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Total War

Excerts from: "Are We There Yet? World War II and the Theory of Total War" by Roger Chickering and Stig Forster which appears in the book "A World at Total War, Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937-1945" Edited by Roger Chickering, Stig Forster, and Bernd Greiner, a publication of the German Historical Institute by Cambridge University Press.

A different set of excerpts may be viewed here View Excerpt as PDF - Are We There Yet?


Total war ranges over military operations, the diplomacy of war, the mobilization of economies and popular morale, occupation and resistance, psychological warfare, the harnessing of science and technology to destruction, and the war’s revolutionary impact on society and culture.

Mobilization of the Economy

Total war, in this rendering, assumes the commitment of massive armed forces to battle, the thoroughgoing mobilization of industrial economies in the war effort, and hence the disciplined organization of civilians no less than warriors.

Abandonment of Limits, Law and Morality

Other hallmarks of total war have proved more difficult to measure. Total war erodes not only the limits on the size and scope of the war effort: it also encourages the radicalization of warfare, the abandonment of the last restraints on combat, which were hitherto imposed by law, moral codes, or simple civility.

Demonization of the Enemy

Moreover, in order to sustain popular commitment to the war effort, governments pursue extravagant, uncompromising war aims; and they justify these goals through the systematic demonization of the enemy.

Loss of Distinction Between Soldier and Civilian

finally – and in the eyes of some authors, most characteristically – total war is marked by the systematic erasure of basic distinctions between soldiers and civilians. Because civilians, regardless of gender, are no less significant to the war effort than the soldiers, they themselves become legitimate if not preferred targets of military violence.


By all these hallmarks, the evidence speaks powerfully to the “totality” of the Second World War – to the unique degree to which this conflict approximated the ideal type. By a significant margin, this was the most immense and costly war ever fought. If coastal waters are counted, its theaters of combat extended to every continent save Antarctica. It involved most of the sovereign states on the planet, the bulk of the world’s population, and the largest armed forces ever assembled. Well over seventy million human beings were mobilized for military service. This was the quintessential “deep war.” (5)

Economies were massively reoriented everywhere to war; in most of the belligerent countries, military production accounted for well over half of capital investment and GNP, while a majority of the civilian workforce, both male and female, was absorbed, along with millions of prisoners of war and deportees, into producing and delivering the tools of destruction to the warriors. (6) The Second World War set other standards as well. Once announced at the Casablanca conference in early 1943, the doctrine of “unconditional surrender” symbolized the abandonment of compromise by all sides as they pursued the military defeat of their enemies. (7)

The brutal handling of Soviet prisoners of war by the German army and the cruelties Japanese and American forces inflicted on one another signaled a savagery in combat that was – in the modern era at least – unprecedented in both its extent and routinization. (8) In the European and Pacific theaters alike, it fed on the same dehumanizing popular stereotypes that drove the mobilization of civilians on the home front. (9) These stereotypes also underlay perhaps the most telling statistics of the war, which speak to the ratio of civilian-to-military casualties. The numbers remain necessarily vague, for many of the casualties occurred in circumstances, particularly in China, Poland, and the Soviet Union, that were calculated to make the accounting difficult. J. David Singer and Melvin Small have estimated a total of fifteen million soldiers killed in all theaters, which is probably a conservative figure. (10) It pales, in any event, in the face of civilian deaths that doubtless exceeded forty-five million. (11) The preponderance of civilians was no accidental or peripheral feature of this war; it reflected the central significance of civilians in the conflict, the indispensable roles that they played in the war’s outcome, as well as the vulnerabilities that they shared, as a direct consequence, with the soldiers.
Rehearsing these “total” features of the Second World War risks belaboring the obvious. The paradigmatic significance of the Second World War has become orthodox in the literature on this great ordeal, and Gordon Wright could surely plead that the proposition needed little justification or elaboration. Since 1945, the same proposition has also lent the Second World War a special place in the broader history of warfare in the modern era. The paradigmatic status of this war, its privileged proximity to the ideal type, has provided the structuring principle in what one might call the “master narrative” of modern military history. (12)

Narrative History of Total War

The French Revolution

The narrative conventionally begins in the era of the French Revolution, which saw the first modern attempts to mobilize entire populaces in support of a war and ushered in an era of “peoples’ wars.” The technologies and productive capacities that were then liberated during the industrialization of the nineteenth century furnished the material wherewithal to equip, feed, and transport the mass armies whose ideological credentials had been defined during the revolutionary era. Industrialism also multiplied the difficulties of providing material support to the new field armies; and to this end, waging war required the efficient organization of modern economies and the mobilization of durable loyalties among the civilian workforce. Success in these efforts marked a major moment in the history of warfare. “Industrialized peoples’ war” in the nineteenth century, the marriage of industrialization with popularly mandated and recruited armies, provided the material basis of total war in the twentieth.

