World war

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A world war is a war involving many or most of the world's most powerful and populous countries. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents, with battles fought in multiple theatres.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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).[3] 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,[4] 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,[5] having originally discussed the matter with a Major Johnstone of Harvard University in September 1918.[6] The term "World War I" was coined by Time magazine in its issue of June 12, 1939.[citation needed] that same article, the term "World War II" was first used speculatively to describe the upcoming war.[7] The first use for the actual war came in its issue of September 11, 1939.[8] 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."[9]

Large-scale wars throughout history (in chronological order)

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

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
Event Lowest
Log. mean estimate[10][not in citation given] Highest
Location From To Duration (years)
Greco-Persian Wars Mainland Greece, Thrace, Aegean Islands, Asia Minor, Cyprus and Egypt 499 BC 449 BC 50 years
Peloponnesian war alliances 431 BC.png
Peloponnesian War
Mainland Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily 431 BC 404 BC 27 years
Wars of Alexander the Great Thrace, Illyria, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Babylonia, Persia, Sogdiana, India 335 BC 323 BC 12 years
Wars of the Diadochi Macedon, Greece, Thrace, Anatolia, the Levant, Egypt, Babylonia and Persia 322 BC 275 BC 47 years
First Punic War 285,000+ 285,000+ 285,000+ Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa 264 BC 241 BC 23 years
Second Punic War 616,000+ 616,000+ 616,000+ Italia, Sicily, Hispania, Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, North Africa, Greece 218 BC 201 BC 17 years
Roman–Seleucid War Greece and Asia Minor 192 BC 188 BC 4 years
Roman–Persian Wars Mesopotamia, Syria, Southern Levant, Egypt, Transcaucasus, Atropatene, Asia Minor, Balkans 92 BC 629 AD 721 years
First Mithridatic War Asia Minor, Achaea and the Aegean Sea. 89 BC 85 BC 4 years
Great Roman Civil War Hispania, Italia, Graecia, Illyria, Aegyptus, Africa 49 BC 45 BC 4 years
Byzantine–Sassanid wars Caucasus, Asia Minor, Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia 502 AD 628 AD 126 years
Muslim conquests Mesopotamia, Caucasus, Persia, Levant, North Africa, Anatolia, Iberia, Gaul and Greater Khorasan 622 AD 1258 AD 636 years
Arab–Byzantine wars Levant, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Crete, Sicily, Southern Italy 629 AD 1050s AD ~421 years
Crusades 1,000,000[11] 1,700,000 3,000,000[12] Iberia, Near East (Anatolia, Levant, Palestine), Egypt, Holy Land 1095 AD 1291 AD 197 years
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[13] 35,000,000 40,000,000[14] Eurasia 1206 AD 1324 AD 118 years
Byzantine–Ottoman Wars Asia Minor, Balkans 1265 AD 1479 AD 214 years
European colonization of the Americas 2,000,000
14,000,000 100,000,000
Americas 1492 AD 1900 AD 408 years
Ottoman–Habsburg wars Hungary, Mediterranean, Balkans, North Africa and Malta 1526 AD 1791 AD 265 years
Eighty Years' War The Low Countries
(worldwide colonial warfare)
1568 AD 1648 AD 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 AD 1604 AD 19 years
Dutch–Portuguese War Atlantic Ocean: Brazil, West Africa, Southern Africa; Indian Ocean: India, East Indies, Indochina; China 1602 AD 1663 AD 61 years
Thirty Years' War 3,000,000 5,900,000 11,500,000 Europe (primarily present day Germany) 1618 AD 1648 AD 30 years
Anglo-Spanish War (1654–60) Caribbean, Spain, Canary Islands and Spanish Netherlands. 1654 AD 1660 AD 6 years
Nine Years' War Mainland Europe, Ireland, Scotland, North America, South America, Asia 1688 AD 1697 AD 9 years
War of the Spanish Succession
Europe, North America, South America 1701 AD 1714 AD 13 years
War of the Quadruple Alliance Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Scotland, North America 1718 AD 1720 AD 2 years
Anglo-Spanish War (1727–29) Spain and Panama 1727 AD 1729 AD 2 years
War of the Austrian Succession
Europe, North America and India 1740 AD 1748 AD 8 years
American Revolutionary War Eastern North America, Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic and Indian Oceans 1775 AD 1784 AD 8 years
Seven Years' War
Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia 1754 AD 1763 AD 9 years
French Revolutionary Wars
Europe, Egypt, Middle East, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Indian Ocean 1792 AD 1802 AD 9 years
Napoleonic Wars
[citation needed]
4,900,000 7,000,000[17] Europe, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Río de la Plata, French Guiana, West Indies, Indian Ocean, North America, South Caucasus 1803 AD 1815 AD 13 years
Crimean War Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Scotland, North America 1853 AD 1856 AD 3 years
World War I
15,000,000[18] 31,000,000 65,000,000[19] Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, China and off the coast of South and North America 1914 AD 1918 AD 4 years, 3 months, 1 week
Map of participants in World War II.png
World War II
40,000,000[20] 58,000,000 85,000,000[21] Europe, Pacific, Atlantic, South-East Asia, China, Middle East, Mediterranean, North Africa and Horn of Africa, briefly North and South America 1939 AD 1945 AD 6 years and 1 day
Cold War Global 1947 AD 1991 AD 44 years
Battlefields in The Global War on Terror.svg
War on Terror
272,000[22] 585,000 1,260,000[22][23][24] Global (esp. in the Greater Middle East) 2001 AD 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:

