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World war

This article is about the term. For other uses, see World war (disambiguation).

A world war is a war involving some 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 usually applied to the two conflicts that occurred during the 20th century:

However, it is also sometimes applied to earlier wars, the Cold War, the Cold War II, or to a hypothetical World War III.

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 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] 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 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 has 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, — Guerra Mundial, and in Russian, — M?????? B???? (Mirovaya Voyna).

Speculative fiction authors were noting the concept of a Second World War at least as early as 1919 and 1920,[3] 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,[4] having originally discussed the matter with a Major Johnstone of Harvard University in September 1918.[5] The term "World War I" was invented by Time magazine in its issue of June 12, 1939.[6] In 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 in millions. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
Event Lowest
Log. mean estimate[10] Highest
Location From To Duration (years)
Greco-Persian Wars Mainland Greece, Thrace, Aegean Islands, Asia Minor, Cyprus and Egypt 499 BCE 449 BCE 50 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[11] 1,700,000 3,000,000[12] Iberia, Near East (Anatolia, Levant, Palestine), Egypt, Holy Land 1095 CE 1291 CE 197 years
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[13] 35,000,000 40,000,000[14] Eurasia 1206 CE 1324 CE 118 years
Byzantine–Ottoman Wars Asia Minor, Balkans 1265 CE 1479 CE 214 years
Ottoman–Habsburg wars Hungary, Mediterranean, Balkans, North Africa and Malta 1526 CE 1791 CE 265 years
European colonization of the Americas 2,000,000
14,000,000 100,000,000
Americas 1492 CE 1900 CE 408 years
Eighty Years' War The Low Countries
(worldwide colonial warfare)
1568 CE 1648 CE 80 years
Anglo-Spanish War 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
Nine Years' War Mainland Europe, Ireland, Scotland, North America, South America, Asia 1688 CE 1697 CE 9 years
War of the Spanish Succession 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
War of the Austrian Succession Europe, North America and India 1740 CE 1748 CE 8 years
Seven Years' War Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia 1754 CE 1763 CE 9 years
French Revolutionary Wars Europe, Egypt, Middle East, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Indian Ocean 1792 CE 1802 CE 9 years
Napoleonic Wars 3,500,000
[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 CE 1815 CE 13 years
Crimean War Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Scotland, North America 1853 CE 1856 CE 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 CE 1918 CE 4 years, 3 months, 1 week
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 CE 1945 CE 6 years and 1 day
War on Terror 272,000[22] 585,000 1,260,000[22][23][24] Global (esp. in the Greater Middle East) 2001 CE 2015 CE 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 in millions. Log. mean calculated using simple power law.
Event Lowest
Log. mean estimate[25] Highest
Location From To Duration (years)
Three Kingdoms 36,000,000[26] 37,000,000 40,000,000[27] China 184 CE 280 CE 96 years
Mongol conquests 30,000,000[13] 35,000,000 40,000,000[14] Eurasia 1206 CE 1324 CE 118 years
Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty 25,000,000[28] 25,000,000 25,000,000 Manchuria, China proper 1616 CE 1662 CE 47 years
Taiping Rebellion 20,000,000[29] 32,000,000 100,000,000[30][31][32] China 1851 CE 1864 CE 14 years
Conquests of Timur-e-Lang 15,000,000[33] 17,000,000 20,000,000[33] West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Russia 1369 CE 1405 CE 37 years
An Lushan Rebellion 13,000,000[14] 21,000,000 36,000,000[34] China 755 CE 763 CE 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

Main articles: 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.

The two World Wars of the 20th century 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.[35] 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

See also: World War III

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)[36][37]

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[38] and Alexandre de Marenches,[39] author Eliot Cohen[40] and Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos.[41] 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".[42]

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.

See also


  1. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary entry for World War". 1914-08-02. Retrieved 2012-08-24. 
  2. ^ Engels, Frederick. "Introduction to Borkheim". 
  3. ^ Hastings, Milo (1920). City of Endless Night. Dodd, Mead. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  4. ^ Repington, Charles à Court (1920). The First World War, 1914-1918. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  5. ^ "The 'First' World War". QI : Quite Interesting. 2014. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  6. ^ "War Machines". TIME. June 12, 1939. Retrieved 20 October 2014. (subscription required (help)). 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 
  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. 
  9. ^ "Den anden Verdenskrig udbrød i Gaar Middags Kl. 11", Kristeligt Dagblad, September 4, 1939.
  10. ^ Pinto, Carla M. A.; Lopes, A. Mendes; Machado, J. A. Tenreiro (2014). Mathematical Methods in Engineering. Netherlands: Springer. pp. 173–180. ISBN 978-94-007-7182-6. 
  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. ^ a b The Cambridge History of China: Alien regimes and border states, 907–1368, 1994, p.622, cited by White
  14. ^ 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. 
  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). 
  17. ^ Charles Esdaile "Napoleon's Wars: An International History."
  18. ^ Willmott 2003, p. 307
  19. ^ 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics, CDC
  20. ^ David Wallechinsky (1996-09-01). David Wallechinskys 20th Century: History With the Boring Parts Left Out. Little Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-92056-8. 
  21. ^ Fink, George: Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster
  22. ^ 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. 
  23. ^ "Update on Iraqi Casualty Data" by Opinion Research Business. January 2008.
  24. ^ "Revised Casualty Analysis. New Analysis 'Confirms' 1 Million+ Iraq Casualties". January 28, 2008. Opinion Research Business. Word Viewer for.doc files.
  25. ^ Pinto, Carla M. A.; Lopes, A. Mendes; Machado, J. A. Tenreiro (2014). Mathematical Methods in Engineering. Netherlands: Springer. pp. 173–180. ISBN 978-94-007-7182-6. 
  26. ^ Robert B. Marks (2011). China: Its Environment and History (World Social Change). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 1442212756. 
  27. ^ Graziella Caselli (2005). Demography - Analysis and Synthesis: A Treatise in Population. Academic Press. ISBN 012765660X. 
  28. ^ Alan Macfarlane (1997-05-28). The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-18117-0. 
  29. ^ "Taiping Rebellion – Britannica Concise". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  30. ^ "The Taiping Rebellion 1850–1871 Tai Ping Tian Guo". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  31. ^ Livre noir du Communisme: crimes, terreur, répression, page 468
  32. ^ By Train to Shanghai: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway By William J. Gingles page 259
  33. ^ a b "Timur Lenk (1369–1405)". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  34. ^ "Death toll figures of recorded wars in human history". 
  35. ^ "Top 10 Causes of WWI". The Rich Ten. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 
  36. ^ Calaprice, Alice (2005). "The new quotable Einstein". Princeton University Press. p. 173. ISBN 0-691-12075-7. 
  37. ^ "The culture of Einstein". MSNBC. 2005-04-19. Retrieved 2012-08-24. 
  38. ^ "World War IV". 2002. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Woolsey claims victory in WWIII, start of WWIV
  39. ^ "The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage....". 1992. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Book regarding alleged WWIV
  40. ^ "World War IV: Let's call this conflict what it is.". 2001. Retrieved 2010-02-04.  Why war on terrorism should be called WWIV
  41. ^ Subcomandante Marcos (2001). "The Fourth World War Has Begun". Nepantla: Views from South (Duke University Press) 2 (3): 559–572. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  42. ^ 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. 

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