The history of warfare since the middle of the nineteenth century can thus be portrayed as the halting yet inexorable march toward the practical realization of total war, the ever-closer approximation of the ideal type.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War revealed in inchoate form the institutions and practices that gauged the subsequent development of warfare, including huge armies, the industrial manufacture and transportation of their supplies, and the exhaustion and utter defeat of one of the belligerents. In this connection, precocious significance attaches to the names of Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman, who early understood the ramifications of industrial mobilization and the importance of civilian morale to the war’s outcome.

The First World War

In this reading, the first World War differed from the Civil War less in its basic dynamics than in its scale, as well as in the sophistication with which industrial technologies and organization were marshaled to military ends. These developments resulted between 1914 and 1918 in a war of such immense proportions that it defied a decision-at-arms and remanded the outcome to the home front. The exertions of civilians were ultimately the deciding factor.

The Second World War

The Second World War stands at the end of the story, the goal of 150 years of military history. In its dynamics, this vast conflict resembled its two major predecessors, for it witnessed the perfection of features of modern warfare that had been earlier introduced and cultivated. Now, however, all the elements of “totality” – the mobilization of belligerent societies, the exploitation of material and moral resources to military ends, and the systematic implication of civilians in war – were brought to their fulfillment.

The World Wars

Civilian Mobilisation

Total war was born of one twentieth-century European war in anticipation of another. In all its variations, its reference point was the Great War and the critical place of civilian mobilization in this conflict. The concept served simultaneously as an analysis of one great war and a vision of the next. To this extent, the Second World War was in fact supposed to represent the fulfillment of trends marked out by the first, for in the German discourse at least, total war implied the redressing of mistakes committed by the country’s military and civilian leadership during the Great War. The object of the whole enterprise was to ensure more coordination between the elements of the German leadership, to exert more ruthless control over morale on the home front, and to mobilize resources more effectively for use at the battlefront.

These features of the concept point finally to another truth. Total war was historically not in the first instance about soldiers. The vision rested instead on the insight that the claims of industrial war had become all-embracing, that they demanded the loyal participation of entire populations – men, women, and children – and that civilians had become more important than soldiers to the outcome of modern war.
One might therefore mark the debut of total war in the second half of the Great War, at about the time that contemporary observers started employing the term to describe their own efforts to drive the mobilization of the home front to new extremes. The juncture found its symbols in the accession of Ludendorff, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau to power in 1916 and 1917, for all of these leaders recognized that stalemate on the battlefield had turned the home front into the decisive dimension of the war.

The scope of military activity had broadened to require the ruthless reorganization of industrial production and civilian energies. Military victory demanded the regimented commitment of productive forces at home no less than of armed forces at the front. And the home front, no less than the fighting front, was logically a legitimate theatre of direct military action.

In this sense, in the playing out of this logic, the Second World War did in significant respects represent the consummation of the first. The war against civilians of all descriptions achieved a virtuosity in the second war that became conceivable only in the aftermath of the first, as retrospective analysis of the Great War riveted attention on the civilians’ role in the outcome – particularly, however, on their deficiencies and vulnerabilities.
The conclusion seemed inescapable. Civilians were critical to the supply of weapons, munitions, and the other essential materials of combat, and they provided the moral backing without which the war could not be sustained.


However, civilians were also more vulnerable to both subversion and military attack, for they were less acclimated to the terrors, deprivations, and demoralization of war. The Dolchstoss, the “stab in the back,” legend drew much of its force from this observation. The German military leadership genuinely believed that the moral collapse of the home front in 1918 had wrecked what would otherwise have been a victorious military campaign.

They concluded that in a future war the civilian front would again constitute the weakest dimension of any belligerent’s war effort, hence the most vulnerable and inviting target of an enemy’s attentions.
The Germans were in good company in this reasoning. Their logic corresponded to the thinking of military planners elsewhere, above all to the calculations of strategic airpower’s early enthusiasts, who likewise reasoned that attacking “soft” civilian targets offered the most feasible, if not the only way to break the frontline stalemate that inhered, they believed, in modern industrial warfare.

“Future wars will be total in character and scope,” wrote Guilio Douhet in 1921. From this premise, he reasoned that “merciless pounding from the air” held the key to victory. “A complete breakdown of the social structure cannot but take place in a country” subjected to this kind of attack. “The time will soon come when,” he concluded, “to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war.” (33)

This confidence was not entirely vindicated in the war that followed, but the statistics of this conflict nevertheless revealed the extent to which military violence against noncombatants had become the hallmark of total war.

Anti-Civilian Action


Historically, the process had two central aspects. The first, which might be called the technological dimension, had to do with the weapons that could be directed against civilian targets. For the most part, civilians heavily populated by civilians. The principal means of disrupting civilian activity remained a strategy with a hoary tradition, the blockade. Over time, it devastated the economies of the Central Powers, but it could not engage civilian areas directly.


