“Total war” is the term some participants (such as Germany’s general Erich Ludendorff) and many subsequent historians adopted to express the sheer magnitude and impact of the First World War. By this interpretation, it was not the geographic breadth of the war that distinguished it. Previous conflicts had been sufficiently far-flung that the First World War’s global reach was not quite unique. Rather, what appeared to so many observers to give the four years from 1914 to 1918 their special character were the repercussions of industrialized war on a massive scale. To them the war was “total” because of the appalling casualties it produced, the unchecked ferocity and technological inventiveness with which it was waged (including poison gas and submarines), the strains it placed upon civilians who were now endangered by aerial bombing, long-range artillery bombardment, blockade, and the harsh conditions and long hours in wartime factories. Above all, it was a war which demanded each citizen’s engagement with the war effort on a practical, intellectual, and emotional level. World War I prompted people to demonize their enemies and scrutinize their neighbors for any flaw or deviation that could obstruct the search for victory.
The contrasts between World War I and its predecessors can be overdrawn. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) had a devastating impact, especially in Central Europe, and it had been fueled by savage religious strife. But in at least two ways the industrialized killing of 1914–18 was a marked departure. First, in the wake of technological innovation, the war could be fought differently, with new and terrible weapons. Second, after a century of population growth, educational expansion, and political reform, most governments required some degree of consent from their populations to wage war on so massive a scale. They were then challenged by the persistent stalemate to devise unlikely to be spared.