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28.1 Introduction

28.2 The Concept of Total War and its Novelty

28.3 The Mobilization of Resources

28.4 Populations at War

28.5 Summary

28.6 Exercises
Total War


The thirty-one years of conflict that began on 28 July 1914 and ended on 14 August
1945 is increasingly being seen by historians as the marker of a new phase in the history of conflict. The noted Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm calls this phase the age of total war, the period that saw ‘the great edifice of nineteenth-century civilization crumpled’, whose witnesses ‘lived and thought in terms of world war, even when the guns were silent and the bombs were not exploding’. There were indeed, two distinct conflagrations, the first ending in November 1918 and known to Europeans of that generation as the Great War, the second starting in September 1939 and ending in
1945, known as the Second World War. The interregnum, however, was marked by
tremendous domestic conflicts in the European nations, the Great Depression, the emergence of Fascism and Nazism, and regional wars. These latter included the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931), the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), and the German invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. The close linkages between domestic and international conflict during this 31-year period make it appear as one seamless global crisis, with characteristics deriving from the impact of competition between the great powers, capitalist industrialization and the thwarted growth of popular democratic aspirations. It is arguable that these elements have remained with us ever since, that humanity is still to emerge from the reverberations of total war.

It is in this perspective that we seek to define its concept, the critical difference made by the mobilization of resources and the role played by the great number of national populations in the execution of total wars.


What is total war? Warfare till the end of the 19th century was still conducted between professional armies, and was relatively brief. Apart from the Crimean war of 1854-
56, there were no major wars between the great powers for a century (1815 till
1914). In contrast, the conflict that began in 1914 involved all the major powers, and crucially, the entire resources of society and economy. Although it was the French Revolution that created the first civilian army, it is only in the 20th century that the outcomes of war were decided not just by military strength but by the staying power of entire economies. War aims were not confined to militarily defeating rival armies,
but encompassed the economic and political destruction of entire countries. On the 15

Violence and
one hand governments exhorted their citizens to participate in the war, and on the other, belligerent states enlarged target areas to include industrial centres and civilian populations, with the aim of destroying public morale. The most glaring example of this was the use of atomic bombs by the USA on Japan in 1945. But it was evident from the First World War, when German submarine (U-boat) warfare against commercial allied shipping was clearly meant to cripple the economy and starve the British population. The scheme nearly succeeded, for in April 1917 the British government had only 6 weeks supply of food-grain left in the country. Total war inaugurated civilian massacre as an instrument of military strategy. Nuclear weapons were a logical extension of an already prevalent characteristic in modern warfare, and their capacity for infinite destruction has added a new word to the vocabulary of conflict, viz., exterminism.

The nineteenth century era of imperialism resulted in the fusion of geo-political and economic goals. This period had made clear to statesmen and ruling elites that the pursuit of empire was simultaneously the basis for and the means of global dominance and the out-stripping of competitors. The tendency of capitalist imperialism to expand over national boundaries, the pre-eminent position of Great Britain, the belated unification of Germany and its emergence as a major industrial power in central Europe and as Britain’s chief competitor, the colonial ambitions of Japanese industry in alliance with an entrenched military caste – these were the strategic trends that disturbed the reigning peace between the great powers while they engaged in colonial conquest and dominion in Africa and Asia. Total war exemplified the dangerous imperial drives of the dominant economies of the capitalist world, in an age when democracy was still anathema to most ruling elites.

The concept of war changed dramatically between the French Revolution and the world wars of the 20th century. The novelty lies in how modern wars are fought, to what end, and how resources are mobilized by the belligerents. The outcome of modern war is decided not just by the strength of the armed forces, but also by the staying power of the economy. In addition, total war is war without limit that can end only in the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the enemy. The aim is not just the defeat of the rival army but the economic and political destruction of the rival country. The targeting of civilians went side by side with citizen’s participation in the war. This idea went back to the French Revolution when the first civilian army came into operation. The mobilization of mass national feelings, the ‘strange democratization of war’, gave birth to the new phenomenon of ‘people’s wars’.


Once the process had been set in motion, it acquired a momentum of its own, driven by political, psycho-social as well as institutional processes that appeared unstoppable. Tsarist Russia’s involvement ended in revolution, and left a deep impression. It was the trauma undergone by Russia in the First World War which motivated the entire Soviet polity to mobilize its material preparedness for the onslaught that was to come in the second. Students of Stalinist industrialization are aware of the severe human cost of this preparation. The Great War, in Hobsbawm’s words, ‘brutalized both warfare and politics, if one could be conducted without counting the human or any other costs, why not the other?’ Although vast numbers of survivors became pacifists, there were also those whose experiences of violence and savagery drove them into the ranks of ultra-nationalist right-wing politics. The German Freikorps were one example of this, and the German Workers Party of
16 Drexler, which was a precursor of Hitler’s National Socialists, another.

