A Short History of the Total War

On this day 75 years ago, Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s Minister for Propaganda, gave his most famous speech. In the midst of World War II, he was speaking to a select crowd of supporters. At the climax of the speech, Goebbels asked, “Do you want total war?” The question – and the crowd’s frenetic response in the affirmative – were broadcast many times and remain infamous until this day.
But what is a total war? This article will look at the characteristics of a total war, the use of the term from the 18th to the 20th century, and Goebbels’ speech about it. Finally, there will be a brief section about board and video games that make use of the term.

What Is a Total War?

Very simply speaking, a total war is a war that is not limited in any way. Traditionally, there are four dimensions in which a war could transcend traditional limitations:

  • Mobilization of civilian society and the entire economy for the purposes of the war
  • Control over society and media, especially via propaganda
  • Methods at the warfaring state’s disposal all applied, regardless of conventions and law
  • Goals that include the military, political or physical annihilation of the enemy

Of course, these ideas have never been taken to their most extreme applications – there hasn’t been a war in which every single person in a country was working for the purpose of the war or in which one party wanted to kill every single enemy citizen. A total war in the common usage of the word is therefore a war in which the usual boundaries of these four dimensions are strongly overstepped.

Clausewitz’ Absolute War and Ludendorff’s Total War

The term “total war” is mentioned as early as the 1770s – in an age of strictly non-total wars (Kabinettskriege, the German word for “cabinet wars” because the decisions were made by kings and their political advisors). Back then, professional soldiers fought wars according to a fixed set of rules for limited goals, leaving the civilian population relatively untouched. Twenty years later, war had changed. The French Revolution let loose the spirits of nationalism and ideology, transcending previous limitations of warfare.[1] France’s enemies responded in kind. The revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars covered Europe in blood for almost 25 years.


Carl von Clausewitz in Prussian uniform, painting by Karl Wilhelm Wach.

These wars made a strong impression on a Prussian staff officer named Carl von Clausewitz. He then wrote a book (aptly titled “On War”) about what war was and how it should be successfully conducted. One of the new concepts he introduced was the “absolute war”. In an absolute war, Clausewitz wrote, the party using all means at its disposal while the enemy does not must gain the upper hand. That forces both parties to do exactly that – both to preserve a chance at victory and to avoid defeat. However, Clausewitz stated that this absolute war was nothing but a philosophical idea. In reality, an absolute war was prevented by the possibility of third power interventions, by the option to reconsider a war once it was begun, and by the considerations for the time after a war (Clausewitz, On War, Book 8, Chapter 2). Clausewitz was therefore no early proponent of the total war, but is frequently misunderstood as such.
One man who did not misunderstand him was General Erich Ludendorff a hundred years later. However, Ludendorff disagreed profoundly with Clausewitz. His own experience was shaped by World War I, in which he had held high commands as the Chief of Staff of the Imperial German 8th Army on the Eastern Front and essentially became the military dictator of Germany for the last two years of the war. As the most important decision-maker, he took Germany’s defeat pretty seriously. Almost twenty years later, he was still not over it, and so he in turn wrote a little book named “The Total War”. The defeat, Ludendorff explained, was due to Germany clinging to Clausewitz’ teaching of a limited war in which the military was under political oversight. War as the expression of a people’s will to live required to be a nation’s first priority, even in peacetime. During a war, the entire nation must serve the war effort which was to be directed by a single military leader as the supreme commander. This commander should make all political decisions so that they served the conduct of the war – a stark reversal of Clausewitz.[2]

”Do You Want Total War?”

World War II pushed the limits of war even wider than World War I, especially on the German side. The ideological acerbity and the Nazi bid for total European (and possibly wider) domination increased the stakes to an unforeseen level. The atrocities of the war ranged from the starving of prisoners over the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, the extensive use of forced labor from the occupied countries to the mass summary executions and the genocide conducted by the German army and SS units in the east. No other war has ever fit the label of the total war so well, and in the beginning, it paid off for Nazi Germany. By early 1943, however, the country was deeply in trouble – Britain could not be subdued, the Americans had landed in North Africa, and the 6th Army had just been encircled and defeated in Stalingrad. Two weeks after the surrender of Stalingrad, on February 18, 1943, Goebbels gave his total war speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin.
For the first half of the speech, Goebbels spoke of Germany’s role as the defender of Western civilization against the hordes of Bolshevism. The far more famous second half, however, had him ask the audience various questions about their resolve to keep on fighting. When Goebbels asked, “Do you want total war?”, the people in attendance jumped up from their chairs, clapping and shouting in affirmation. You can watch this part of the speech (with English subtitles) here:

This enthusiastic reaction was not the spontaneous reaction of the representatives of all Germany as which the Nazi propaganda portrayed it. Every detail about the speech was carefully orchestrated by Goebbels – from lighting and stage design to the audience of handpicked loyal Nazi supporters among which Goebbels had placed large numbers of claqueurs who would start the clapping and the chants at the precise times Goebbels had told them earlier. The speech was recorded and heavily edited before being broadcast, and the final part which included the questions was broadcast over and over again on the German radio stations. The official transcript of the speech exaggerated the level of applause even beyond the staged spectacle.

Berlin, Großkundgebung im Sportpalast

Audience and stage at Goebbels’ Sportpalast speech. The banner reads “Total War – Shortest War”.

