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A world war is a war affecting the majority of the world's most powerful and populous nations. World wars span several continents, and last for multiple years. The term has usually been applied to two conflicts of unprecedented scale that occurred during the 20th century: World War I (1914–1918), World War II (1939–1945), although in retrospect a number of earlier conflicts may be regarded as "world wars". The other most common usage of the term is in the context of World War III, a phrase usually used to describe any hypothetical future global conflict.


Origins of the term

The term "World War" was coined speculatively in the early 20th century, some years before the first World War broke out, probably as a nearly 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. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first known usage in the English language as being in April 1909, in the pages of the Westminster Gazette.

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 United Kingdom was likely to lead to a global conflict in the event of war breaking out. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that a conflict would be global, as the colonies' resources would be a crucial strategic factor. The same strategic considerations also ensured that the combatants would strike at each others' 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, the two World Wars are the Guerres Mondiales; in German, the Erste und Zweite Weltkrieg (World War I was only known or commonly recognized in public as der Weltkrieg in Germany when it was over, while priorly the word was rather used in the more abstract meaning of "a global conflict"); in Russian the мировые войны (miroviye voyni); in Spanish the Guerra Mundial and so on.

All the participants of the War of the Spanish Succession
All the participants of the Seven Years' War
All the participants of the Napoleonic Wars

The term "First World War" was used in the book The First World War: A Photographic History, edited by playwright and war veteran Laurence Stallings and published in 1933.[2] The term "World War I" was invented by Time magazine in its issue of June 12, 1939.[3] In that same issue, the term "World War II" was first used speculatively by Time magazine to describe the upcoming war.[4] The first use for the actual war came in its issue of September 11, 1939.[5]

Earlier worldwide conflicts

Other examples suitable to be classified as world wars in terms of their intercontinental and intercultural scope are the Mongol invasions leading to the Mongol Empire, which spanned Eurasia from China, Japan, and Korea to Persia, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, Hungary and Russia, the Ottoman-Habsburg wars during the 16th Century and the Dutch–Portuguese War from the 1580s to the 1650s, which was fought throughout the Atlantic, Brazil, West Africa, Southern Africa, the Indian Ocean, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. It would be interesting to investigate how much this war became intertwined with the Eighty Year's War between the Dutch Republic and Spain and henceforward the Thirty Years War, those wars basically adding up to a worldwide conflict. Other wars in earlier periods that saw conflict across the world have been considered world wars by some:

These, however, were confined to the European powers and their colonial empires and offshoots. The Asian powers were not involved (counting in this instance the Ottoman Empire as a European power).

Prior to the late 19th century, the concept of a world war would not have had much meaning. The Asian powers of India, China and Japan did not act outside their own territory. India was an early target of the creation of trade colonies due to its strategic importance on the maritime equivalent of the Silk Road to the East Indies and China while both China and Japan were able to remain mostly isolationist until the 19th century. The European conflicts of earlier centuries were essentially quarrels between powers which took place in fairly limited, though sometimes far-flung, theaters of conflict.

Where native inhabitants of other continents were involved, they generally participated as local auxiliaries rather than as allies of equal status, fighting in multiple theaters. For instance, in Britain's wars against France, Native Americans assisted both European powers on their own ground rather than being shipped to continental Europe to serve as allied troops there. By contrast, during the World Wars, millions of troops from Africa, Asia, North America and Australasia served alongside the colonial powers in Europe and other theatres of war.

World Map with the participants in World War I.
The Allies depicted in green, the Central Powers in orange, and neutral countries in grey.
World Map with the participants in World War II.
The Allies depicted in green (those in light green entered after the attack on Pearl Harbor), the Axis Powers in blue, and neutral countries in grey. The Xikang region of Tibet was under Chinese control.