The phenomenon of total war was accompanied by the politics of totalitarianism (and we may not forget that authoritarian politics found resonances in the countries of the liberal capitalist West as well). The Nazis forged an unchallenged control over national resources, and even adapted the Soviet concept of economic planning, with a Four Year Plan of their own. This was an ironic reversal of the situation in the months following the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks borrowed heavily from the methods of the German war economy during the Great War. By 1938, German re-armament consumed 52 per cent of government expenditure and 17 per cent of GNP, more than the UK, France and the USA combined. Because of the severe strain this put upon the economy, ‘there was a massive temptation on Hitler’s part to resort to war in order to obviate such economic difficulties’. It is significant that Germany’s conquest of Austria in 1938 resulted in the acquisition of $200 million in gold and foreign exchange reserves.

Total war meant that the entire nation was mobilized for war, not merely the active combatants. The outcome of the war reflected the capacity of the economy to produce for it. This was the case with the First World War, wherein different sectors were reorganized for the war effort, and belligerent governments took control of economic life on an unprecedented scale, in order to secure regular supplies of munitions, ordnance and manpower. To fulfil massive financial demands during the First World War, governments increased the public debt, and printed more paper money. Britain resorted to heavy borrowing on American markets, and high income taxes. Laissez faire economic doctrine and democratic rights were soon eclipsed as military commanders were given powers over civic administration, including food rationing. Walther Rathenau set up special state corporations dealing in certain strategic commodities, and under the so-called Hindenburg Programme, vital machinery was transferred from less to more important industries. Certain factories were shut down. Cartels emerged and the co-operation between state and big business in national economic management was solidified. This set a precedent for the future, and crystallized authoritarian trends in the polity. The French economy, which suffered from the loss of significant economic zones to the Germans, was obliged to recuperate its losses with heavy state inputs, leading to a massive development of heavy industry. Historian James Joll remarks that it was the First World War that ‘really completed the industrial revolution in France’. The numbers of workers in French military arsenals grew from 50,000 to 1.6 million. Peasant constituted 41 per cent of conscripted soldiers - women and children were left with major agricultural tasks.

Whereas the Russian incapacity to produce for war in 1914-1918 led to rout, a quarter-century later, it was precisely the USSR’s gigantic resource base that once mobilized, gave it the edge over Germany in the Second World War. Soviet five year plans after 1937 were designed to build defensive capacity, and in the period between September 1939 (when war broke out in Europe) and June 1941, (when Hitler attacked the USSR), Soviet authorities evacuated entire industries eastwards, to the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia. 3500 new industrial units were built during the war. Between 1942 and 45, production levels of Soviet armaments factories had risen five or six times, and the USSR was producing (on annual average), 30,000 tanks and fighting vehicles, 40,000 aircraft, 120,000 artillery pieces, and 5 million rifles - levels unthinkable in the first war. In 1942, 52 per cent of Soviet national income was devoted to military spending.

International arms production statistics for the Second World War showed what total war meant in an industrial age. Nearly 70,000 tanks were produced in 1944 alone by the USA, Britain, Germany and the USSR. The Allies produced 167,654 aircraft that year. These figures demonstrate the scale of economic mobilization.
Total War


Violence and

Thus the American economy showed an approximate 50 per cent increase in physical output as well as productive plant. Its annual growth rate was more than 15 per cent, higher than at any stage in its history before or since. Defence related production went from 2 per cent of total output in 1939 to 40 per cent in 1943.

Scientific resources were also mobilized by the belligerents in an unprecedented manner. Constant improvements were made in communications, aeronautical engineering, tank armour and design, rocketry, explosives and machine tools. The most stark symbol of this destructive imagination at work is the development of the atomic bomb, a weapon that was simultaneously being sought by the militaries of Germany as well as the USA, and whose use signified the advent of massacre and terror as instruments of military policy. Total war lent impetus to the search for military applications of atomic theory, and each side feared the possibility of prior achievements by the other. Britain, Canada and finally the USA put together an international team of scientists, supported by the maximum official backing, to develop an atomic weapon before Hitler could do so. The German effort fell short, not least because of the exodus of brilliant scientists in the 1930’s fleeing from Nazi persecution. They did however succeed in developing the first pilot-less aircraft and rockets, which were used against Britain in 1944. After the war, some of the most talented German scientists such as Werner von Braun were employed by the American space and military programmes. The capacity to build weapons of mass destruction had overspilled the boundaries of the nation-states system.