Goebbels wanted to achieve four goals with his speech:

  1. He wanted to increase the mobilization of the German society and economy. Despite all their other attempts to totalize the war, the Nazis were decidedly sub-total in this regard. Compared to Britain and the Soviet Union, the level of civilian production and consumption was still high.[3] Therefore, the armaments production of Germany was well below that of her enemies. In 1942, Germany – despite having the resources and labor of most of Europe at her disposal – produced only 15,000 airplanes, a lot fewer than the United Kingdom (24,000), the Soviet Union (25,000), or the United States (48,000).
  2. Goebbels wanted to strengthen the national resolve after the psychological catastrophe of Stalingrad. Therefore, he offered a re-interpretation of the defeat as a new Thermopylae (you know, the battle of the 300 Spartans against the Persian Empire) – a heroic defensive stand that would allow the homeland to survive.
  3. He wanted to make the Western Allies and the neutrals wary of the USSR by painting them as barbaric destroyers of civilization.
  4. Goebbels was permanently quarrelling with other high-ranking Nazi party, government and military officials for influence and access to Hitler. Hitler fostered these rivalries by making it unclear who was responsible for what because he thought the infighting would make sure his underlings put more effort into their work and the best ideas and people would succeed. Giving a high-impact speech, Goebbels thought, would improve his standing and get him additional responsibilities.

The speech met with mixed success. It did show that his propaganda still worked and could uphold the will to fight despite impossible odds in the field. Just as well, German industrial production became focused entirely on war purposes. The 15,000 planes of 1942 became 25,000 in 1943 and 40,000 in 1944 – in spite of Germany’s territorial losses and the ever stronger strategic bombing by the Western Allies. Nonetheless, Nazi Germany collapsed under the industrial and military superiority of her Soviet, American and British enemies, and the idea of total war died with her. Since then, no war between great powers has been waged anymore.

Video and Board Games

Many games deal with a total war – mostly World War II. As before, we’ll talk more about the term than the thing itself – so, only about games that reference total war in their title.
The wildly popular “Total War” series of computer strategy games has churned out about a dozen titles since 2000. The series is characterized by a mix of turn-based strategy decisions and real-time tactical combats whenever armies clash. Most of its installments are set in a historical time and place (Japan during the era of the shoguns, the ancient Mediterranean, Europe during the Middle Ages…), which, for all their variety, have one thing in common: Their wars are rather un-total. The closest thing to a total war we see is the lone Napoleon: Total War (and even that does not go into detail about how Napoleonic armies transcended conventional boundaries of war). “Total War” is nothing but an edgy marketing claim. Ironically enough, the recent fantasy-themed installments (Total War: Warhammer) offer most of a total war – at least if one chooses the more war-committed factions (like the Greenskins).

Axis Empires

What comes after Krieg? – Totaler Krieg. Box cover of Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg, ©Decision Games.

Board games use the term total war more cautiously and advisedly. To my knowledge, there is only Totaler Krieg! (Alan Emrich/Steve Kosakowski, Decision Games) and its re-implementation Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg! (Alan Emrich/Thomas Prowell/Salvatore Vasta, Decision Games) that advertise with it. Both games deal with World War II in Europe in some detail, and the war state progresses from Pre-War over Limited War to Total War. The Allies can trigger Total War by a total mobilization of American production, the Axis by the totalization of their goals of conquest and annihilation. Of course, that is a rather simple concept, but it gives a good intuitive grasp of the concept that is so prominently displayed in the title, and may trigger additional curiosity about it.

Games Referenced

Totaler Krieg! (Alan Emrich/Steve Kosakowski, Decision Games)
Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg! (Alan Emrich/Thomas Prowell/Salvatore Vasta, Decision Games)

Further Reading

Clausewitz’ On War can be found in a somewhat dated, but usable English translation here. The site also contains the German original, and the two of them can be compared there.
If you are more interested in Clausewitz’ writings, but don’t want to put an immense amount of work into reading his long and – for all its memorable aphorisms – rather unaccessible tome, I recommend Heuser, Beatrice: Reading Clausewitz, Pimlico, London 2002.
If you read German (and blackletter), Ludendorff’s Der totale Krieg is online here. I am not aware of any translation of this wacky little book.
Transcripts of Goebbels’ Sportpalast speech are online in an English translation and the original German.
Finally, for a comprehensive analysis of context, contents and effects of the speech (in German), see Fetscher, Iring: Joseph Goebbels im Berliner Sportpalast 1943. “Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?”, Europäische Verlags-Anstalt, Hamburg 1998.


1. These were mainly in the dimensions of mobilization (the levée en masse was an early general conscription), control (propaganda by leaflets, pamphlets, etc. became a major accompanying part of war) and methods (for example, the revolutionary armies broke the convention not to deliberately aim for enemy officers), but the early French Republic also dabbled in more wide-ranging goals – namely, converting other countries into republics, too.
2. Other parts of the books deal with conspiracy theories and Ludendorff’s wacky spiritual beliefs: He accused the Jews and the Catholic church of secretly corroding nations with their transnational networks and urged the Germans to adopt a “German understanding of God” (“deutsche Gotterkenntnis”), a sectarian cult that was run by his wife Mathilde.
3. This should prevent the population from revolting – another lesson drawn from the end of World War I in Germany.

4 thoughts on “A Short History of the Total War

  1. Pingback: World War II (Century of German History, #6) | Clio's Board Games

  2. Pingback: World War II Through the Lens of Unconditional Surrender! | Inside GMT blog

  3. Pingback: A Short History of the United Nations | Clio's Board Games

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Do You Want Total War? (Darren Kilfara) | Clio's Board Games

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s