The World Wars
"War will become rare, but more terrible. [...] That's my horoscope"
- – Arthur Conan Doyle, 1883
During the Industrial Revolution, Europe was comparatively peaceful for the most part. The 19th century started with the Napoleonic Wars when Industrialization was building up steam in England and afterwards there were a series of colonial conflicts and small to middling wars between the various industrial powers*. The Civil War was on the upper end of conflicts in this era but was limited to the comparatively sparsely populated US, was still fought with muskets and saw about 600-750,000 people dead. The Franco Prussian war was won in six months (GOTT MIT UNS!). Things changed in 1914 when Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated, starting the Great War, also known as the First World War. This would be followed up by the Second World War in 1939-45, which largely stemmed from the consequences of the Great War. The World Wars would spread across the world and saw conflict and destruction beyond anything that was ever seen before or since.
There are two important factors in the World Wars: Technology and Nationalism. Technology is the easier of the two to understand, in the Napoleonic War the average soldier had a flintlock musket that could shoot 2-6 bullets a minute with an effective range of 100 meters, was supported by muzzle loading cannons that could shoot accurately to about 1km and was supplied by ox carts while steam engines were just beginning to propel boats and move loads of coal around mines in England. In 1914 the average soldier had a rifle that could shoot 15-30 bullets a minute (which could go through three men and still be deadly) at ranges of over a kilometer and was backed up by cannons that could fire shells six kilometers or more on ballistic courses which exploded in the air raining a spray of balls over a wide area and machine guns which could shoot 450 bullets a minute and airplanes. By the end of the Great War tanks, Sub Machine Guns and Poison Gas had been added to the arsenal. Tactics devised based on 19th century ideas of fighting were useless on this new battlefield and the book needed to be re-written from page one. Other technologies such as mass production, mechanized farming, railways and automobiles, mass education, telecommunications and modern bureaucracies meant that an Industrial Nation could turn more of it's population into soldiers than any medieval nation could ever hope to do (Rome was hard pressed to keep up a standing army of about 1% of it's population, Germany mobilized nearly 20% during the Great War). Through bloody experience generals gradually put together some idea of how to operate in this new battlefield near the end of the Great War and between the wars they'd continue to build on it with experience in small scale wars. Even so people were still making it up as they went in WWII.
Nationalism is more abstract but just as important. In the Middle Ages, people generally identified themselves as being "a Christian Journeyman Blacksmith from London who's dad is English" or "a Jewish Master Cobbler from Munich who's mom is jewish" and so forth (their job, class, religion and hometown, things which they dealt with face to face day to day). If a civil war happened, they and their family were not majorly harmed and they ended up with a new noble house in charge, they would not care too much as long as the new lord upheld his feudal duties. There was a king and he ruled a bunch of land and tried to keep the peace, which was all good but the specifics of this was not a fact which defined them. This began to change with the Protestant Reformation and had a bit of build up through the Age of Enlightenment as propaganda for the masses took form, leading to the birth of nationalism with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. People began to see their country as more than just where they lived and the guy in a funny hat who ruled them, but rather as a community of people united by common ideas, languages, beliefs, customs, ideals, and (often) ancestry, people who need to band together and set aside their differences to defend what's theirs against those stinking foreigners with their differences. Public education caught on during the Industrial Revolution, which made it possible to give these ideals to everyone from the richest businessman to the lowliest beggar. When you have two nations which have nationalistic populations and governments and other groups fond of egging nationalism on together it does not take much to get them at each others throats and keep them there.
Footnote * The Taiping Rebellion (Not to beconfused with the Boxer rebellion.) in China killed some 20-30 million people, but neither side in it was industrialized beyond buying some foreign weapons to equip some of their troops.
The First World War
Also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars (SPOILER ALERT, It wasn't) .
To understand the beginning of the major, globe-shaking clusterfuck known as the First World War, we must first look at several key issues that preceded it.
