World war

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A 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 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".) [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.

The term "first world war" was first used in September 1914 by German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who claimed that "there is no doubt that the course and character of the feared 'European War' ... will become the first world war in the full sense of the word", [4] citing a wire service report in The Indianapolis Star on 20 September 1914. 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. [5]

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. [6] 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." [7]

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 and Norwegian: verdenskrig, and in Russian: мировая война (mirovaya voyna.)

First World War

World War I occurred from 1914 to 1918. 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 British, Russian, and French Empires) was likely, if war broke out, to lead to a worldwide conflict. That caused a very minute conflict between two countries to have 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 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, as well as 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; both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the Japanese Empire, 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 5,000,000 others persecuted by the Nazis, including Romani people and homosexuals. 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 attack on 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 in which 250,000 civilians were brutally murdered by Japanese troops. Noncombatants suffered at least as badly as or worse than combatants, and the distinction between combatants and noncombatants was often blurred by the belligerents of total war in both conflicts. [8]

The outcome of the war 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, their fall was caused by 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. [9]

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 aircraft, penicillin, nuclear energy, and electronic computers. [10]

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 [11] 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." [12] [13] 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, [14] Alexandre de Marenches, [15] Eliot Cohen, [16] and Subcomandante Marcos [17] ) 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, such as 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 the wars have been commonly deemed world wars.

Wars described by some historians as "World War Zero" include the Seven Years' War [18] and the onset of the Late Bronze Age collapse. [19]

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". [20] 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, [21] [22] [23] [24] which led some commentators to characterize the situation as a "proto-world war" with nearly a dozen countries embroiled in two overlapping conflicts. [25]

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. [26] 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.
LocationFromToDuration (years)
Three Kingdoms 36,000,000 [27] 40,000,000 [28] China 18428096
An Lushan Rebellion 13,000,000 [29] 36,000,000 [30] China 7557639
Mongol conquests 30,000,000 [31] 40,000,000 [29] Eurasia 12061324118
Conquests of Timur 15,000,000 [32] 20,000,000 [32] Asia 1369140537
Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty 25,000,000 [33] 25,000,000 China 1616166247
Taiping Rebellion 20,000,000 [34] 100,000,000 [35] [36] [37] China 1851186414
World War II 40,000,000 [38] 85,000,000 [39] Global193919456
Cold War 22,345,162+94,000,000Global1947199144

Wars spanning multiple continents

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

Estimated death tolls. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
LocationFromToDuration (years)
Late Bronze Age collapse Egypt, Anatolia, Syria, Canaan, Cyprus, Greece, Mesopotamia 1200s BCE1150s BCE40–50
Greco-Persian Wars Greece, Thrace, Aegean Islands, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Egypt 499 BCE449 BCE50
Peloponnesian War Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily 431 BCE404 BCE27
Wars of Alexander the Great Thrace, Illyria, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Babylonia, Persia, Afghanistan, Sogdiana, India 335 BCE323 BCE12
Wars of the Diadochi Macedon, Greece, Thrace, Anatolia, Levant, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia 322 BCE275 BCE47
First Punic War 285,000
[ citation needed ]
400,000 [29] Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa 264 BCE241 BCE23
Second Punic War 616,000
[ citation needed ]
770,000 [29] Italy, Sicily, Hispania, Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, North Africa, Greece 218 BCE201 BCE17
Roman–Seleucid War Greece, Asia Minor 192 BCE188 BCE4
Roman–Persian Wars Mesopotamia, Syria, Levant, Egypt, Transcaucasus, Atropatene, Asia Minor, Balkans 92 BCE628 CE721
First Mithridatic War Asia Minor, Achaea, Aegean Sea 89 BCE85 BCE4
Great Roman Civil War Hispania, Italy, Greece, Illyria, Egypt, Africa 49 BCE45 BCE4
Byzantine–Sassanid wars Caucasus, Asia Minor, Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia 502 CE628 CE126
Muslim conquests Mesopotamia, Caucasus, Persia, Levant, The Maghreb, Anatolia, Iberia, Gaul, Khorasan, Sindh, Transoxania 6221258636
Arab–Byzantine wars Levant, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Crete, Sicily, Italy 6291050421
Crusades 1,000,000 [40] 3,000,000 [41] Iberian peninsula, Near East, Anatolia, the Levant, Egypt.10951291197
Mongol conquests 30,000,000 [31] 40,000,000 [29] Eurasia 12061324118
Byzantine–Ottoman Wars Asia Minor, Balkans 12651479214
European colonization of the Americas 2,000,000 [42] 100,000,000 [43] Americas 14921900408
Ottoman–Habsburg wars Hungary, Mediterranean, Balkans, North Africa, Malta 15261791265
First Anglo-Spanish War Atlantic Ocean, English Channel, Low Countries, Spain, Spanish Main, Portugal, Cornwall, Ireland, Americas, Azores, Canary islands 1585160419
Dutch–Portuguese War Atlantic Ocean, Brazil, West Africa, Southern Africa, Indian Ocean, India, East Indies, Indochina, China 1602166361
Thirty Years' War 3,000,00011,500,000 Europe, mainly present-day Germany 1618164830
Second Anglo-Spanish War Caribbean, Spain, Canary Islands, Spanish Netherlands 165416606
Nine Years' War Europe, Ireland, Scotland, North America, South America, Asia 168816979
War of the Spanish Succession
Europe, North America, South America 1701171413
War of the Quadruple Alliance Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, North America 171817202
Third Anglo-Spanish War Spain, Panama 172717292
War of the Austrian Succession
Europe, North America, India 174017488
Seven Years' War
1,500,000 [29] Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia 175417639
American Revolutionary War North America, Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, India, Africa, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean 177517848
French Revolutionary Wars
Europe, Egypt, Middle East, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Indian Ocean 179218029
Napoleonic Wars
[ citation needed ]
7,000,000 [44] Europe, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Río de la Plata, French Guiana, West Indies, Indian Ocean, North America, South Caucasus 1803181513
Crimean War 255,000 [45] 1,000,000 [46] Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Southeastern Europe, Black Sea 185318563
World War I
15,000,000 [47] 65,000,000 [48] Global191419184
Map of participants in World War II.svg
World War II
40,000,000 [38] 85,000,000 [39] Global193919456
Cold War Map 1980.svg
Cold War
22,345,162 (casualties by all wars started in the Cold War with Gulf War, Vietnam War, Korean War, Algerian War, Iran–Iraq War, Nigerian Civil War or Soviet–Afghan War included) [49] [ 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 1946–47, Cambodian genocide, Cultural Revolution, and Great Leap Forward included) [50] [ circular reference ]Global1947199144
Battlefields in The Global War on Terror.svg
War on Terror
272,000 [51] 1,260,000
[51] [52] [53]

See also

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