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Total war is a conflict of unlimited scope in which a belligerent engages in a mobilization of all available resource at their disposal, whether human, industrial, agricultural, military, natural, technological, or otherwise, in order to entirely destroy or render beyond use their rival's capacity to continue resistance. The practice of total war has been in use for centuries, but it was only in the middle to late 19th century that total war was identified by scholars as a separate class of warfare. In a total war, there is less and sometimes no differentiation between combatants and non-combatants (civilians) than in other conflicts, as nearly every human resource, civilians and soldiers alike, can be considered to be part of the belligerent effort.


The phrase can be traced back to the 1936 publication of General Ludendorff’s World War I memoir Der Totale Krieg ("The Total War"). However, the concept extends back as far as Clausewitz’s classic work On War. USAF General Curtis LeMay updated the concept for the nuclear age. He suggested total war in the nuclear age should be conducted by delivering the nuclear arsenal in a single overwhelming blow.

Early history

The first documented total war was the Peloponnesian War, as described by the historian Thucydides. This war was fought between Athensmarker and Sparta between 431 and 404 BC. Previously, Greek warfare was a limited and ritualized form of conflict. Armies of hoplites would meet on the battlefield and decide the outcome in a single day. During the Peloponnesian War, however, the fighting lasted for years and consumed the economic resources of the participating city-states. Atrocities were committed on a scale never before seen, with entire populations being executed or sold into slavery, as in the case of the island of Melos (now known as Milosmarker). The aftermath of the war reshaped the Greek world, left much of the region in poverty, and reduced once influential Athens to a weakened state, from which it never completely recovered.

During the Middle Ages, the Mongols in the 13th century practised total war. The military forces of Ghenghis Khan slaughtered whole populations and destroyed any city that resisted which happened during the invasions of Khwarezmid Empire, Kievan Rus', Baghdadmarker, Chinamarker, Armeniamarker, Georgiamarker, Polandmarker, Hungarymarker and northern Iranmarker. During the sack of Baghdad in 1258 between 100,000 to a million people were killed in an orgy of violence. Total war created the Mongol Empire which, by the death of Ghenghis Khan, would be the largest contiguous empire in history.

Many regions of 16th century Europe were subject to conflicts that could be described as total war. The descent into large scale violence at this time was partly due to population pressures, and partly the product of tensions caused by the Reformation. The German Peasants War of 1524-25 was an early example; Total warfare was also employed in the French Wars of Religion, with assassins being engaged wantonly by both sides in the conflict. The Elizabethan wars in Ireland, such as the Desmond Wars and the Nine Years War, were extreme examples of what is today known as total war.

The subsequent Thirty Years War may also be considered a total war. This conflict was fought between 1618 and 1648, primarily on the territory of modern Germanymarker. Virtually all of the major European powers were involved, and the economy of each was based around fighting the war. Civilian populations were devastated - "the war nourished the war". Estimates of civilian casualties are approximately 25-30%, with deaths due to a combination of armed conflict, famine, and disease. The size and training of armies also grew dramatically during this period, as did the cost of keeping armies in the field. Plunder was commonly used to pay and feed armies.

After the Thirty Years War and up to the French Revolution most wars in Europe were smaller wars with limited goals, so called Cabinet Wars or Kabinettskriege.

18th and 19th Centuries

French Revolution

The French Revolution reintroduced some of the concepts of total war. The fledgling republic found itself threatened by a powerful coalition of European nations. The only solution, in the eyes of the Jacobin government, was to pour the nation's entire resources into an unprecedented war effort - this was the advent of the levée en masse. The following decree of the National Convention on August 23, 1793 clearly demonstrates the enormity of the French war effort:

Following the August 23 decree French front line forces grew to some 800,000 with a total of 1.5 million in all services — the first time an army in excess of a million had been mobilized in Western history. Over the coming two decades of almost constant warfare it is estimated that somewhere in the vicinity of five million died — probably about half of them civilians — and France alone counted nearly a million (by some sources in excess of a million) deaths — a considerably higher portion of its population than perished in either of the world wars.

In the Russian campaign of 1812 Adam Zamoyski estimates almost a million died — this in under 6 months of fighting. In this campaign the Russians resorted to destroying infrastructure and agriculture in their retreat in order to hamper the French and strip them of adequate supplies. In the campaign of 1813 Allied forces in the German theater alone amounted to nearly one million whilst two years later in the Hundred Days a French decree called for the total mobilization of some 2.5 million men (though at most a fifth of this was managed by the time of the French defeat at Waterloomarker). During the prolonged Peninsular War from 1808–1814 some 300,000 French troops were kept permanently occupied by, in addition to several hundred thousand Spanish, Portuguese and British regulars an enormous and sustained guerrilla insurgency — ultimately French deaths would amount to 300,000 in the Peninsular War alone.