The first and probably one of the biggest contributing factors was the race for Empire. During the preceding centuries, imperialism and expansionism became extremely popular among the industrializing and booming nations of western Europe. Entire swathes of Africa and Asia were carved out by global powerhouses such as Great Britain and France, in order to fuel their industry and economy back home, often at the expense of the natives (the treatment of which varied on which European power dominated that particular region, with those under Belgium's sway being the worst off). For a while, the competition was 'merely' a case of rivalry, as each generally avoided the other's territories in order not to repeat disasters like the Seven Years' War or the Napoleonic Wars. Everything was going more or less splendidly (barring some wars of independence in the Balkans against the increasingly corrupt and stagnating Ottoman Empire), until one key event forever shattered the balance of power so carefully put into place by the Congress of Vienna: the unification of Germany by Otto von Bismark (a political genius so astute that he coined the modern term 'realpolitik').
With Germany now unified, it presented a major threat to the established powers of Europe. Not helping matters was the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, looking at Britain with barely restrained jealousy and thus deciding that Germany deserved its own overseas empire and place as top dog. Complicating matters further is the fact that the royalty and nobility of Europe were all largely related to one another. In some ways, this made the coming shitstorm seem more like the biggest family feud in centuries. The race for who controlled the biggest slice of the planet was kicked into overdrive, with factories pumping out new, relatively untested weapons such as the machine gun, the repeating rifle, and the howitzer, while shipyards around Europe churned out awe-inspiring steel battleships and cruisers, complete with the largest cannons mankind had ever seen up to that point.
To counterbalance each other, the great powers formed increasingly complex and entangling military alliances, which coalesced into two pacts- the Triple Entente (France, Britain (Kind Of), and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy, and Austria)
Meanwhile, various nationalist and liberal revolutionary movements were sweeping the continent like a new disease from the Plaguefather. Some of their demands were met, particularly in Britain where the House of Commons gained more power. Other revolutions were violently crushed or flat-out ignored, while still others were successful in their goals through sheer force of arms (Like true comrades). The hardest hit, however, were not the more liberalized and industrious Western nations. Instead, the hardest hit by these successive waves of revolution was none other than the two oldest empires in Europe at that time- Austria and the Ottomans, both of whom were weary, tired states in dire need of reform. While some in both powers saw granting people increasing amounts of autonomy as the way to keep their state from collapsing (such as the formation of the dual monarchy and the recognition of Hungary as an equal partner, transforming the Austrian Empire into Austria-Hungary), others insisted on a more hardline approach, trying to keep the state afloat by using terror. All of this bred resentment, particularly in the Balkans, which increasingly became a powder keg that was waiting for the right spark.
That spark came in the form of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, at the hands of Gavrilo Princip, who was a member of the infamous Yugoslav nationalist organization, the Black Hand. Austria-Hungary gave an ultimatum to Serbia(Biggest Yugoslav country), which included some frankly ridiculous and cruel terms. When the Serbs rejected a few of these terms, the Austrians took it as a casus belli and declared war on Serbia. In response, Russia declared war on Austria, to which Germany declared war on Russia, to which France declared war on Germany. Germany would then invade the neutral Belgium in an attempt to avoid French fortifications on the border, bringing the British into the conflict.
Thus began a conflict that would last for four bloody long years, see eleven million deaths as the result of horrific industrial warfare in the trenches and bombed-out fields, diseases such as the flu, and the breakup of several empires to form new nations. Truly, an entire generation of Europe's men was destroyed as a result (and is commonly known as the Lost Generation today) and gave rise to later extremist philosophies, the proponents of whom were all too eager to amass power for themselves by blaming their nation's misfortunes on the subversive "other." And while the civilian losses were nowhere near that of the Second World War, they were significant on both fronts, especially in Belgium where the Imperial German Army exercised collective punishment against villages suspected of harboring partisans.
While the average citizen didn't give much of a damn about the alliance system and the bickering of a bunch of politicians over some dispute halfway across the continent, the government of each country knew they had to sell the "necessity" of the war to their citizens. Propaganda from both sides painted the enemy nations as barbaric, inhuman war criminals who had to be stopped to prevent the devastation that would follow if they were allowed to go unopposed. They also reassured the public that, with their obvious technological superiority, the war would be quick and soldiers would return home by Christmas. While this illusion could be maintained with the civilians population, the soldiers sent to the front lines were quickly disillusioned by the horrors that they saw. Morale was so bad that the Russians overthrew Tsar Nicholas II and eventually came to be led by the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin, and the French nearly did the same as mass mutinies broke out in the French army. Had the Americans not joined on the Allies' side to swing the war in their favor, it's likely that even more revolutions could have taken place.
