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  • Liam Noble Shearer

The Second World War is often referred to as a 'total war'. Was it?

(C) Liam Noble Shearer, 2019


Image: A German tank factory (1940) [http://www.atchuup.com/mass-production-of-tanks-during-world-war-ii/]


Introduction


In the vocabulary of twentieth-century historiography, few terms are as widely used and loosely defined as “total war.” Despite this, in context the term is almost always unanimously understood. The reason for this proliferation and lack of definition is in part, according to Chickering & Forster, due to the fact that the term itself “gestated historically amid ideological debate; and … was born with far-reaching political implications.”[1] It remains widely accepted that the Second World War is at least modern history’s foremost example of “total war”[2], if not – as Hew Strachan argues – “the only war of which that can be said.”[3] However, even in spite of the widespread acknowledgement of the ‘totality’ of the Second World War, there is still a significant number of prominent historians who contest such a notion.


It is no surprise that a lack of unified nomenclature has contributed significantly towards this issue. Afterall, how can a war be said to be ‘total’ if the definition of ‘totality’ is in itself the subject of fierce historical debate. In order to establish whether or not the Second World War was a ‘total war’, therefore, an analytical, multi-faceted definition of ‘total war’ must first be established. Geyer and Tooze offer a compelling suggestion of a three-dimension framework to measure fundamental aspects of what has come to be known as ‘total war’ which will serve as the basis of such a definition; the three parts being “the mobilisation of the nation for violence”, “the socialisation of the risks of death”, and “the formation of involuntary communities of friends and enemies.”[4] However, in the interest of preventing subscription to only one subjective notion of the term, alternative definitions will also be implemented into the model to expand the parameters of these dimensions – particularly the “expanding parameters of warfare” that Gordon Wright’s “The Ordeal of Total War” emphasised,[5] and the alternative focuses provided by the various dictionary definitions explored by Neely. Using this model, individual aspects of ‘totality’ will be investigated, highlighting compelling episodes from each of the belligerent nations, all in the hopes of proving that while aspects of totality certainly were present in the war, to name the entire conflict ‘total’ would be, at least according to this definition of ‘total war’, to indulge in hyperbole.


Part One: The Mobilisation of the Nation for Violence


Neely writes that ‘total war’ means, “in part, a war requiring the full economic mobilisation of a society.”[6] However, the mobilisation of the nation for violence requires more than simply mobilising a state’s economy, as is indicated in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘total war’: “a war to which all resources and the whole population are committed; loosely, a war conducted without any scruple or limitations.”[7] Wright’s “expanding parameters of warfare” help to extrapolate this dimension even further: in ‘total war’, the nation “assumes the commitment of massive armed forces to battle”, which requires “the thoroughgoing mobilisation of industrial economies in the war effort”, and which can only be ensured by “the disciplined organisation of civilians no less than warriors.”[8] Put simply, ‘total war’ demands the absolute mobilisation of the state for military ends, encompassing economy, society and culture.[9]


If we take the definition of mobilisation described above, it is clear that belligerent nations mobilised to strikingly different degrees during WW2, and ‘total mobilisation’ was for the most part far from reality. Save possibly the Soviet Union, argues Richard Overy, warring nations “produced far fewer weapons than [their] raw resources of materials, manpower, scientific skill and factory floorspace could have made possible.”[10] Jeffrey Fear reaffirms this, writing that the Soviet Union was the convenient model for a nation in ‘total war’; The USSR even employed Wright’s notion of “the disciplined organisation of civilians no less than warriors” – “workers were members of ‘industrial shock brigades’; planners were ‘combat staff’; agricultural labourers were ‘recruited’ into industry.”[11] Fear contrasts the USSR with Japan which, in an attempt to economically mobilise, and in the face of a dependency on international trade of resources like oil, rubber, and tin, ultimately drew its gold reserves to almost zero during the war.[12]


Elsewhere mobilisation was occurring to a similar range of results and extents, and warring nations seemed to have a poor perception of how their enemies were organising. The American economy existed in “a far less dislocated or regimented” way, and it failed to be as “intensively committed to the war effort” than other countries.[13] Elsewhere, British strategic planners had been creating bombing strategies upon the mistaken assumption that German industry in 1939 was fully mobilised or “working at full stretch.”[14] Other tangential dimensions of the these states meant social mobilisation could not be considered ‘total’. Save the USSR once again, capabilities were still limited by the commitment to traditional conception of gender: “for nowhere else were women allowed into combat roles.”[15] Understanding the diverse ways in which belligerent nations mobilised their economies, cultures and societies shows us that despite the fact partial mobilisation was a key factor within all warring countries, none could be said to have mobilised ‘totally’.


