A WORLD AT WAR: GLOBAL CONFLICT AND THE POLITICS OF DESTRUCTION, 1937-45
Edited by Roger Chickering, Stig Forster and Bernd Greiner,
Cambridge, ' 45
Western historians are generally agreed that the spread of popular nationalism and industrialization gave rise to 'total war'. The term stands for the total mobilization of the state apparatus, society and the economy for annihilating enemies. The French Revolution, with its levee en masse, marked the beginning of total war. The process continued during the American civil war, the Franco-Prussian war and World War I; with the World War II, it reached its apogee. But how 'total' was World War II' This grand narrative of 'total warfare' as it developed from 1789 to 1945, argue Roger Chickering and Stig Forster, smacks of teleological thinking.
The chief feature of total war is the radicalization of warfare. The parties pursued extravagant and uncompromising goals in order to sustain popular participation in the war effort at home. In order to justify the war-time goals and sacrifice, the enemy was completely and systematically demonized. A characteristic of total war, writes Gerhard L. Weinberg, was the use of all possible weapons, regardless of their potential for collateral damage. The deliberate killing of German civilians, says Richard Overy, characterized British bombing policy.
Nevertheless, the scope and impact of total war differed. For instance, except the Soviet Union, none of the major combatants used women in combat roles in large numbers. Some sort of restraint was also practised in the battlefield. Even Hitler's Germany desisted from using poison gas. The concept of total war, writes Michael Howard, can be traced to Clausewitz's concept of absolute war. It should be used as an abstract ideal, never to be realized in the real world.
This volume analyzes the totalization of modern war between 1939 and 1945 from a Eurocentric perspective. Japan is covered inadequately, as is the impact of total war on Africa and Asia. The Allies could conduct total war only by drawing on the material and human resources of their empires. But this created pressures which, in the long run, accelerated decolonization. Any analysis of World War II, within the framework of total war, cannot afford to neglect this aspect.