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
Event Lowest
Log. mean estimate[10] Highest
Location From To Duration (years)
Three Kingdoms 36,000,000[25] 37,000,000 40,000,000[26] China 184 AD 280 AD 96 years
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[13] 35,000,000 40,000,000[14] Eurasia 1206 AD 1324 AD 118 years
Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty 25,000,000[27] 25,000,000 25,000,000 Manchuria, China proper 1616 AD 1662 AD 47 years
Taiping Rebellion 20,000,000[28] 32,000,000 100,000,000[29][30][31] China 1851 AD 1864 AD 14 years
Conquests of Tamerlane 15,000,000[32] 17,000,000 20,000,000[32] West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Russia 1369 AD 1405 AD 37 years
An Lushan Rebellion 13,000,000[14] 21,000,000 36,000,000[33] China 755 AD 763 AD 9 years

Large-scale wars after 1945

Most wars listed are considered part of conflicts such as the Indochina Wars, the Conflict in Afghanistan, the Gulf Wars, the War on terror, and the Cold War.

World War I and World War II

The World Wars of the 20th century involved almost every continent on Earth. Many of the states who fought in the First World War also fought in the Second, although not always on the same sides.

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[34] 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.[35] As a result, warfare drastically increased and the world inexorably proceeded towards unipolarity.

Classical geopoliticians and many other scholars[36] perceived the fact of "the end of space";[37] many expected it to result in world-wide wars.[38] 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."[39]

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[40]).

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.[41] 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
Dead 15–20M 50–85M
Injured 9–15M 20M
Conscripts 65M 90M
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.[citation needed] 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.

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, there has been a widespread and prolonged fear of a Third World War between nuclear-armed powers.

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.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Albert Einstein (1947)[42][43]

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[44] and Alexandre de Marenches,[45] author Eliot Cohen[46] and Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos.[47] 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".[48]

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,[49][50][51][52] which led some commentators to characterize the situation as a "a proto-world war" with nearly a dozen countries embroiled in two overlapping conflicts".[53]