Terrifying new weapons of war earned their fearsome reputation in this conflict. Machine guns and air-burst artillery shells rendered the old tactics of Napoleonic warfare suicidal, while mustard gas and the like created a new age of massive destruction. Tanks made their first debut in this war, slowly rumbling forth like invincible metal monsters, shrugging off most resistance and dealing punishing firepower themselves, only to breakdown in the middle of the battle due to being rudimentary designs. The airplane, as well, saw use in a combat role, and it would swiftly become an invaluable strategic and tactical tool, for he who dominated the skies dominated the flow of battle.
The bloodiest war in human history up to that point ended with Germany's surrender at 11:00 A.M, on November 11th, 1918, after being exhausted, starving, and dangerously close to collapse in the face of a communist uprising. The irony is that despite the announced end of the conflict, soldiers continued to fight tooth and nail to the last minute, desperately hoping that whatever few yards they could seize would somehow bring the negotiations in their countries' favor, as in the fighting continued until literally seconds before 11 AM where an American soldier who was demoted made a suicide charge on a machine gun and a Canadian guy got sniped.
The Punitive Expedition
While the United States of America sat the early part of the war out, it was not without armed conflict of its own. In 1916 failed Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa launched an unprovoked attack on US settlement of Columbus, New Mexico that killed 26 Americans. The actual reasons are unclear, but seizing supplies, and/or a ploy to get the US Government to involve themselves in the revolution and wreck everything are common guesses. In response, the US sent troops into Mexico to retaliate against Villa. While the conflict was small scale, it ensured the US didn't enter the Great War totally blind to modern warfare as everyone else had. In fact, it was in this conflict that future superstar General Patton got a taste of the new vehicle-based warfare that he would become famous for.
"This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years."
- – Ferdinand Foch, 1919
Knowing that the world could not endure another such war, US president Woodrow Wilson made it his mission to set the groundwork for long-term peace; he set fourth what he called the Fourteen Points, a set of foreign policy doctrines that would address many of the underlying issues behind WWI and promote better diplomacy and cooperation between nations, with its biggest selling point being the League of Nations. The Germans thought that this was actually a pretty neat idea, and were hoping to agree to these terms during the upcoming peace conference. Fortunately, none of Wilson's allies bought into his vaugue ideas, and slowly he was forced to compromise on all his policies just so he could get the League of Nations established (Even shittier proto-United Nations). Ironically, Wilson failed to convince the US to join the League of Nations, partly due to alienating his Republican opponents in congress, as they weren't convinced that this League wasn't completely useless, or worse, just another military alliance that would suck them into another European War. Without the US to back it, and with little power to enforce peace resolutions, the League pretty quickly collapsed in the lead-up to WWII, as the pissed off Germans had been assigned full blame for the war and wanted revenge.
Near the end of the first World War, the world was thrown into yet another cataclysm. The Spanish Flu, named such because neutral Spain was the only place that paid much attention to it over the ongoing war, spread rapidly and killed many thanks to the conditions caused by the war (overcrowding, especially in transport ships for returning soldiers, malnourishment, etc.). The death toll was horrendous, with the minimum estimate of 50 million being over double the entire war's death toll. After this, Europe needed decades to recover from the horrible destruction the war and flu had caused.
America, however, was having its best years ever. The so called "Roaring Twenties" saw a rapid increase in the standard of living. President Harding managed to do the impossible and eliminate the deficit, though some of his appointees trying to sell some government owned rock in the middle of nowhere marred his legacy (looking back historians realize there's a lack of evidence suggesting he had any knowledge or involvement). The American economy of the time was doing well; unlike the other powers of Europe, it had not been strained extensively by being in a war economy for four years that strained productivity, had prime farmland turned into no man's land like France, its economy pushed to the breaking point like Germany, broken up into squabbling states like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or had all of that and was taken over by communists after a civil war, while having basically everyone in Europe owe American bankers to pay for the war.