Strategic airpower could; and both sides employed it during the first World War. Some 740 Germans, almost of all of them civilians, perished in aerial bombing attacks in the course of this war. (34) Airpower was restrained only by its own infancy; and its impact grew apace with its technological advance and the determination of the belligerent powers to extend the purview of combat to civilian areas. More than half of the bombing tonnage and civilian deaths occurred during the war’s last two years.
Airpower was a central element of total war, for its technologies mandated bombing strategies that did not discriminate between military and nonmilitary targets, soldiers and noncombatants.


Theorists of airpower in the interwar period merely sought to make virtues of the necessities imposed by an inability to aim weapons of enormous explosive power from great heights. The technologies of airpower did not change enough to alter this dynamic much in the Second World War. Many leaders of the Allied air war against Germany, including Arthur Harris and Hap Arnold, found “city busting” a distasteful strategy, but they discovered that even the most scrupulous choice of targets and the most surgical execution of air attacks entailed the colossal destruction of civilian life and property, which they were prepared to accept as a collateral benefit in the name of demoralizing the enemy. (35)


Destructive technologies and the grudging acceptance of their unpleasant ramifications did not alone bring the apotheosis of war against the civilians. This frightful result owed as well to cultural and political factors, to ideological creeds that germinated during the first World War and culminated in the Second. These legitimated the destruction of entire groups of human beings, whose danger was thought to exceed that of enemy soldiers because it lay disguised in their civilian status itself. Genocide was the other face of total war. (36)

The Holocaust

Although its antecedents reached far into the past, the Holocaust had thick roots in the residual ideological animosities of the Great War, above all in the perception that the Jews had first systematically undermined home front morale in Germany and then engineered the mutiny of the civilians in 1918. Long before it eventuated in the decision to annihilate them physically, Nazi racial policy entailed a “war against the Jews,” which represented a primary theater in an all-embracing conflict. (37)
From this perspective, the era of total war commenced in the first World War and concluded at the end of the Second. The history of total war was driven by material and ideological forces that culminated respectively in Hiroshima and Auschwitz – in weapons that did not discriminate and policies that did so with a vengeance. (38)


After 1945, the concept of total war lived on as an ideal type (or countertype), now as the nuclear nightmare that would succeed the Second World War, set the ultimate parameters of “totality,” and capped the master narrative in apocalypse. Its realization has so far been confined to an imaginary realm invoked by Stanley Kubrick and others. In the meantime, however, a master narrative shaped in its image has ceased to provide much guidance to the military history of the twentieth century’s second half.


  • 5 Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York and London, 1995), 190.
  • 6 Alan Milward, War, Economy, and Society, 1939–1945 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979); Mark Harrison, ed., The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison (Cambridge, 1998).
  • 7 Alfred Vagts, “Unconditional Surrender – vor und nach 1945,” Vierteljahrshefte f¨ r Zeitschichte 7  u (1959): 280–309.
  • 8 Christian Streit, Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941–1945 (2d ed., Bonn, 1997).
  • 9 John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, 1986).
  • 10 J. David Singer and Melvin Small, The Wages of War, 1816–1965: A Statistical Handbook (New York, 1972), 67.
  • 11 See Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge, 1994), 894.
  • 12 Chickering, “Total War: The Use and Abuse of a Concept,” in Boemeke, Chickering, and F¨ rster, Anticipating Total War, 13–28.
  • 266–89; John Burnham, Total War: The Economic Theory of a War Economy (Boston, 1943).
  • 32 See Fabio Crivellari, “Der Wille zum totalen Krieg,” Arbeitskreis Milit¨ rgeschichte, Newsletter 12 (2000): 10–14.
  • 33 Douhet, The Command of the Air (New York, 1942), 5–6, 57–8, cited in Edward Warner, “Douhet, Mitchell, Seversky: Theories of Air Warfare,” in Edward Meade Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (New York, 1966), 491, 495; cf. Azar Gat, Fascist and Liberal Visions of War: Fuller, Liddell Hart, Douhet, and Other Modernists (Oxford, 1998), 43–79.
  • 34 Christian Geinitz, “The First Air War against Noncombatants: Strategic Bombing of German Cities
  •    in World War I,” in Chickering and F ̈ rster, Great War, Total War, 207–26.
  • 35 Overy, Why the Allies Won, 111–17; cf. Overy, The Air War, 1939–1945 (New York, 1980).
  • 36 Stig F ̈ rster and Gerhard Hirschfeld, eds., Genozid in der modernen Geschichte (M ̈ nster, 1999).
  • 37 Lucy Davidowicz, The War against the Jews, 1933–1945 (New York, 1975); Peter Longerich, Politik der Vernichtung: Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung (Munich and Zurich, 1998).
  • 38 See Erich Markusen and David Kopf, The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century (Boulder, CO, 1995); cf. Hew Strachan, “Essay and Reflection on Total War and Modern War,” International History Review 22 (2000): 342.