See also


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  2. Engels, Frederick. "Introduction to Borkheim".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Rasmus Björn Anderson (translator: Viktor Rydberg), Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, p. 139, London: S. Sonnenschein & Co., 1889 OCLC 626839.
  4. Hastings, Milo (1920). City of Endless Night. Dodd, Mead. Retrieved 20 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  7. "In World War II it is possible that even nations who do not take sides may play a vital military part, for they may be invaded."
  8. "Grey Friday: TIME Reports on World War II Beginning". TIME. September 11, 1939. Retrieved 20 October 2014. World War II began last week at 5:20 a. m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Den anden Verdenskrig udbrød i Gaar Middags Kl. 11", Kristeligt Dagblad, September 4, 1939.
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  11. John Shertzer Hittell, "A Brief History of Culture" (1874) p.137: "In the two centuries of this warfare one million persons had been slain..." cited by White
  12. Robertson, John M., "A Short History of Christianity" (1902) p.278. Cited by White
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Cambridge History of China: Alien regimes and border states, 907–1368, 1994, p.622, cited by White
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Matthew White (2011-11-07). The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-08192-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Rummel, R.J. Death by Government, Chapter 3: Pre-Twentieth Century Democide
  16. Stannard, David E. (1993). American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-19-508557-0. In the 1940s and 1950s conventional wisdom held that the population of the entire hemisphere in 1492 was little more than 8,000,000—with fewer than 1,000,000 people living in the region north of present-day Mexico. Today, few serious students of the subject would put the hemispheric figure at less than 75,000,000 to 100,000,000 (with approximately 8,000,000 to 12,000,000 north of Mexico).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  18. Willmott 2003, p. 307
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  21. Fink, George: Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster
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  23. "Update on Iraqi Casualty Data" by Opinion Research Business. January 2008.
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  30. Livre noir du Communisme: crimes, terreur, répression, page 468
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  34. Originally, the theory was drawn in 1970 by Anthropologist Robert Carneiro for the Bronze Age civilizations (Carneiro's circumscription theory). One of leading experts on world-system theory, Christopher Chase-Dunn, noted in 1990 that the theory is applicable for the global system. "World State Formation: Historical Processes and Emergent Necessity," California: Institute for research on World System, working paper 1, 1990, In 2007, historian Max Ostrovsky demonstrated that the circumscription factor explains much of world history and is especially relevant for the global system—the first completely circumscribed system in history. Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham; University Press of America, 2007).
  35. Halford J. Mackinder, The Geographical Pivot of History, (London: J. Murray, 1904); Fredrick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, (Holt, Rinchart and Winston, New York, 1920). It was a particular moment in world history when the science of geopolitics was born, including the theory of lebensraum (living space). Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham; University Press of America, 2007, p 126-140).
  36. Chinese philosopher K'ang Yu-wei and French sociologist Georges Vacher de Lapouge in the late 19th century emphasized that the expansion cannot proceed indefinitely on the definite surface of the globe. The trend is bound to culminate in a world empire. K'ang Yu-wei in 1885 predicted that the matter will be decided in the contest between Washington and Berlin. The One World Philosophy, (tr. Thompson, Lawrence G., London, 1958), pp 79-80, 85. Vacher de Lapouge in 1899 foresaw the final contest between the United States and Russia and estimated the chance of the United States higher. L'Aryen: Son Rôle Social, (Nantes: 1899), chapter "L`Avenir des Aryens."
  37. Stephen Kern, Culture of Time and Space', 1880-1918', (Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press, 1983).
  38. Ignatius Clark, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars1763-3749, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1992).
  39. George Vacher de Lapouge, L'Aryen: Son Rôle Social, (Nantes: 1899), chapter "L`Avenir des Aryens," translated by Max Ostrovsky in his Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham; University Press of America, 2007), p 138.
  40. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, (tr. Ralph Manheim, London: Pimlico, 1992, p 145, 148).
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  45. "The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage..." 1992. Retrieved 2010-02-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Book regarding alleged WWIV
  46. "World War IV: Let's call this conflict what it is". 2001. Retrieved 2010-02-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Why war on terrorism should be called WWIV
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  48. Prunier, Gerard (2014). Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe. Barnes & Noble. ISBN 9780195374209. Retrieved 20 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  49. "U.S. Weaponry Is Turning Syria Into Proxy War With Russia". The New York Times. 12 October 2015. Retrieved 14 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  50. "John McCain says US is engaged in proxy war with Russia in Syria". The Guardian. 4 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  52. ""The Russians have made a serious mistake": how Putin's Syria gambit will backfire". The VOA. 1 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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External links