Part Two: The Socialisation of the Risks of Death & the Disregarding of Restraint


“Every systematic definition,” writes Neely, “embodies the concept of destroying the ages-old distinction between civilians and soldiers.”[16] Geyer and Tooze reiterate this, by writing that “entire populations participate in violent action; entire populations suffer the effects of violence, whether as combatants, belligerents, or as non-belligerents.”[17] James Turner Johnson extrapolates, writing that in ‘total war’ there must be a disregarding of the restraints previously imposed by custom, law, and morality, particularly as they bear on non-combatants.[18] In ‘total war’, any citizen is treated as a soldier, and violence against a soldier, particularly a civilian soldier, is without restriction.


However, the ‘totality’ of military tactics is, to a large degree, inconsistent throughout the conflict. The act of ‘total war’ is symbolised no more clearly than in the “strategic bombing” campaigns which constituted the majority of violence on the European home fronts, and which are discussed at great length by Biddle. She notes specifically how as Britain began its campaign, the government encouraged the Air Ministry to “tighten, as far as possible, the definition of ‘military targets’” in order to try to ensure that Germany did the same.[19] This reading undermines the notion of ‘totality’ in two ways. Firstly, it reiterates the notion of ‘tit-for-tat’ that Bob Moore claims drove the pushing of the boundaries of ‘restraint’.[20] Secondly, quoting the 1941 “Butt Report” and it’s statistics of the ineffectiveness of British bombers,[21] Biddle seems to imply that “strategic bombing” strategies were adopted due to desperation rather than ideology.


The experience of infantry on the front also shows evidence of ‘totality’. In the interwar period, Japan was held as the model of how prisoners of war should be treated.[22] But this reputation is in sharp contrast to the horrific experiments with “chemical and biological warfare agents” conducted by the Japanese on prisoners of war in the 1930s – an act which points to the purposeful employment of a new type of warfare.[23] Chickering and Forster write that “the brutal handling of Soviet prisoners of war by the German army and the cruelties Japanese and American forces inflicted on one another signalled a savagery in combat that was … unprecedented in both in its extent and routinisation.”[24] Thus, although Biddle remains hesitant to allow ‘total war’ the credit for ‘strategic bombing’, it is clear that the ‘total war’ ideology did, to some extent, influence the actions of soldiers on the front.


Part Three: The Formation of Involuntary Communities of Friends and Enemies


Geyer and Tooze write that ‘total war’ “creates involuntary communities of friends and enemies.”[25] In other words, “in order to sustain popular commitment to the war effort, governments pursue extravagant, uncompromising war aims,” and these are justified with the absolute demonization of military opponents.[26] These “uncompromising war aims,” such as the doctrine of ‘unconditional surrender’, would become one of the most illustrative aspects of belligerent rhetoric and, as the war progressed, an exceedingly terrifying keystone of ‘total war’ which eventually led to the use of the atomic bomb.


If WW2 is said to have been ‘total,’ then conflicting governments should have entered the way with “extravagant, uncompromising war aims.” But the reasons belligerent countries had for joining the conflict were not universally ‘total’. Japan, despite it’s own regional aspirations, had initially fought to deflect an aggressive response from the Allies – Japanese diplomats had been cultivating strong relations with both the Axis powers and the USSR, implying a wish for strategic alliance to fend off the West, not full blown war.[27] Secondly, from appeasement to bombing strategy, it is clear in the early stages of the war that Allied leaders like Neville Chamberlain continued to try and operate with “very clear sign of intent, one is tempted to say forlorn hope, that the war could be kept limited.”[28] Although some nations, particularly Germany, certainly adopted the rhetoric of total war as the conflict progressed, it cannot be fairly said that all belligerent countries joined the conflict to achieve total war goals.


However, ‘totality’ certainly did enter the strategies of all belligerent nations towards the end of the war. The doctrine of “unconditional surrender”, which was announced at the Casablanca conference in early 1943, is essential to any reading of WW2 as a ‘total war’. The doctrine symbolised the final “abandonment of compromise by all sides as they pursued the complete military destruction of their enemies.”[29] Furthermore, if surrender is understood to be the ideal end to all war, then the ideal end of ‘total war’ entails “violent subjection.”[30] However, even still, debate continues about whether or not the result of the Casablanca conference was truly a commitment to total war or not. Chickering and Forster suggest that the doctrine was declared in order to dissuade the war ending through compromised peace, but that it was “motivated in no small part by British and American fears, which were not entirely groundless, that the Soviet Union was prepared to accept just such a peace with the Axis.”[31]


However, few would argue with the notion that the USA’s use of the Atomic Bomb to end the war in the Pacific was an act of ‘total war’. Weinberg argues they had the primary intention of “shocking the Toyko government into surrender”[32] with the brutal subjection of civilians, something the bomb had done on a scale hitherto undreamt of. However, despite the unpresented brutality of the atomic bomb, those responsible for it – notably President Truman – maintained for years after that the atomic bomb “was just another piece of artillery; just a bigger bomb among all the other tens of thousands of bombs that already had rained from the skies…”[33] Truman’s words seem to imply that ‘totality’ was not the intention of the Atomic Bomb’s usage at the end of WW2. Despite this, it swiftly and brutally achieved the ultimate goal of ‘total war’ – unconditional surrender through the violent subjection of citizens, marking that the Second World War in this regard was certainly ‘total’ in parts.


