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!), but in a chilling prelude to things to come killed some 180,000 combatants. Now you may say, "What the hell! The factory accidents and all other horrible abuses and war deaths were horrific!", but you ain't seen nothing yet. Things changed in 1914 when Archduke 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, to the point that some call the period a Second Thirty Years War (accounting for post World War 1 conflicts and World War 2 prelude wars in the Spanish Civil War and Japan invading China, this is technically correct). 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, Submachine 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 its 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 whose dad is English" or "a Jewish Master Cobbler from Munich whose mom is Sephardic" 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 and ended up with a new noble house in charge while they and their family and friends got through unharmed, they would not care too much as long as the new lord upheld his feudal duties and was not a huge dick. 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.
Intertwined with Nationalism is the issue of "Balance of Power"; since the end of the Thirty Years War, the various European powers had been very conscious about preventing any one nation from becoming too powerful and exerting their authority over everyone else. This is one of the motivating factors behind such actions as the race to colonize Africa, the "Great Game" between Russia & Britain over India, the War of Spanish Succession where Britain and the Holy Roman Empre fought to prevent the union of France & Spain, or the clusterfuck that was the Crimean War where a dispute over Churches in the Ottoman Empire lead to Britain and France declaring war with Russia, only for neither side to gain anything and lose a lot of men and respect. And since Napoleon had gotten really close to completely dominating Europe, the alliance system played a major role in ensuring no one would get too sabre-rattly... up until Germany unified and changed the whole playing field, leaving politicians desperate and uncertain as to how far Kaiser Wilhem was willing to go to prove Germany's prestige as a rising power. The result was an arms race that helped build the powder keg, which would inevitably explode with the right spark.
Footnote * The Taiping Rebellion (Not to be confused 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.
- 1 The First World War
- 2 The Interwar Period
- 3 The Second World War
- 4 The appeal of the World Wars
- 5 World War inspired Games, Factions and Settings
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 a huge trove of mommy and daddy issues further complicated by a deformed arm being shorter than the other due to a difficult birth causing nerve damage) 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 and the failed Tanzimat reforms of the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turks coup following the Tanzimat's abolition establishing what was intended to be a constitutional monarch but really was a military dictatorship under the delusionally idealistic and, as would be proven in a few years, seriously incompetent Enver and his fellows in high command), 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 Young Bosnia movement which was itself under the influence of the infamous serbian nationalist organization, the Black Hand. Austria-Hungary gave an ultimatum to Serbia (biggest independent slavic 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. The internationalization of the conflict and the various ethnics that the colonial empires of Europe press ganged into service had some downright comical results, like an Indian battalion fighting in East Africa against German-led Askari tribesmen, all because because a Serbian shot an Austrian in Bosnia.
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 Spanish 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 consequences of WW1 cannot be understated; this four-year-long international bloodletting completely destroyed the Eurocentric world order that has persisted since the 1500s, pushed all european powers except Russia from being superpowers in their own right to second-rank states and ended the age of (overt) Imperialism for good. The scale of the money spent for this war was enormous; Britain went from the biggest lender of the world to the biggest debtor, having spent the entire wealth accumulated over the course of 300 years of colonial British and English history in just four years. France saw its industrial and agricultural heartlands in the northeast reduced into nothing but poisonous wasteland that is to this day unusable and dangerous from all the unexploded ordinance. Germany had replaced its state form from the Prussian semi-feudal social order to a constitutional republic with nothing to fill the social void that was left when the old Imperial elites just fucked off elsewhere and left it to the Social Democrats and Liberals to clean up the mess they had created. (They failed.) Russia was transformed into the Soviet Union and could only compensate the extreme loss of people and infrastructure by installing a tyrannical regime and wasting away millions of its own people in forced labour camps and famines. And that's just in Europe. In the middle east, the haphazardly drawn borders (Sykes-Picot Agreement) created by Britain and France with no regard (or intentional disregard) to the cultural mixup of the lands they took from the Ottomans ended up creating some of the most vicious and long-lasting ethnic conflicts, most of which last to this very day, with the Iraq-Iran, Israeli-Palestinian and in general Sunni-Shi'a conflict and the Turkish-Kurdish war (of which the latter's first uprising explicitly aided by the British) being particularly noteworthy examples.
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.
The Warlord Era
Around the same time, after the Boxer Rebellion failed to remove the Europeans from China, it became clear that Imperial China's days were over. After the forced abdication of the Qing Emperor, attempts to create a modern Chinese Republic quickly collapsed as regional Warlords split the country among themselves, intent on unifying China with themselves as its leader. Much like the Three Kingdoms period way back in Early China, much of the military and political conflict was characterized by long, drawn-out border skirmishes with the occasional big battle, massive conscript armies, backstabbing, and leaders who were able to hold onto power so long as they had their army's loyalty. Due to an arms embargo and limited domestic manufacturing, industrialized warfare played a very limited role in the early part of the Warlord era; cavalry and bayonet charges were still viable, as very few warlords could afford the artillery and machine guns needed to make them obsolete. However, the eventual intervention of the Japanese eventually shifted the conflict away from a domestic dispute over who ruled into a fight for China's survival against a technologically superior force, as covered in more detail below.
