You are currently viewing Total War: The Transformative History of Warfare 

Total War: The Transformative History of Warfare 

A common approach used by historians to analyze “modern war” is “total war.” The term “total war,” was first coined by German General Paul von Ludendorff in the 1930s, describing that whole nation being mobilized during the warfare beyond just military forces. Governments become increasingly proactive and interventionist, passing laws that were unacceptable during times of peace. Economic production was taken over by ministries and administrative organizations, which nationalized factories, established production goals, and directed the allocation of labor and resources.

To bolster military might, induction spread, and vital assets including cars, railroads, and ships were commandeered for military use. To maintain national security, states imposed severe regulations, such as curfews, controlled media, and heavy penalties for infractions. They also used a lot of propaganda to generate money for projects like war bonds and to improve public morale. No war has, in fact, completely fulfilled each of these criteria. Parts of this criteria are visible in World War I & II. 

What Is Total War?

According to American- English Dictionary, Total War is defined as;

“A war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.”

Total war mobilizes all resources of society for combating the conflict, prioritizes fighting over non-combatant demands, and views all infrastructure and resources related to civilians as legitimate military targets. Researchers classified “total war” as a distinct form of warfare in the middle of the 19th century. The line that separates soldiers and civilians becomes less prominent in total war, a term that is somewhat related to other conflicts as both sides consider almost all human resources including non-combatants as integral to the war effort.

The post-19th century concept of total war is characterized by the following actions: 

  • Unrestrained submarine warfare, as with the privateering and the German U-boat operations.
  • Blockade and siege of population centers for each subject, as with the Allied blockade of Germany.
  • Commerce-raiding tonnage war. 

The Concept of Total War

The roots of the modern idea of total war can be traced back to Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military strategist from the 19th century. In the classic work “On War,” he questioned the limited goals of eighteenth-century warfare, pointing out that wars more often intensify than follow the provisions of the law. Clausewitz highlighted how conflicts tended towards a theoretical extreme of violence and rejected the idea that small military wins were adequate for successful diplomacy.

In the 20th century, Erich Ludendorff expanded on the idea in his 1935 treatise “The Total War,” building on his experiences leading the German army during World War I.  He saw a full mobilization of both people and resources for war. This idea gave geography and economics major roles in Nazi ideology. Furthermore, he described leading a nation at war,  as a supreme military leader is needed to make a strategy that would determine policy.

However, In a total war, every stratum of society and all levels of the economy commits themselves to achieving the goal of victory. There are four components of the concept of total war. 

  • The mobilization of soldiers and armament describes the process of gathering soldiers, arms, and fighting supplies. 
  • The blurring of the responsibilities of civilian and military.
  • The unwillingness to come to a war-ending agreement.
  • The complete control of the government over society. 

Total war, which emphasizes the comprehensive nature of wars, became a key concept in Nazi Germany’s viewpoint. Despite their vast influence, the two World Wars of the 20th century had restrictions and were not completely unrestrained in their extent, even though they are frequently regarded as total wars.

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History of Total War 

The two World Wars witnessed the continuation of total war, which started in the Middle Ages. Although there have long been political, religious, and cultural conventions dictating who should and should not be targeted in warfare, until the Geneva Conventions, there was no international treaty outlining the laws of war that established International Humanitarian Law (IHL):

1. Total War: Middle Ages

Among the significant examples of total war, The Crusades began a series of holy battles in the eleventh century, and are seen to be among the earliest instances of total warfare in history. Over a million people died in these conflicts as warriors pillaged towns to protect their respective religions. The population of the entire city was massacred in efforts to eradicate support for opposing factions. 

Further during the Middle Ages, the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan used a total war tactic in the 13th century to spread the Mongol Empire throughout Northeast Asia. His army conquered cities and killed large numbers of the occupants. By destroying their resources, this severe strategy sought to put an end to uprisings in cities that had been conquered. 

The Khwarazmian Empire was the objective of the most significant invasion of Genghis Khan. He sent out tens of thousands of soldiers to massacre civilians and enslave others so they could potentially be used as human shields in later conflicts. The goal of this strategy termed the “scorched earth” approach,  was to make it more difficult for opponents to mount a counterattack.

2. Total War: 18th & 19th Century

During the years of the French Revolution, the Revolutionary Tribunal massacred a massive number of people in a period known as “The Terror,” targeting anyone who did not vehemently embrace the Revolution. Thousands died undergoing trial in prisons. Following this, during the Napoleonic Wars, approximately five million individuals died over two decades. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was known for his cruel tactics.

Another example of total war is Sherman’s March to the Sea which can be seen during the American Civil War.  Union Major General William T. Sherman led and marched his army from Atlanta to Savannah, deliberately assaulting smaller cities along the way. Their objective was to destroy the economic backbone of the South and its plantations. This tactic, led by General Sherman and supported by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, aimed to weaken the Confederacy by demoralizing its armed forces and upsetting their infrastructure, depriving both combatants and civilians of essential supplies for the war effort.

Also, Read About: Colonial History of the United States 

The First World War (WWI)

World War 1 was a total war that history had not seen before. There had never been a war involving as much of the governments, economies, and people of the participating nations as World War I. From the beginning, Britain led the entire conflict.  Additionally, a total war strategy was placed on the British economy. The government may seize any property or facility, it determines essential for the war effort under the Defence of the Realm Act.  There was rigorous control over the media, including the press. The War Office Press Bureau was established by London, along with the appointment of “official” military journalists. 