Taiping Rebellion

During the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) that followed the secession of the Tàipíng Tiānguó (太平天國,T'ai-p'ing t'ien-kuo) (Heavenly Kingdom of Perfect Peace) from the Qing empiremarker the first instance of total war in modern China can be seen. Almost every citizen of the Tàipíng Tiānguó was given military training and conscripted into the army to fight against the imperial forces.

During this conflict both sides tried to deprive each other of the resources to continue the war and it became standard practice to destroy agricultural areas, butcher the population of cities and in general exact a brutal price from captured enemy lands in order to drastically weaken the opposition's war effort. This war truly was total in that civilians on both sides participated to a significant extent in the war effort and in that armies on both sides waged war on the civilian population as well as military forces. In total between 20 and 50 million died in the conflict making it bloodier than the First World War and possibly bloodier than the Second World War as well if the upper end figures are accurate.

American Civil War

During the American Civil War, U.S. Army General Phillip Sheridan's stripping of the Shenandoah Valley, beginning on September 21, 1864 and continuing for two weeks, was considered "total war". Its purpose was to eliminate foodstuffs and supplies vital to the South's military operations, as well as to strike a blow at Southern civilian morale. Sheridan took the opportunity when he realized opposing forces had become too weak to resist his army.

Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman's 'March to the Sea' in November/December 1864 destroyed the resources required for the South to make war. Sherman is considered one of the first military commanders to deliberately and consciously use total war as a military strategy. General Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln initially opposed the plan until Sherman convinced them of its necessity.

20th Century

World War I

Almost the whole of Europe mobilized to wage World War I. Young men were removed from production jobs to serve in military roles, and were replaced on the production line by women. Rationing occurred on the home fronts. Bulgaria went so far as to mobilise a quarter of its population or 800,000 people, a bigger share of its population than any other country during the war.

One of the features of Total War in Britain was the use of government propaganda posters to divert all attention to the war on the home front. Posters were used to influence public opinion about what to eat and what occupations to take, and to change the attitude of support towards the war effort.

After the failure of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the large British offensive in March 1915, the British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal John French blamed the lack of progress on insufficient and poor-quality artillery shells. This led to the Shell Crisis of 1915 which brought down the Liberal government of Premiership of H. H. Asquith. He formed a new coalition government dominated by Liberals and appointed David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. It was a recognition that the whole economy would have to be geared for war if the Allies were to prevail on the Western Front.

As young men left the farms for the front, domestic food production in Britain and Germany fell. In Britain the response was to import more food, which was done despite the German introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, and to introduce rationing. The Royal Navy's blockade of German ports prevented Germany from importing food and hastened German capitulation by creating a food crisis in Germany.

World War II

The Second World War can be considered the quintessential total war of modernity. The level of national mobilization of resources on all sides of the conflict, the battlespace being contested, the scale of the armies, navies, and air forces raised through conscription, the active targeting of civilians (and civilian property), the general disregard for collateral damage, and the unrestricted aims of the belligerents marked total war on a multicontinental scale.

Shōwa Japan

During the first part of the Shōwa era, the governments of Imperial Japanmarker launched a string of policies to promote total war effort against China or occidental powers and increase industrial production. Among these were the National Spiritual Mobilization Movement, the League of Diet Members Believing the Objectives of the Holy War and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association.

The National Mobilization Law had fifty clauses, which provided for government controls over civilian organizations (including labor unions), nationalization of strategic industries, price controls and rationing, and nationalized the news media. The laws gave the government the authority to use unlimited budgets to subsidize war production, and to compensate manufacturers for losses caused by war-time mobilization. Eighteen of the fifty articles outlined penalties for violators.

To improve its production, Shōwa Japan used millions of slave labourers and pressed more than 18 million people in Far East Asia.

United Kingdom

Before the onset of the Second World War, the United Kingdommarker drew on its First World War experience to prepare legislation that would allow immediate mobilization of the economy for war, should future hostilities break out.

Rationing of most goods and services was introduced, not only for consumers but also for manufacturers. This meant that factories manufacturing products that were irrelevant to the war effort had more appropriate tasks imposed. All artificial light was subject to legal blackout.

Not only were men conscripted into the armed forces from the beginning of the war (something which had not happened until the middle of World War I), but women were also conscripted as Land Girls to aid farmers and the Bevin Boys were conscripted to work down the coal mines.