After Harding's death during the scandal, his Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge, took over. This was rather sudden and Coolidge was sworn in during the middle of the night by his father on the family Bible, with his first act was to pray to God to bless the American people and give him the strength to lead them. Unlike Harding, Coolidge proved wildly popular despite (or because of) his quiet nature. His economic policies really kicked off the Roaring Twenties and he was popular enough he was elected by a landslide in an election he didn't campaign for (this was common in American politics at the time, it was considered undignified to campaign for yourself). Coolidge continued Harding's deficit free budgets to the point the US was able to repay most of the national debt. Despite his wild popularity, Coolidge shocked the world with his announcement that "I do not choose to run" for reelection and, true to his nature, did not really explain why (he would later elaborate in his autobiography that he did not wish to break the (then unofficial) rule set by Washington of a max of two terms among other issues). He would be followed by Herbert Hoover, who largely rode on his success (justifiably though; Hoover had been Commerce Secretary for 8 years). This would change in October of 1929 when the stock market crashed and ushered in the Great Depression.
There had been a series of stock market crashes through the the 19th century in the US every decade or so, each with increasing severity and effects in the US as more people moved into cities and were more dependent on wages. The 1920s saw a rise in consumer culture, payment plans, investment, loans for buying stock with, and a lot of scams which culminated in the biggest crash yet. Moreover, since the US was now linked to a bunch of other countries thanks to improved communications, trade, transportation, and so forth, the crash not only tanked the US economy, but that of basically every other developed country save for the USSR under Stalin (which had its own Stalin-related problems), which further hindered recovery. It also didn't help that large swaths of Europe were still battle scarred wastelands useless for agriculture, an entire generation of young working men had been killed or crippled, and that the formerly super-productive Germany was now teetering with an ineffectual government and crippling reparations to pay. Throw in a crushing multi-year drought in the United States that ruined harvests across wholes states and the stage is set for chaos.
The old ways of dealing with things did not work and people turned to new ideas. In the US, this was various public works projects and assistance programs, collectively called the New Deal, to get people back working and build confidence in the economy and financial regulations; although the debate still rages over the degree to which these helped as opposed to prolonged the crisis. In Germany, the response was more severe and was seen as a failure of democracy, which contributed to the rise of the Nazi (National Socialists German Workers Party) party and a newfound hate of the Allies thanks to the colossal reparations to the rest of Europe that Germany had been forced to pay in the Treaty of Versailles. Responding to the collapse gave the Nazis the political currency to get into power, stimulate the economy by gearing it up to war and made the UK less willing to intervene to stop them while they were rising due to nobody wanting to be the one to start another war. And ideals of peace and disarmamemt certainly somewhat popular in the UK and France.
To their credit, in the mid 30's the Nazis did appear to be doing good things, even if there was a clear air of racial supremacy about the whole affair. Europe was collectively terrified of Marxism, and a nation that was forcefully rebuilding and modernizing itself without resorting to collectivization was tolerated by the French and British out of fear of the alternative. Between constructing the autobahn, hosting the olympics, and achieving a number of engineering feats such as the first practical helicopter, Germany appeared to be getting shit done. So nobody was too disturbed when Germany started making noises about reunifying some Germanic peoples in border regions they'd ceded in the Treaty...
The Second World War
The War in the West
See also Nazis
With Poland unwilling to roll over before the Nazis, and with Britain and France finally stirred to the defence of Poland, it was clear that war was inevitable and so, on September 1st 1939, after creating a false-flag incident to offer the thinnest fig leaf of legality Germany struck at Poland. Two days later on September 3rd Britain and France declared war on Germany. Contrary to the popular imagination, Poland did not simply crumble before the German onslaught, and the myth of Polish cavalry trying to charge German tanks was yet another piece of propaganda. But after a month of hard fighting, with the Soviets entering the war on the German side and striking Poland in the rear, Poland finally gave in to the inevitable.