Characteristics of the World Wars

The two World Wars of the 20th century took place on every populated continent on Earth. Many of the nations who fought in the First World War also fought in the Second, although not always on the same sides. Some historians have characterized the World Wars as a single "European civil war" spanning the period 1914–1945.[citation needed] However, this concept overlooks the war in the Far East caused by Japan's programme of territorial expansion, which started independently of events in Europe.

The World Wars were made possible, above all else, by a combination of fast communications (such as the telegraph and radio) and fast transportation (the steam ship and railroad). This enabled military action to be coordinated rapidly over a very wide area and permitted troops to be transported quickly in large numbers on a global scale.

Effects of the World Wars

The two World Wars of the 20th century caused unprecedented casualties and destruction across the theaters of conflict. The numbers killed in the wars are estimated at between 60 and 100 million people. Unlike in most previous conflicts, civilians suffered as badly as or worse than soldiers, and the distinction between combatants and civilians was often erased.

World War I World War II
Deaths 20 M 60 - 100 M
Injured 20 M 35 M
Conscripts 70 M 110 M
Battlefield Size 4 M km² 22 M 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 defeats of imperial powers. The modern international security, economic and diplomatic system was created in the aftermath of the wars. Institutions such as NATO, the United Nations and the European Union were established to "collectivise"[citation needed] international affairs, with the explicit aim 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 World War II, there has been a widespread and prolonged fear of a Third World War between nuclear-armed superpowers. The fact that this has not come to pass has been attributed by many to the devastating and essentially unwinnable nature of nuclear warfare, with the end result being the extermination of human life or, at the very least, the collapse of civilization.[citation needed]

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)[10]

Subsequent world wars

At least in part due to the specter of the nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction that would almost certainly accompany any further all-out world wars, it would appear that the prospects of another true world war in the near future are unlikely. Nonetheless, news commentators, former government officials and authors have unsuccessfully attempted to apply the labels of WW III, WW IV, and WW V to various military engagements and diplomatic stand-offs since the close of WW II. Among these are news commentators Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity,[11] former American and French government officials James Woolsey [12] and Alexandre de Marenches,[13] and author Elliot Cohen.[14] Still, since the close of WW II, no single military engagement, or series of military engagements has wreaked even a significant fraction of the widespread death and destruction (96% of all countries engaged, 61 million men, women and children killed, approximately 22 trillion dollars in 2010 inflation adjusted costs and damages) that was inflicted by the last World War.

Bearing in mind these facts regarding WW II, and considering what the nuclear costs of another true all-out world war might be, few seem to be eager to readily embrace the prospect of the arrival of another world war. Efforts at even attempting to speculate that the human race might survive an actual World War III in any recognizable form, do not appear to be likely to achieve widespread acceptance in popular culture anytime soon.

See also


  1. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary entry for World War
  2. ^ "Ten Million Dead", Time, July 31, 1933.
  3. ^ "In World War I, for example, command of the air changed hands several times, and the command changed not only when numbers varied but when one side introduced a superior new plane which could outfight the opposing machines." "War Machines", Time, June 12, 1939.
  4. ^ "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." "War Machines", Time, June 12, 1939.
  5. ^ "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." "World War: Grey Friday", Time, September 11, 1939.
  6. ^ "War of the Spanish Succession"., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  7. ^ "War of the Spanish Succession"., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  8. ^ Fred Anderson. "Crucible of War": The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 ., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  9. ^ "Introduction: The Seven Years' War"., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  10. ^ Calaprice, Alice (2005), The new quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, p. 173, ISBN 0-691-12075-7 
  11. ^ "Right-wing media divided: Is U.S. now in World War III, IV, or V?". 2006. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Discussion of attempts to declare how we have survived WW III
  12. ^ "World War IV". 2002. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Woolsey claims victory in WW III, start of WW IV
  13. ^ "The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage....". 1992. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Book regarding alleged WWIV
  14. ^ "World War IV: Let's call this conflict what it is.". 2001. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Why war on terrorism should be called WWIV

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