World war

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A world war is a war involving many of the world's countries or most of the most powerful and populous ones. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents, with battles fought in multiple theaters. The term is applied to the two major international conflicts that occurred during the twentieth century: World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945).

Origin of the term[edit]

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” had been used in 1850 by Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels[1] in The Class Struggles in France. Rasmus 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".)[2] 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) having 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. In the 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.[3] 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."[4]

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 German: Weltkrieg (which, prior to the war, had been used in the more abstract meaning of a global conflict), in Italian: Guerra Mondiale, in Spanish and Portuguese: Guerra Mundial, in Danish: Verdenskrig, and in Russian: Мировая война (Mirovaya Voyna.)

The First World War and the Second World War[edit]

In terms of human technological history, the scale of the two "world wars" 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, but wars on such a scale have not been repeated due to the onset of the atomic age and the resulting danger of mutually assured destruction. It had been recognized that the complex system of opposing alliances — the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires against the British, Russian, French empires was likely to lead to a world-wide 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, triggering a world war. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that such a war would be world-wide, 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.

Both world wars had also seen war crimes. The First World War had seen major use of chemical weapons despite the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 outlawing the use of such weapons in warfare. The Ottoman Empire had been considered responsible for the death of over one million Armenians during the First World War.

The Second World War was the first (and thus far, only) conflict in which atomic bombs had been used, devastating the Japanese cities of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nazi Germany had been responsible for multiple genocides, most notably the Holocaust. The United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Canada, all had deported and interned minority groups within their own borders, and largely due to this conflict later, many ethnic Germans were expelled out much of Eastern Europe. Imperial Japan had been notorious for attacking neutral nations without a declaration of war, such as at 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 at the Rape of Nanking where 250,000 civilians in the city had been brutally murdered by Japanese troops. Non-combatants had 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.

The outcome of the world wars had a profound effect on the course of world history. The old European empires had collapsed or been dismantled as a direct result of the wars' crushing costs and in some cases the defeat of imperial powers. The United States of America had been firmly established as the dominant global superpower, along with its ideological foe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in close competition. These 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 had been 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 had also greatly changed the course of daily life. Technologies developed during wartime had a profound effect on peace-time life as well, for instance; advances in: jet aircraft, penicillin, nuclear energy, and electronic computers.

Hypothetical Third World War[edit]

Main article: Third World War

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)[5][6]

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, there has been a widespread and prolonged fear of an upcoming Third World War between nuclear-armed powers. The Third World War is generally considered a hypothetical successor to the Second World War and is often suggested to become a nuclear war, devastating in nature and likely much more violent than the First World War and the Second World War combined. This war has been anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities, and 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 wars called "world wars"[edit]

Various former government officials, politicians, authors, and military leaders (including the following people: James Woolsey[7] Alexandre de Marenches,[8] Eliot Cohen,[9] and Subcomandante Marcos[10]) have attempted to apply the labels of the “Third World War” and “Fourth World War” to various past and present military engagements and diplomatic stand-offs since the closing of the Second World War, for example, the Cold War and the War on Terror. 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.

The Second Congo War (1998–2003) involved nine nations and led to ongoing low-level warfare despite an official peace and the first democratic elections in 2006. It has often been referred to as "Africa's World War".[11] During the early-21st century the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi Civil War and their spillovers world-wide are sometimes described as proxy wars waged between the United States and Russia,[12][13][14][15] which led some commentators to characterize the situation as a "proto-world war" with nearly a dozen countries embroiled in two overlapping conflicts.[16]

Wars with casualties exceeding those of the First World War[edit]

The two world wars of the 20th century had caused unprecedented casualties and destruction across the theaters of conflict.[17] There have been several wars that occurred before the 20th century with as many or more casualties than those of 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[18] 40,000,000[19] China 184 280 96
An Lushan Rebellion 13,000,000[20] 36,000,000[21] China 755 763 9
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[22] 40,000,000[20] Eurasia 1206 1324 118
Conquests of Timur 15,000,000[23] 20,000,000[23] Asia 1369 1405 37
Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty 25,000,000[24] 25,000,000 China 1616 1662 47
Taiping Rebellion 20,000,000[25] 100,000,000[26][27][28] China 1851 1864 14

