than in any previous civilization, was yet multiplied by the modern technology and industry. The Long Peace of La Belle Epoque was doomed, to be followed by World Wars, as one of the central figures vividly expressed:
And the first gust of wind swept across a Europe grown nervous… Let Heaven at last give free rain to the fate which could no longer be thwarted. And then the first mighty lightening flash struck the earth… and with the thunder of Heaven there mingled the roar of World War batteries… The fight for freedom has begun mightier than the earth has ever seen (Mein Kampf).
The two World Wars of the 20th century indeed caused unprecedented casualties and destruction across the theaters of conflict, although there are at least three wars before the 20th century with as many or more casualties than the First World War. The numbers killed in both wars combined are estimated at between 60 and 100 million people. Non-combatants (mostly civilians) suffered as badly as or worse than combatants, and the distinction between combatants and non-combatants was often blurred as belligerents of both world wars mobilized for total war. Both world wars saw war crimes. Nazi Germany was responsible for multiple genocides during the Second World War, most notably the Holocaust. The Soviet Union, Canada, and United States deported and interned minority groups within their own borders, and largely due to this conflict later, many ethnic Germans were expelled in much of Eastern Europe. Imperial Japan during the Second World War was notorious for attacking neutral nations without a declaration of war, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and its brutal treatment and killing of Allied prisoners of war and the inhabitants of Asia, most notably by using them for forced labor and the Rape of Nanking where 250,000 non-combatants in the city were brutally murdered by Japanese troops. The Ottoman Empire was responsible for the death of over one million Armenians during the First World War. Advances in technology were responsible for a large amount of casualties. The First World War saw major use of chemical weapons despite the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 outlawing the use of such weapons in warfare. The Second World War was also the first (and thus far, only) conflict in which nuclear weapons were used, devastating the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
|World War I||World War II|
|Battlefield size||3M km²||17M km²|
The outcome of the World Wars had a profound effect on the course of world history. The old European empires collapsed or were dismantled as a direct result of the wars' crushing costs and in some cases the defeat of imperial powers. The United States was firmly established as the dominant global power, along with its ideological foe, the Soviet Union, in close competition. These two superpowers exerted political influence over most of the world's other states for decades after the end of the Second World War (ending in the late 1980s in the Soviet Union). The modern international security, economic and diplomatic system was created in the aftermath of the wars. 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 also greatly changed the course of daily life. Technologies developed during wartime had a profound effect on peacetime life as well–for instance, jet aircraft, penicillin, nuclear energy, and electronic computers.
Later world wars
World War III is generally considered a hypothetical successor to World War II and is often suggested to be nuclear, devastating in nature and likely much more violent than both WWI and WWII combined. This war is anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities, and explored in fiction in many countries. Concepts range from purely conventional scenarios or a limited use of nuclear weapons to the destruction of the planet. World War IV is sometimes mentioned as a hypothetical successor to World War III or as a plot element in books, movies or video games.
Various former government officials, politicians and authors have attempted to apply the labels of WWIII, WWIV, and WWV to various military engagements and diplomatic stand-offs since the close of WWII, such as the Cold War or the War on Terror. Among these are former American and French government officials James Woolsey and Alexandre de Marenches, author Eliot Cohen and Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. Despite their efforts, none of these wars are commonly deemed world wars.
The Second Congo War (1998–2003), which involved nine nations and led to ongoing low-level warfare despite an official peace and the first democratic elections in 2006, has often been referred to as "Africa's World War".
The Syrian Civil War and Iraqi Civil War as well as their spillovers worldwide are sometimes described as a proxy war waged between the U.S. and Russia, which led some commentators to characterize the situation as a "a proto-world war" with nearly a dozen countries embroiled in two overlapping conflicts".
- The Great Game (1813–1907)
- List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll
- List of genocides by death toll
- List of largest empires
- List of pre-modern great powers
- First wave of European colonization
- New Imperialism
- Revolutionary wave
- Mutual assured destruction
- Cold War II
- World War III
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