Government control over the economy expanded significantly in 1915 following the “Shell Crisis,” which resulted in a scarcity of artillery shells which caused British military defeat on the Western Front. An enormous plant capable of producing 800 tons of cordite per day was directed to be built, while other companies were nationalized and modified for the production of artillery rounds. There was a more than 1000 percent growth in shell production in Britain. To organize the economy in other sectors, such as labor, food, and sea transportation, the government also established ministries. 

The Auxiliary Service Law was passed in Germany in late 1916 during World War I. The government was given the authority to hire and transfer adult males to meet labor needs. The production of weapons and munitions prompted more than two million men to leave the agricultural sector. Despite the military outcome being as expected, food and consumer products productivity fell as a result of the labor reallocation. By the winter of 1916, serious food shortages occurred from these shortfalls, which were made worse by the continued Allied blockade.

In addition, the French produced armaments at some exceptionally high rates.  French manufacturers produced 1,000 artillery weapons, 261,000 shells, and six million bullets monthly by 1918.  The number of airplanes in France increased from 162 at the start of the war to over 11,800 by 1918. Even the United States was not able to match France’s remarkable expansion of armament and weapon production as the main Allied power. Socially, French workers were negatively impacted by the requirements of the war economy, with rising prices and stagnant salaries.

Finally, World War I marked the birth of the term “total war,” which captured the unparalleled scope in warfare history. Massive armies from several nations came together for the conflict, but their vast bulk frequently caused strategic deadlock amid ceaseless battles. Decision-making migrated from the battlefield to civilian areas as a result of this blockade, where entire populations were vital to the war effort. 

The battle went much beyond conventional military actions, and both soldiers and people were vital to it. Distinguishing between soldiers and civilians became more difficult through the use of strategies like economic warfare and strategic bombing that targeted civilian districts. This shift redefined the rules of warfare, establishing World War I as the prototype for a “total war,” a concept that would later be reflected in the scope of the next great war.

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The Second World War (WWII)

The Second World War, usually called World War II  was an international warfare that broke out in 1939 and ended in 1945, whilst smaller-scale wars began earlier. It included multiple nations which were the great powers of that time forming the Allied and the Axis, two opposite military coalitions. World War II was the first Modern War in which millions of civilians lost their lives in comparison to soldiers. It was a total war in which civilians were compelled into factories because the economy was becoming crucial for military victory.

When the United States entered the war, it immediately mobilized itself for the production of total war despite that it was the 18th largest military force of that time. Enterprises of all shapes and sizes were directly involved in the transformation of peacetime industries into weapons factories. Toy companies started to manufacture compasses. Typewriter companies began making rifles and piano factories made airplane motors. 

Hundreds of civilian laborers produced all an army needed to fight its way around the world by standing behind each soldier. The US also provided a majority of armaments and war materials to its Allied partners. By 1945, the United States produced over double the war materials that Germany, Japan, and Italy produced combined during the war. 

The majority of women worked at home as homemakers before the war, with very few having jobs in the workforce.  The few positions available to women at the period were typically held by teachers, nurses, and secretaries. But as the war started and American men joined the armed forces, women were required in the industrial sectors to contribute to the economy of the country and to keep the factories working.  American women would therefore be vital to the war effort.

The Second World War, however, effectively put a stop to the practice of total war since nuclear war ensured Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the catastrophic potential of devastating nuclear conflict. An International Humanitarian Law (IHL) was created five years after this incident, and it banned the use of any indiscriminate weapons, including nuclear weapons, even though it does not mention them. 

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The human cost of World Wars was enormous, with an estimated 70 to 85 million civilian and military deaths and huge economic destruction. These global conflicts referred to as total wars redefined the geopolitical environment, reshaped global alliances, and led to transformative changes in post-war societies. 

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Concludingly, despite the world having seen the practice of total wars in the Middle Ages and the 18th and 19th centuries, the term “Total War” became prominent as a result of the two world wars that erupted in the first half of the 20th century. A war of this kind is distinguished by the mobilization of all of society’s resources for the “total” war effort, including economic, political, military, scientific, diplomatic, technological, and most importantly, human resources. Victory is defined not only by the number and effectiveness of the armed forces but also by the productive capacity of the industrial economy and the long-term viability of civilian morale. The military forces of the enemy must be defeated to prevent the devastation of civilian property and morale.


Define total war.

Unlike limited war, total war is an armed conflict in which the participants have pledged to give up all of their resources, including their lives and property, to win. The constraints on the scope of conflict have consistently been social and economic rather than political.

What is the method of total war?

There are four things included in the total war; the mobilization of arms and an army, no distinction between civilians and military, complete governmental control over people, and refusal to compromise. 

Who used the total war strategy?

This is an aggressive strategy mostly used by the aggressor states. It was used during WWI & WW2 by the Axis and Allied powers. Like the modern Nazis, the ancient Mongols waged full-fledged war on their adversary by assembling all of their forces, including soldiers, civilian employees, intelligence, supplies, transportation, money, and food.

What is the goal of total war?

Total war is a method in which militaries employ whatever techniques necessary to prevail, even if those techniques are morally or ethically controversial under normal battlefield circumstances. The goal of total war is to not just defeat the enemy but also demoralize its fighting capacity to continue in warfare. 

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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