The War in the East
Since at least 1853, when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor, the Japanese feared the day when the powers of Europe would stomp all over them like they did China and becasue Japan wanted to take over China and Korea since its been a unified country. In response they began building up their industrial base, importing guns, ships, factory machinery, engineers, textbooks, and professors. Some Japanese people came to the idea that the best way to fend off imperialism was to become imperialists themselves, and they began gobbling up their neighbors from the late 19th century onward (at first, in the name of liberating them and creating a "Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", but with more brutality and for more obviously selfish reasons as time went on). They kept this going into the 20th century (when this sort of behavior was finally falling out of fashion among the Western powers, especially after WWI), by which time the military had become central to Japanese politics. In 1931, they invaded Manchuria, and invaded China in 1937, killing millions as they went. The rest of the world was outraged and cut Japan off from trade, which caused them to dig their heels in and keep it up, lest they be perceived as paper tigers. Tensions built until eventually the US threatened to cut off the oil Japan needed to keep their massive fleet running, and the overconfident Army managed to push the Imperial Japanese Navy into launching an attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor (timed to hit approximately 30 minutes after delivering the declaration of war, thus effectively being a surprise attack without technically being a surprise attack).
The idea was that if everything went right, the fickle American public would be dismayed by the prospect of a hard fight over distant lands (especially while contemplating joining the war in Europe), the IJN could seize control of the Pacific while the crippled US fleet was out of action, and the US would be left with no choice but negotiation. However, while the Pearl Harbor attack did work pretty well and they did overrun a lot of Allied holdings around Asia, they missed all but one of the US carriers which only suffered minor damaged, enraged an American public that was previously tepid on war (especially since mistakes delayed even the planned token warning), and the fact was that the US had more than 10 times the Industry that Japan did as well as plenty of fuel. They also aligned themselves with the Nazis, based on shared enemies and ultra-Imperialist/Nationalist ideologies, but thus reinforcing the narrative of them being a part of the barbaric Forces of Evil who needed to be completely defeated for the sake of the civilized world.
As time went on, and with some shaky starts, the Allies learned how to rely on carriers instead of traditional battleship tactics, began winning the war of attrition, and were able to roll back the IJA and push back the IJN to the home islands.
The Manhattan Project
At the tail end of the 19th century, scientists began to work out some odd properties of matter, which eventually got them to realize that splitting atomic nuclei releases millions of times more energy than an equivalent mass of a chemical reaction. Naturally, people thought "How can we weaponize this?" Such a weapon would be a game changer for warfare (less for the raw destruction it would cause, since firebombing cities was already horrifyingly effective, but because it would only take one bomber getting through air defenses to do the job instead of dozens or hundreds), and the Nazis getting it first would be an intolerable state of affairs. As such the Brits and the Americans pooled their scientific and industrial resources at Los Alamos to work out how to build a bomb.
They were not ready in time to use it against the Nazis, but the first two were dropped on Japan to convince them that they wouldn't be able to fight to the stalemate they were now aiming for, thus ending the war quickly at the cost of a few hundred thousand Japanese civilians, rather than a long and costly slog that would potentially result in millions dead if the fanatical Japanese military forced it through to completion (including both the Japanese "civilians" who would be mobilized into militias and untold American service members). Some accounts also say it was intended to intimidate the Soviet Union, but since the Russians ended up nicking the research data (supposedly, Stalin knew that the Manhattan Project succeeded before Truman), this just paved the way for the nuclear stalemate known as the Cold War.
The appeal of the World Wars
These are the biggest armed conflicts of world history, rolling across continents using modern weapons, from tanks to planes to automatic weapons. Modern War was born in the trenches of the Somme, in the skies above London and over the fields of Poland during the Blitzkrieg, the flanking in France, the naval bombardment and air bombing in the Pacific, the hell in the Eastern front cities, in the bombing of Europe from the air, in the atomic fire of Hiroshima and Japan. We entered the century and went 14 years thinking everything was right and as great as it could be. Thirty years, a war, a pandemic, an economic crash, another war and several genocides later the man who was born into the first large scale factories witnessed the atom burn hopes and dreams of two cities.