Wars spanning 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)
Greco-Persian Wars Greece, Thrace, Aegean Islands, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Egypt −499 −449 50
Peloponnesian War Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily −431 −404 27
Wars of Alexander the Great Thrace, Illyria, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Babylonia, Persia, Sogdiana, India −335 −323 12
Wars of the Diadochi Macedon, Greece, Thrace, Anatolia, Levant, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia −322 −275 47
First Punic War 285,000 Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa −264 −241 23
Second Punic War 616,000 Italy, Sicily, Hispania, Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, North Africa, Greece −218 −201 17
Roman–Seleucid War Greece, Asia Minor −192 −188 4
Roman–Persian Wars Mesopotamia, Syria, Levant, Egypt, Transcaucasus, Atropatene, Asia Minor, Balkans −92 629 721
First Mithridatic War Asia Minor, Achaea, Aegean Sea 89 85 4
Great Roman Civil War Hispania, Italy, Greece, Illyria, Egypt, Africa 49 45 4
Byzantine–Sassanid wars Caucasus, Asia Minor, Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia 502 628 126
Muslim conquests Mesopotamia, Caucasus, Persia, Levant, North Africa, Anatolia, Iberia, Gaul, Greater Khorasan 622 1258 636
Arab–Byzantine wars Levant, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Crete, Sicily, Italy 629 1050 421
Crusades 1,000,000[29] 3,000,000[30] Iberian peninsula, Near East, Anatolia, Levant, Palestine, Egypt, Holy Land 1095 1291 197
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[22] 40,000,000[20] Eurasia 1206 1324 118
Byzantine–Ottoman Wars Asia Minor, Balkans 1265 1479 214
European colonization of the Americas 2,000,000[31] 100,000,000[32] Americas 1492 1900 408
Ottoman–Habsburg wars Hungary, Mediterranean, Balkans, North Africa, Malta 1526 1791 265
First Anglo-Spanish War Atlantic Ocean, English Channel, Low Countries, Spain, Spanish Main, Portugal, Cornwall, Ireland, Americas, Azores, Canary islands 1585 1604 19
Dutch–Portuguese War Atlantic Ocean, Brazil, West Africa, Southern Africa, Indian Ocean, India, East Indies, Indochina, China 1602 1663 61
Second Anglo-Spanish War Caribbean, Spain, Canary Islands, Spanish Netherlands 1654 1660 6
Nine Years' War Europe, Ireland, Scotland, North America, South America, Asia 1688 1697 9
War of the Spanish Succession
Europe, North America, South America 1701 1714 13
War of the Quadruple Alliance Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, North America 1718 1720 2
Third Anglo-Spanish War Spain, Panama 1727 1729 2
War of the Austrian Succession
Europe, North America, India 1740 1748 8
Seven Years' War
Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia 1754 1763 9
American Revolutionary War North America, Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, India, Africa, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean 1775 1784 8
French Revolutionary Wars
Europe, Egypt, Middle East, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Indian Ocean 1792 1802 9
Napoleonic Wars
[citation needed]
7,000,000[33] Europe, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Río de la Plata, French Guiana, West Indies, Indian Ocean, North America, South Caucasus 1803 1815 13
Crimean War Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, North America, Southeastern Europe, Black Sea 1853 1856 3
World War I
15,000,000[34] 65,000,000[35] Global 1914 1918 4
Map of participants in World War II.png
World War II
40,000,000[36] 85,000,000[37] Global 1939 1945 6
Cold War Map 1980.svg
Cold War
Global 1947 1991 44
Battlefields in The Global War on Terror.svg
War on Terror
272,000[38] 1,260,000[38][39][40] Global 2001 2016 14