The Empire of the Rising Sun
Japan alongside the US began emerging as something of the world power a few years before the war. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 shocked the dominant european powers as the Japanese managed to defeat the supposedly superior Russians (though the fact of the matter was that both sides were blundering hard and the weebs won because the other side was MUCH more incompetent - russian navy sent from the Black Sea to Japan fired on a British fishing fleet thinking it was the Japanese thus almost starting a war with the UK). Japan was a member of the Triple Entente and as such seized some German islands in Asia, sent a small fleet into the Mediterranean to escort naval convoys and participated in an expedition alongside the US in Syberia after the revolution in Russia, but the main political activity was focused on exerting an ever increasing influence on China. After the war, Japan was awarded a permanent seat in the League of Nations and recognised as a 'great power' but their proposal to be recognised as equals race-wise was rejected which caused alienation from the western powers which in turn would partially contribute to increased nationalism and militarism down the line.
The Interwar Period
"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 (between whites at least); 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. Unfortunately, none of Wilson's allies bought into his vague 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, in that at least the UN specialist agencies do important global coordination work). 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. Various post war conflicts continued in the regional level, most famously the Anatolian conflict between Greece, Armenia, French Colonial Forces, Islamists loyal to the Ottoman Government and the nationalist wings of the Ottoman military that revolted under Mustafa Kemal's regime. The latter won after deals with Armenia (which was not ratified as the Soviets nommed them, the new regime made another treaty which was officially ratified and guaranteed by the Soviets) and France, while Greece was rather soundly defeated. After another peace treaty with the Allies at Lausanne and the nationalist regime reforming into a Republic and abolishing the monarchy and the caliphate a year after the end of the monarchy and the Treaty of Lausanne, the local wars pretty much ended barring minor border disputes and posturing, with the only real big scare being the Bosphorus Straits affair with the Soviet's, that was resolved through the Montreaux Convention in the 30's. The rest of the world wasn't so lucky.
America, however, was having its best years ever. The Washington Naval Treaty had Britain officially cede the position of Earth’s mightiest navy, which the Royal Navy held for centuries, by recognizing the US Navy’s power as at least equal to it. 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 though that isn't really a compliment, you do need to pay attention when you are damn head of state). 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 happen and was taken over by communists after a civil war like Russia (with some like Turkey as aforementioned getting lucky and successfully reforming), 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 by common people, 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, and boy were they big 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 (Take the claim of the Reparations being crippling with a huge grain of salt: Modern historians have come to the conclusion that the effect of the reparations was much lesser than the German governments and later Hitler liked to claim. They liked to overstate the burden to create a welcome excuse for their own failure to stabilize the deteriorating value of the Reichsmark for the vengeful German masses, which culminated in one of the worst hyperinflations of the 20th century and also the temporary occupation of the Ruhr Valley by French troops) 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. Similar ideas were tried in England, Australia and the UK. It should be noted that afterwards there was no major economic setbacks until 2008 after New Deal era financial regulations were pulled. In Germany, the response was more severe and was seen as a failure of democracy, which contributed to the rise of authoritarian parties on the left like the Communist KPD, which in turn led to the Nazi (National Socialists German Workers Party) party to counter them (possibly with help from western powers seeking a wall against communism)
with 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, except that the rise of the Nazis to power was far more complicated than just that. Much more important in that question was the fact that Germany was blamed for the war to create to legal and moral justification for said reparations (as elaborated above, the actual econonomic effects of the reparations were questionable) and the Stab-And-The-Back-Myth that was set into the world by Imperial German Marshals (and defacto military oligarchs from 1916 on) Ludendorff and Hindenburg in order to shift the blame for the Germanys defeat to the Social Democrats and the Jews. The concurrent deeply authoritarian political culture of many German institutions as well as reactionary and monarchist Industrialists like Krupp, who all backed Hitler and Nationalist and Antisemitic Parties similar to the NSDAP (like the DNVP) and the lack of people actually willing to give a damn about the Republic itself lead to the erosion of the few democratic principles left at this point. From 1930 onwards, Hindenburg, who was elected as the candidate of a coalition of Nationalist and conservative parties to the office of President reigned Germany in a dictatorial manner and named Hitler as Chancellor and head of government in January 1933, after two governments under the centrist-conservative Party Zentrum and the Nationalist DNVP failed to stabilize the economy. 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 completing 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. When the communists tried to launch a revolution in Spain, Germany sent weapons and eventually troops to keep keep the nationalists in control, while Britain looked the other way and pretended not to notice that Germany suddenly had hundreds of tanks (and that France was providing aid to communist revolutionaries). So nobody was too concerned 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, the Nazis securing a ceasefire with Soviet Russia and with Britain and France finally stirred to the defense 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 (and also dispose of a few dissenting Germans on the Nazis' hitlist) 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. 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(four times the death toll of the Holocaust to be precise, something that is largely ignored in light of Holocaust itself and Japan's contemporary PR effort). 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.