Of the two wars, World War One gets relatively little media attention and what little it does get is somber. Part of that is because it's hard to craft a heroic action-packed adventure out of the hopeless horror of trench warfare, the other part is that the morality of the war is very, very grey. There was no clear right side, with both the Central and Allied powers equally chomping at the bit for a fight (at least to start with), and ready to start shooting for any convenient reason. When some angry Illyrians in the Balkans finally set everything off, the only motivation the common people had (besides being drafted and having no choice anyway) to go fight was the extensive propaganda campaigns telling them how totally awful for realsies the enemy was, and anyone asking questions or doubting was shut down hard. When it was all over the country blamed and punished for the whole mess wasn't even the one that started it (in fact, the country that actually started it made bank off the entire thing. Germany was still the one to go to war with Belgium and get the British involved so they could certainly take some blame.) All told, the First World War is largely seen as a great tragedy, and is widely considered a wasteful war as winnings were slim on the Allied side. If Russia didn't get involved or if the Axis didn't go for Belgium or if Italy either started under the allies or stayed in the axis or if Italy was the cause of WW1 as it likely would have been depending on how things would have continued in AH if the either the Duke dying didn't result in a war or if the Duke was never assasinated a war with one side getting a much greater victory could have transpired.
Probably one of the only noble (and almost certainly the cleanest) aspects of WW1 was the war in the air, where fighter pilots were effectively chivalric knights of the sky. One famous example was Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), easily the most famous Ace fighter of the war, with 80 victories to his name in his distinctive red tri-plane (which only accounted for his last 17). He was so well respected among his adversaries that when he was finally shot down, the Allied officers who recovered his body buried him with full honors, including an honor guard and gun salute. This didn't stop the ruthless pragmatism, a few pilots even publicly boasted of shooting down parachuting airmen to prevent them from returning to the fight.
Another event stands out known as the Christmas Truce; early on in the war, troops on the Western Front pretty quickly realized that the guys they were shooting at didn’t want to be there any more than they did, and agreed to a ceasefire to celebrate Christmas. When the truce looked like it was going to last, commanders put a kibosh on the whole thing and told them to start fighting again and even cracked down on small mutinies arising. Another such truce would never happen as the fighting became more destructive, as poison gas attacks and tank assaults made each side far more wary of the other.
The Second World War is a much more palatable conflict of more or less Good vs Evil, with both the Nazis and Imperial Japan going out to conquer their respective hemispheres of the world and exterminating millions as key objectives. The Axis Powers provided a clear and easy villain for the rest of the world to rally against (as well as providing easy media villains for the rest of the century and into the next millennium). The far more mobile and urban warfare of WW2 also allowed for more personal initiative and heroism, and stories of the extraordinary accomplishments of individual squads, or even individual soldiers, are far more commonplace here than they were back in WW1, when individual men or units had no real hope of making a difference, no matter what they did (mind, it was still industrial weight and technology that won the war, but it is far easier to remember Simo Hayha than say, Alvin York).
As a result, a solid majority of Alternate History fiction is set in WWII one way or another. Even if WWI (or any of the many, many 19th Century to 1913 events and trends that lead to it) is the point of divergence, the story is likely to be in the late interwar to WWII periods.
World War inspired Games, Factions and Settings
- A lot of stuff from the Imperium of Man, especially the Death Korps of Krieg.
- Dieselpunk is the WWII equivalent of Steampunk. If you like the general aesthetics and mood of the time period but don’t want to be limited by the period’s technology, or perhaps want to see what would happen if the Nazi “Wunderwaffen” had been fully realized, this is the setting for you.
- Bolt Action, Flames of War, and other similar military tabletop games are set in WWII.
- Star Wars takes a great deal of inspiration from this time period, and in regards to the prequels, it especially takes a lot of inspiration from the transformation of the democratic-but-ineffectual Weimar Republic into the nightmarishly totalitarian Third Reich (though it was also influenced by the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire).
- Indiana Jones. Do we need to explain this?
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|