Enormous casualties were expected in bombing raids, so children were evacuated from London and other cities en masse to the countryside for compulsory billeting in households. In the long term this was one of the most profound and longer-lasting social consequences of the whole war for Britain. This is because it mixed up children with the adults of other classes. Not only did the middle and upper classes become familiar with the urban squalor suffered by working class children from the slums, but the children got a chance to see animals and the countryside, often for the first time, and experience rural life.

The use of statistical analysis, by a branch of science which has become known as Operational Research to influence military tactics was a departure from anything previously attempted. It was a very powerful tool but it further dehumanised war particularly when it suggested strategies which were counter intuitive. Examples where statistical analysis directly influenced tactics include the work done by Patrick Blackett's team on the optimum size and speed of convoys and the introduction of bomber streams by the Royal Air Force to counter the night fighter defences of the Kammhuber Line..


In contrast, Germanymarker started the war under the concept of Blitzkrieg. Officially, it did not accept that it was in a total war until Joseph Goebbels' Sportpalast speech of 18 February 1943. For example, women were not conscripted into the armed forces or allowed to work in factories. The Nazi party adhered to the policy that a woman's place was in the home, and did not change this even as its opponents began moving women into important roles in production.

The commitment to the doctrine of the short war was a continuing handicap for the Germans; neither plans nor state of mind were adjusted to the idea of a long war until the failure of the operation Barbarossa. A major strategical defeat in the Battle of Moscowmarker forced Albert Speer, who was appointed as Germany's armament minister in early 1942, to nationalize German war production and eliminate the worst inefficiencies.

Under his direction a threefold increase in armament production occurred and did not reach its peak until late 1944. To do this during the damage caused by the growing strategic Allied bomber offensive, is an indication of the degree of industrial under-mobilization in the earlier years. It was because the German economy through most of the war was substantially under-mobilized that it was resilient under air attack. Civilian consumption was high during the early years of the war and inventories both in industry and in consumers' possession were high. These helped cushion the economy from the effects of bombing.

Plant and machinery were plentiful and incompletely used, thus it was comparatively easy to substitute unused or partly used machinery for that which was destroyed. Foreign labour, both slave labour and labour from neighbouring countries who joined the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, was used to augment German industrial labour which was under pressure by conscription into the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces).

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union (USSR) was a command economy which already had an economic and legal system allowing the economy and society to be redirected into fighting a total war. The transportation of factories and whole labour forces east of the Uralsmarker as the Germans advanced across the USSR in 1941 was an impressive feat of planning. Only those factories which were useful for war production were moved because of the total war commitment of the Soviet government.

The Eastern Front of the European Theatre of World War II encompassed the conflict in central and eastern Europe from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945. It was the largest theatre of war in history in terms of numbers of soldiers, equipment and casualties and was notorious for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, and immense loss of life. The fighting involved millions of German and Soviet troops along a broad front hundreds of kilometres long. It was by far the deadliest single theatre of World War II. Scholars now believe that as many as 27 million Soviet citizens died during the war, including some 8.7 million soldiers who fell in battle against Hitler's armies or died in POW camps. Millions of civilians died from starvation, exposure, atrocities, and massacres.

During the battle of Leningrad, newly-built T-34 tanks were driven - unpainted because of a paint shortage - from the factory floor straight to the front. This came to symbolise the USSR's commitment to the Great Patriotic War and demonstrated the government's total war policy.

To encourage the Russian people to work harder, the communist government encouraged the people's love of the Motherland and even allowed the reopening of Russian Orthodox Churches as it was thought this would help the war effort.

United States

The United States underwent large-scale mobilization of national resources for the Second World War. Conditions on the home front were not nearly as bad as they were in the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, but the United States still greatly curtailed civilian comfort in its prosecution of the Second World War.

The strategists of the U.S. military looked abroad at the storms brewing on the horizon in Europe and Asia, and began quietly making contingency plans as early as the mid-1930s; new weapons and weapons platforms were designed, and made ready. Following the outbreak of war in Europe, and the metastasis of the ongoing aggression in Asia, efforts were stepped up significantly. The collapse of France and the airborne aggression directed at Great Britain unsettled the Americans, who had close relations with both nations, and a peacetime draft was instituted, along with Lend-Lease programs to aid the British, and covert aid was passed to the Chinese as well.

American public opinion was still opposed to involvement in the problems of Europe and Asia, however. In 1941, the Soviet Union became the latest nation to be invaded, and the U.S. gave her aid as well. American ships began defending aid convoys to the Allied nations against submarine attacks, and a total trade embargo against the Empire of Japanmarker was instituted to deny its military the raw materials its factories and military forces required to continue its offensive actions in China.