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Engels, Frederick. "Introduction to Borkheim". 
  2. ^ Rasmus Björn Anderson (translator: Viktor Rydberg), Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, p. 139, London: S. Sonnenschein & Co., 1889 OCLC 626839.
  3. ^ "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. 
  4. ^ "Den anden Verdenskrig udbrød i Gaar Middags Kl. 11", Kristeligt Dagblad, September 4, 1939.
  5. ^ Calaprice, Alice (2005). "The new quotable Einstein". Princeton University Press: 173. ISBN 0-691-12075-7. 
  6. ^ "The culture of Einstein". MSNBC. 2005-04-19. Retrieved 2012-08-24. 
  7. ^ "World War IV". 2002. Retrieved 2010-02-04. Woolsey claims victory in WWIII, start of WWIV
  8. ^ "The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage....". 1992. Retrieved 2010-02-04. Book regarding alleged WWIV
  9. ^ "World War IV: Let's call this conflict what it is.". 2001. Retrieved 2010-02-04. Why war on terrorism should be called WWIV
  10. ^ Subcomandante Marcos (2001). "The Fourth World War Has Begun". Nepantla: Views from South. Duke University Press. 2 (3): 559–572. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ "U.S. Weaponry Is Turning Syria Into Proxy War With Russia". The New York Times. 12 October 2015. Retrieved 14 October 2015. 
  13. ^ "John McCain says US is engaged in proxy war with Russia in Syria". The Guardian. 4 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2015. 
  14. ^ "U.S., Russia escalate involvement in Syria". CNN. 13 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2015. 
  15. ^ ""The Russians have made a serious mistake": how Putin's Syria gambit will backfire". The VOA. 1 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2015. 
  16. ^ "Untangling the Overlapping Conflicts in the Syrian War". The New York Times. 18 October 2015. Retrieved 19 October 2015. 
  17. ^ "Top 10 Causes of WWI". The Rich Ten. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 
  18. ^ Robert B. Marks (2011). China: Its Environment and History (World Social Change). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 1442212756. 
  19. ^ Graziella Caselli (2005). Demography – Analysis and Synthesis: A Treatise in Population. Academic Press. ISBN 012765660X. 
  20. ^ a b c 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. 
  21. ^ "Death toll figures of recorded wars in human history". 
  22. ^ a b The Cambridge History of China: Alien regimes and border states, 907–1368, 1994, p.622, cited by White
  23. ^ a b "Timur Lenk (1369–1405)". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  24. ^ Alan Macfarlane (1997-05-28). The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-18117-0. 
  25. ^ "Taiping Rebellion – Britannica Concise". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  26. ^ "The Taiping Rebellion 1850–1871 Tai Ping Tian Guo". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  27. ^ Livre noir du Communisme: crimes, terreur, répression, page 468
  28. ^ By Train to Shanghai: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway By William J. Gingles page 259
  29. ^ 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
  30. ^ Robertson, John M., "A Short History of Christianity" (1902) p.278. Cited by White
  31. ^ Rummel, R.J. Death by Government, Chapter 3: Pre-Twentieth Century Democide
  32. ^ 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). 
  33. ^ Charles Esdaile "Napoleon's Wars: An International History."
  34. ^ Willmott 2003, p. 307
  35. ^ 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics, CDC
  36. ^ David Wallechinsky (1996-09-01). David Wallechinskys 20th Century: History With the Boring Parts Left Out. Little Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-92056-8. 
  37. ^ Fink, George: Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster
  38. ^ a b "Human costs of war: Direct war death in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan October 2001 – February 2013" (PDF). Costs of War. February 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  39. ^ "Update on Iraqi Casualty Data" by Opinion Research Business. January 2008.
  40. ^ "Revised Casualty Analysis. New Analysis 'Confirms' 1 Million+ Iraq Casualties". January 28, 2008. Opinion Research Business. Word Viewer for.doc files.

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