Despite the US' obvious industrial advantage, the US Navy was seriously lacking in experience and numbers compared to the IJN at the start of the war; with the Japanese carriers outnumbering Americans (who had to split their fleets to protect against German U-Boat attacks), there was a very real threat that the IJN would return to finish the job and start raiding the US Mainland before replacement ships could be built. The early stages of the War in the Pacific were very much touch-and-go, but that all changed after the Battle of Midway, when Admiral Nimitz intercepted the IJN's plans to attack Midway Island and lured them into a trap, destroying half of the IJN's total carrier capacity. This permanently halted Japanese aggression and put them on the defensive, buying the American war machine valuable time to rearm and retrain.
As time went on, and with some shaky starts, the Allies quickly learned how to rely on carriers instead of traditional battleship tactics, a lucky and devastating win at the Battle of Midway put the IJN on the back foot, now finding themselves as the proverbial one legged man in an ass kicking contest with the cream of Japanese carrier aviation at the bottom of the Pacific. Ferocious naval engagements gave way as the star of the show to even more brutal amphibious warfare as the Marines began their island hopping campaign across the Pacific, painfully prying each strategically important Japanese occupied island from their well dug in defenders. The jungle, cave and amphibious warfare of this stage of the campaign was especially horrific even by World War 2 standards, not helped by racism against the Japanese on the part of Americans and the racism against everyone crossed with the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese further exacerbating this. The IJN also set up various military units for holding prisoners and scientific experiments - best exemplified by Unit 731 - which gave Auschwitz a run for their money on crimes against humanity, the only difference being the lack of a genocidal goal.
One often overlooked (at least in popular history from the western perspective) event in the war in China was the last big Japanese Offensive of 1944, named Operation Ichi-Go, where the Japanese threw their last reserves together to break through Republican Chinese lines under Chiang Kai-shek with astounding success. Although the Japanese were beaten back very quickly as were they in no position to hold their gains against the following allied counter-offensive, the Republican Chinese failure to stop it lead to the US taking control over the Nationalist forces after an ultimatum that greatly damaged the previously good relations between Kai-shek and the US government. It also lead to the disillusion of a lot of Nationalist Chinese officiers and soldiers with their cause, prompting them to switch sides to the Communists under Mao Zedong. Mao on the other hand quickly utilized this momentum and influx of experienced soldiers (along with Soviet aid) to seize control of China from the Nationalists, push them out of the main land off to Taiwan and found the Chinese Peoples Republic in 1949.
One major note from a wargaming perspective in this theater is Operation Ten-Go, the last sortie of the IJN against the US military forces invading Okinawa. The largest battleship made by human hands, the Yamato, and her support fleet, sortied... and were promptly destroyed by massed American air power. Thus proving the change in the IRL meta of naval warfare to carrier dominance, which has endured to this day.
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 after processing Uranium in a cyclotron releases millions of times more energy than an equivalent mass of a chemical reaction. Naturally, instead of using it as cheap energy first, 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. 20000 tons of silver wiring were built to enrich the Uranium into something that will recreate a small sun for a brief moment.
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.
After the war, the United Nations was organized in a significantly more effective manner than the League of Nations through the veto power and the binding requirements at the Security Council at least nominally giving the world a way to forcibly stop wars. The embarrassment that was the League of Nations formally dissolved itself and handed over all its assets to the UN in it's last meeting in 18 April 1946 (the Resolution went in to effect the next day on the 19th) with the sole exception of a 9 man committee transferring assets, records and administrations of specialist agencies to the UN. With the self-dissolution of the committee on 31 July 1947, legally ending the League of Nations as an entity. The Cold War technically started the day the Japanese surrendered, though the Berlin Blockade and the ending of the Chinese Civil War, reignited after Japan's defeat, were the public display.
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 power of the atom burn the 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. As a result, it's hard to make easily dehumanized rank-and file villains for a narrative when the soldiers of neither side actually want to be fighting at all.
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 assassinated 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 and Italy playing the incompetent sidekick/comic relief which isn't too far off the truth in a series of spectacular displays of military incompetence on the part of Mussolini and his generals. 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 Häyhä than say, Alvin York (They both have Sabaton songs though!)).
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?
- The 1920+ universe, inspired by the art of Jakub Rozalski, envisions an alternate Europe where Nikola Tesla’s super science lead to the development of Mechs as the dominant war machine. Best known for the RTS game “Iron Harvest” that pits Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia, and Poland in a version of WWI with WWII elements mixed in. Even Rasputin makes an appearance as the leader of a shadowy cabal looking to seize power by fomenting revolution in all three factions and take over Tesla’s super-advanced city-state.
|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|