Do people ever really win at war

Age of world wars

Sönke Neitzel

Sönke Neitzel is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He studied history, journalism and political science in Mainz, where he received his doctorate in 1994 and qualified as a professor in 1998. He then taught at the Universities of Mainz, Karlsruhe, Bern and Saarbrücken before being appointed to the Chair of Modern History at the University of Glasgow in 2011. He has been teaching and researching at the LSE since September 2012.
He became known to a wider audience through his book "Abgehört. German Generals in British Captivity, 1942-1945", which was published in 2005.
His main research interests are military history and the history of international relations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Contact: [email protected]

The industrialized mass war from 1914 to 1918 cost the lives of millions of people, soldiers and civilians. During the Second World War, the radicalization of violence was considerably increased again - significantly promoted by inhuman ideologies such as National Socialism.

Cities and regions are devastated in total war. From October 1914 until well into 1918, the Flemish city of Ypres was directly in the front line and under fire almost every day. Aerial photo of the destruction in 1915 (& copy Scherl / Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo)

A term and its definition

"La guerre que fait L’Allemagne est une guerre totale, une guerre de tous ses nationaux du dedans et du dehors contre les nationalités alliées." ("The war that Germany is waging is a total war, a war of all Germans inside and outside their country against the allied nations.")

The French journalist Léon Daudet wrote these lines on February 9, 1916 under the impression of German air raids on Paris and a fear of espionage rampant in France. The war, which had been going on for a good year and a half, was not a conventional war in the eyes of contemporaries either. It was different than anything else before, bigger, more brutal, more comprehensive. There seemed no longer any border between front and home. All became fighters and targets of the enemy. This war was a total one.

Daudet's term quickly spread to French journalism. He should make it clear to the population that this is a life and death struggle in which everyone has to make the greatest effort to overthrow the enemy. In Germany, this name was only coined many years later by Erich Ludendorff. From 1916 to 1918, as a secret military dictator like no other, he ensured the radicalization of the war. Shortly before his death in 1935 he published the book "Der totale Krieg", in which he called for the mobilization of all social forces for the next war. During the Second World War, the term became known through Joseph Goebbels ’speech in the Berlin Sports Palace on February 18, 1943, in which he called on the German people to make more war efforts.

"Guerre totale", "Total War" or Japanese "soryokusen (総 力 戦)" was used by contemporaries in different contexts with quite different meanings. In the scientific discussion today, the term describes:
  • Total mobilization - of the military, the economy and the population for war. Women and children were also mobilized to fight as soldiers at the front or as workers at home.
  • Total control - of all areas of society by the state (including leisure and culture) to ensure total mobilization.
  • Total war aims - for the complete overthrow of the enemy. The struggle to the point of unconditional surrender could, in extreme cases, mean the physical extermination of the enemy.
  • Total war methods - in order to be victorious in the war that is stylized as a struggle to the death. Everything seemed permissible as long as it only served one's own success. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants, fighters and civilians, became increasingly blurred, and the civilian population became more and more the target of the hostilities.
The dark side of modernity - the industrialized mass war

No war in history has ever been completely total. There were always moments of moderation, phases in which international law was followed meticulously. In this respect, total war in its absolute form is at best theoretically conceivable. The totalization of the war did not begin in 1914, but dates back to the French Revolutionary Wars. Since then there has been a steadily growing radicalization, which was only ended by the fear of the nuclear catastrophe. Total war is thus a phenomenon of modernity, i.e. that phase of history that began with the Atlantic revolutions in 1776 and 1789 and ended with the peaceful revolutions of 1989/90. During this time, the world was changing at a breathtaking pace. However, the technical, cultural and political achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries were always ambivalent, brought about top civilization achievements as well as the worst crimes. One of the outstanding symbols for the technical progress of the modern age is the moon rocket Saturn V.

It was a further development of the V-2 - that German long-range missile, the construction and use of which in the last phase of the Second World War cost the lives of thousands of concentration camp prisoners and civilians. Both rockets were largely developed by the German, later American engineer Wernher von Braun (1912-1977).

The modern state, with its urban-industrial society and the idea of ​​nationalism that encompasses all inhabitants, also transformed the world through war. First of all, this was felt by the non-European peoples, because in the 19th century, thanks to their technical achievements, Europeans were for the first time able to subjugate everything that stood in their way. The harbingers of the industrialized mass war were revealed not in the bloody colonial wars, but in the clash of highly armed opponents. In the Crimean War (1853-1856), in the American Civil War (1861-1865), in the Franco-German War (1870/71) and in the Russo-Japanese War (1904/05), the constant radicalization of war aims and methods of war was indicated by mobilization and government control already on. And yet the wars of the 19th century remained more or less "contained", mainly because they were so short and radical war aims were not yet able to assert themselves.

But exaggerated nationalism, racism and social Darwinism aggravated the idea of ​​how a war should be waged at the end of the 19th century. In addition, the rapid population growth let the armies grow, and the advancing industrialization provided for their equipment. A short war became increasingly unlikely. Helmut von Moltke, Chief of the Prussian-German General Staff from 1857 to 1888, warned in a speech in the Reichstag shortly before his death in 1890 that the next war would be "seven years" if not "thirty years". However, such pessimistic views were not common knowledge. In 1914 many men across Europe went into battle cheering, while the general staffs of all the great powers hoped to be able to defeat their opponents quickly with massive offensive operations - even though they could actually have known better.