Working people’s lives were deeply affected by phenomenon of total war and the preparation for it. Total War led to manpower mobilization, the drafting of women into the labour force, and as a by-product in Britain after the first war, women’s suffrage and the full-scale development of mass politics. Britain introduced compulsory military service in 1916, and women were required in increasing numbers to work in offices and factories. The Nazi regime began to define the German economy as a ‘war economy’ by the late 1930’s, with the aim of preparing for total war. The Nazis’ militarist version of Keynesian state intervention drastically reduced unemployment figures, and increased national production by 102 per cent by 1937. In a secret Defence Law passed on May 21 1935, Hjalmar Schacht was appointed the economic Plenipotentiary for the War Economy, whose job included camouflaging violations of the Versailles Treaty. Business was subjected to heavy taxes, ‘special contributions’ and compulsory membership of the Reich Economic Chamber. Heavy industry, especially the armaments sector, made good profits. Wage bills declined and strikes ceased.

But the crucial role of the working population and of the economic infrastructure meant that non-combatants became targets of terror campaigns designed to demoralize the entire civilian population. This strategic goal, combined with the impersonality of technological warfare made genocide the brutal new fact of modern warfare. Civilians now became direct targets. The obvious examples come from World War II with the blitz, genocide, carpet bombing, the atom bomb, and mass population transfers; but they had begun in the Great War of 1914-18. The Turkish government’s massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 (which also created
320,000 Armenian refugees), is the first modern attempt to eliminate an entire population. The starvation blockade of the German nation by the Allies was another. Mass demographic changes were due to the exodus of refugees or by compulsory exchanges of populations. Thus during the First World War, 1.3 million Greeks moved from Turkey to Greece, and 400,000 Turks moved in the other direction.

Up to 2 million Russians fled the ravages of the Russian civil war of 1918-20. The
Great War and its aftermath produced between 4 to 5 million refugees.

Without a doubt, the Second World War was the greatest catastrophe in human history. Estimates of human war losses vary between 40 to 55 million people, both soldiers and non-combatants. 35 million were wounded and 3 million missing. The USSR suffered the most in human terms - losing about 20 million lives. In February
1945, 50,000 German civilians were killed in the Anglo-American bombardment of
Dresden in one night alone. A single air raid on Tokyo in March 1945 resulted in
80,000 deaths and a quarter of the city destroyed. In terms of displacement, it has been estimated that about 40 million people had been uprooted in Europe alone. Mass transfers took place in territories across Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans. The discovery that the Nazis had created camps for the industrialization of murder that had killed up to 6 million European Jews, left a permanent shadow over the human conscience. It gave an impetus to the creation of Israel that attracted 1.2 million Jews fleeing from Europe and resulted in the forced displacement of 1.3 million Palestinians. The Korean War, a direct outcome of the Second World War, left 5 million refugees. The decolonization of India and Partition left up to 2 million dead and 15 million displaced. The Second World War was the epitome of total war.
Total War


During the First World War, the trenches on the German-French military lines covered a combined distance of 25,000 miles, three times the earth’s circumference. By
1916, soldiers had lost all hope of winning, and there were groups in the English trenches that called themselves the Never-endians, who believed that the war would never end. The Great War ended in 1918, but the rise of Fascism, the colonial wars of the 1930s, the Spanish civil war, the Second World War, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, wars over Palestine, wars in South Asia and Africa, the recent wars in the Balkans and the Gulf, not to mention the insurgencies rampaging throughout the globe, are evidence that the Never-endians were right. According to one estimate, the past century experienced (conservatively) 250 wars and 110 million deaths related to war and ethnic conflict. One estimate has placed the number of deaths due to ethnic conflict in the last decade of the 20th century at 30 million. An increasing proportion of these losses have taken place among civilians. During the course of modern history, war has changed from being a strategic, military principle - the fare of martial experts - to becoming part of the inmost fabric of civil society. It has vacated its position at the nation-state’s outer periphery, where it supposedly protected the nation against external foes, and has migrated inward, culminating in perpetual civil war enacted to control, even eliminate the inner social enemy, or
‘other’. This process could not have occurred without the advent of the age of total
war in 1914.


1) What is the concept of total war? Trace its roots historically.

2) How has the coming of total war led to large-scale changes in the making of our society? Discuss Briefly.



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