In late 1941 the Japanese Army-dominated Japanese government decided to seize by military force the strategic resources of South-East Asia and Indonesia that the Western powers would not trade. Planning for this action included the sudden strikes on US and British forces in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, and the forward US naval base and warships at Pearl Harbormarker. In response to these attacks, the U.K. and U.S. declared war on the Empire of Japanmarker the next day. Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, along with Fascist Italy; the U.S., consequently declaring war on both, found itself fully involved in a second world war.

As the United States began to gear up for a major war, information and propaganda efforts were set in motion. Civilians (including children) were encouraged to take part in fat, grease, and scrap metal collection drives. Many factories making non-essential goods retooled for war production. Levels of industrial productivity previously unheard of were attained during the war; multi-thousand-ton convoy ships were routinely built in a month-and-a-half, and tanks poured out of the former automobile factories. Within a few years of the U.S. entry into the Second World War, nearly every man fit for service, between 18 and 30, had been conscripted into the military "for the duration" of the conflict. Strict systems of rationing of consumer staples were introduced to redirect productive capacity to war needs.

Previously untouched sections of the nation mobilized for the war effort. Academics became technocrats; home-makers became bomb-makers (massive numbers of women worked in heavy industry during the war); union leaders and businessmen became commanders in the massive armies of production. The great scientific communities of the United States were mobilized as never before, and mathematicians, doctors, engineers, and chemists turned their minds to the problems ahead of them.

By the war's end a multitude of advances had been made in medicine, physics, engineering, and the other sciences. Even the theoretical physicists, whose theories were not believed to have military applications (at the time) were sent far into the Western deserts to work in secret laboratoriesmarker on important military projects that utterly changed the course of historymarker.

By the war's end, the United States had lost many soldiers, but managed to avoid the extensive level of damage to civilian and industrial infrastructure that other participants had suffered. Being relatively undamaged in the course of the war, the US became one of the world's leading powers.

Unconditional surrender

After the United States entered World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared at Casablanca conference to the other Allies and the press that unconditional surrender was the objective of the war against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Prior to this declaration, the individual regimes of the Axis Powers could have negotiated an armistice similar to that at the end of World War I and then a conditional surrender when they perceived that the war was lost.

The unconditional surrender of the major Axis powers caused a legal problem at the post-war Nuremberg Trialsmarker, because the trials appeared to be in conflict with Articles 63 and 64 of the Geneva Convention of 1929. Usually if such trials are held, they would be held under the auspices of the defeated power's own legal system as happened with some of the minor Axis powers, for example in the post World War II Romanian People's Tribunals. To circumvent this, the Allies argued that the major war criminals were captured after the end of the war, so they were not prisoners of war and the Geneva Conventions did not cover them. Further, the collapse of the Axis regimes created a legal condition of total defeat (debellatio) so the provisions of the 1907 Hague Conventions over military occupation were not applicable.

Postwar era

Since the end of World War II, no industrial nations have fought such a large, decisive war, due to the availability of weapons that are so destructive that their use would offset the advantages of victory. The fighting of a total war where nuclear weapons are used is something that instead of taking years and the full mobilisation of a country's resources such as in World War II, would take tens of minutes. Such weapons are developed and maintained with relatively modest peace time defence budgets.

By the end of the 1950s, the ideological stand-off of the Cold War between the Western World and the Soviet Unionmarker involved thousands of nuclear weapons being aimed at each side by the other. Strategically, the equal balance of destructive power possessed by each side situation came to be known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the idea that a nuclear attack by one superpower would result in nuclear counter-strike by the other. This would result in hundreds of millions of deaths in a world where, in words widely attributed to Nikita Khrushchev, "The living will envy the dead".

During the Cold War, the Superpowers sought to avoid open conflict between their respective forces, as both sides recognized that such a clash could very easily escalate, and quickly involve nuclear weapons. Instead, the superpowers fought each other through their involvement in proxy wars, military buildups, and diplomatic standoffs.

In the case of proxy wars, each superpower supported its respective allies in conflicts with forces aligned with the other superpower, such as in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

See also



  • David A. Bell. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, (2007)
  • Eric Markusen and David Kopf; The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century, (1995)
  • Mark E. Neely Jr.; "Was the Civil War a Total War?" Civil War History, Vol. 50, 2004
  • Daniel E. Sutherland and Grady McWhiney; The Emergence of Total War, (1998) US Civil War

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