Conclusion


Holger Herwig writes that “the Second World War was global, intense, and frightfully devastating”; encompassing conventional warfare, terror bombings, genocide, and the first atomic bomb, many scholars have assumed that discussion of the conflict’s ‘totality’ requires no justification.[34] As we can see from our analytical model, dimensions of the conflict certainly display profound tenants of what we understand as ‘total war’. Although mobilisation of the state was not uniform and can is by no means defined by its ‘totality’, all belligerent nations made an effort to and found success from mobilisation of national resources, economy, society, and culture. The socialisation of the risk of death and the abandonment of restraints once again shows evidence of totality, notably the actions of those on the front, but evidence of “strategic bombing” strategies once again cannot be said to have any evidence of uniform ‘totality’ or a shift towards ‘total war’ ideology. The war certainly saw the formation of involuntary communities of friends and enemies which were not always uniformly intense, but the uncompromising war aims of “unconditional surrender” which eventually led to the use of the Atomic Bomb certainly do indicate a shift towards totality, albeit not a particularly clear one. The debate among historians regarding whether not the Second World War was ‘total’ or not will continue to rage on. But from our analytical model, and the dimensions it investigates, one thing is certain: although the conflict certainly shows aspects of ‘total war’, it can not be said to be absolute in its ‘totality.’


Words: 2593


Bibliography

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Endnotes


[1] Roger Chickering, Stig Forster, ‘Are We There Yet? World War II and the Theory of Total War’, in Chickering, Roger, Forster, Stig, Greiner, Bernd, A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937 – 1945 (Cambridge: 2013): p. 9 [2] Ibid.: p. 1 [3] Hew Strachan, ‘Total War: The Conduct of War, 1939 – 1945’, in Chickering, Roger, Forster, Stig, Greiner, Bernd, A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937 – 1945 (Cambridge: 2013): p. 33 [4] Michael Geyer, Adam Tooze, ‘Introduction’, in Geyer, Michael, Tooze, Adam (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Second World War: Volume 3: Total War: Economy, Society, Culture (Cambridge: 2015): pp. 5 – 6 [5] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 2 [6] Neely Jr., M. E., ‘Was the Civil War a Total War?’, Civil War History, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1991): p. 10 [7] Ibid.: p. 11 [8] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 2 [9] Geyer, Tooze, ‘Introduction’: p. 6 [10] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 7 [11] Jeffrey Fear, ‘War of the factories’, in Geyer, Michael, Tooze, Adam (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Second World War: Volume 3: Total War: Economy, Society, Culture (Cambridge: 2015): p. 97 [12] Ibid.: p. 99 [13] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 7 [14] Tami Davis Biddle, ‘British and American approaches to strategic bombing: Their origins and implementation in the World War II combined bomber offensive’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 18 (1995): p. 129 [15] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 7 [16] Neely, ‘Was the Civil War a Total War?’: p. 11 [17] Geyer, Tooze, ‘Introduction’: p. 7 [18] Neely, ‘Was the Civil War a Total War?’: p. 11 [19] Ibid.: p. 115 [20] Bob Moore, ‘Prisoners of war’, in Ferris, John, Mawdsley, Evan (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Second World War: Volume 1: Fighting the War (Cambridge: 2015): p. 667 [21] Ibid.: p. 116 [22] Gerhard L. Weinberg, ‘Total War: The Global Dimensions of Conflict’, in Chickering, Roger, Forster, Stig, Greiner, Bernd, A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937 – 1945 (Cambridge: 2013): p. 22 [23] Ibid. [24] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 3 [25] Geyer, Tooze, ‘Introduction’: p. 9 [26] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 2 [27] Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices; ten decisions that changed the world, 1940 – 1941 (London, 2008): p. 331 [28] Gerhard L. Weinberg, ‘Total War’: p. 23 [29] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 3 [30] Geyer, Tooze, ‘Introduction’: p. 9 [31] Chickering, Forster, ‘Are We There Yet?’: p. 8 [32] Gerhard L. Weinberg, ‘Total War’: p. 30 [33] Robert L. Messer, ‘“Accidental Judgments, Casual Slaughters”: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Total War’, in Chickering, Roger, Forster, Stig, Greiner, Bernd, A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937 – 1945 (Cambridge: 2013): p. 303 [34] Holger H. Herwig, ‘Germany and the Battle of the Atlantic’, in Chickering, Roger, Forster, Stig, Greiner, Bernd, A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937 – 1945 (Cambridge: 2013): p. 71

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