What does "The war to end all wars" mean?

I always understood this phrase as equivalent to Saddam Hussein’s “mother of all battles,” in other words a really big fricking war. But it appears that some people understand it literally; cf. the lyrics from “No Man’s Land”, by Eric Bogle:

What’s the SD? Was this phrase meant literally?

As I’ve always understood it, it was originally a phrase used to describe the “Great War”, which was eventually renamed World War I.

In 1914, H.G. Wells published The War That Will End War as a series of articles. Germany was rather militaristic at the time, and Wells argued that defeating Germany in a war would stop their ability to make trouble. Thus, ‘a war to end all wars’.

FWIW, I like Floggin Molly’s cover of the song in the OP.

Oh, and I note that the song in question was written after the songwriter visited to a military cemetery in northern France where WWI casualties were buried, and several lines in the song reference “1916”.

Right, I knew it was used to describe WWI, but wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean. Thanks for the link, I probably should have JFGI.

I’m not sure you can use the lyrics of a song written in 1976 to demonstrate whether people meant the term literally between 1914 and 1918. Eric Bogle is wonderful, but comes at things from a particular point of view.

That said, from my understanding, the term was used literally at the time - the Great War was seen as the culmination of European issues that would sort them out for good. And Germany would be left unable/unwilling to cause trouble again.

Right, The Great War was supposed to end the need/desire for any future wars in Europe.

It didn’t work out.

It might have done [del]if it wasn’t for you meddling kids[/del] if it wasn’t for pussying out on splitting Germany up into its constituent states. But that’s a different argument.

Yes, quite literally.

The 19th century after Napoleon was comparatively war-free in Europe, which is all anyone in Europe cared about. The Franco-Prussian War changed the balance of power between France and Germany, and there were many small scale revolutions and ethnic conflicts, but the huge “world” wars were absent.

Yet they saw how military technology had advanced. The scale of the carnage in the U.S. Civil War appalled them. The end of the war saw Grant grinding down Lee by throwing his superior numbers of troops at him in a way that was more bloody sausage making than the glorious warfare that was spoke of in song and story. The British and the other colonial powers saw that their superior technology could repress the endless uprising in the African and Asian lands that they infested by mowing the wogs down like wheat.

And military technology just got better. The Gatling gun never made it into the Civil War, although some earlier machine gun variants did considerable damage, but it was used widely in the colonies. Zeppelins were easily envisioned as bombers, and when airplanes came that made the skies even less safe. Submarines and tanks and poison gas all seemed to be undefendable weapons of mass horror.

You can probably make a book just of quotes from people - politicians, inventors, generals, pundits - saying that war - meaning a real war between advanced civilized technologized countries, the only ones who counted - would forever be impossible because it would be too deadly and destroy everyone. I can find them back before the Civil War, but they start proliferating in the last part of the 19th century. There was also a vogue for apocalyptic novels, depicting the next great war between Germany and France or Germany and England or France and Russia, meant to scare the public into spending more money on arms and defense. But most people thought that war couldn’t happen. There were too many economic ties between the European countries. There wasn’t enough food to withstand blockades. Airplanes would devastate cities. War was unthinkable.

And yet it came. And it was far worse than anyone imagined. Armies were much larger than even in the Civil War. Deaths were far greater. A million casualties in a battle was impossible, then happened again and again. Poison gas made people sick for life even if they survived. The streets of London and Paris and Berlin were filled with amputees trying to live on tiny pensions. Trench warfare was deadly even between the battles.

All the predictions had come true. War was now too deadly ever to be fought again. This had to be the end. Humanity itself couldn’t survive another war. Aggressors had to be disarmed and returned to a pre-technological state. The future of western-style democracy depended on it. It was truly the war to end all wars.

Everybody believed it. Check out this article from 1929.

The Rotarian magazine was the spokesman for conservative middle-class America so this is probably sentiment that Americans could heartily agree with.

And that’s also one reason why almost nobody in America believed in a Second World War and was adamantly opposed to preparing for a Second World War. It couldn’t happen, it was too stupid to happen, it was too horrible to happen, and if it happened, it was no concern of ours because they let us down once and we shouldn’t let that happen again.

The war to end all wars appears in print more during WWII than earlier. Irony is history.

This’ll probably get this moved to GD, but I say no. Hitler still would have been pissed that Germany lost WWI, so there’s that. Plus, in the real world, Hitler united all the German speaking areas into a gros-Deutschland (Austria, Sudentland, etc.), I see no reason why he wouldn’t have tried doing that in that timeline (just a lot more places to unite), since all those constituent states probably would have felt the same as the German areas in the real world did (upset about losing, and anxious to join a greater Germany to regain its place in the world). WWII probably still would have happened, but, had things worked out the same as they did here (ie Germany lost round II as well) it might have once again been broken up into constituent states in 1945, and might have stayed that way afterwords.

So, IMHO, it wouldn’t have prevented WWII, but it might have prevented the reunified Germany of today.

If anything, I suspect that the modern usage of “the ____ to end all ____s” as a non-literal superlative is probably derived from the literally-intended “war to end all wars”.

That strikes me as very likely too.

It is very easy for Americans to underestimate the importance of World War I on the European psyche. In some ways, it is a more defining moment in European history than World War II.

As Tom Lehrer sang:

Once all the Germans were warlike and mean
But that couldn’t happen again
We taught them a lesson in nineteen eighteen
And they’ve hardly bothered us since then!

A friend of mine who is a History Masters was fond of saying that WWII was an aftershock of WWI. I suspect he exaggerated but the sentiment is likely correct.

Many people today call WWII a continuation of WWI. A single war with a 20-year cease-fire, if you will.

That’s essentially what it was. The Treaty of Versailles, by imposing such punitive terms on Germany in an effort to keep it from becoming a threat again, inspired such deep resentment that it allowed Hitler to come to power.

After WWII the Allies at least corrected that error by rebuilding Germany and Japan and converting them into allies, rather than ensuring that they would seek revenge down the road.

That’s highly debatable. One could say that they corrected the error by decisively destroying their arms, completely occupying their territory, and indoctrinating them with liberal democracy (or communism, for East Germany), rather than giving them the freedom to run their own affairs. Germany also lost far more territory after WWII than after WWI.

Yes - I’d absolutely view the whole period as one thing. But given the habit of separating them, I find the first woefully underconsidered here in the US (unsurprisingly, given this country’s MUCH greater involvement in Round 2).

armies, not arms. :smack:

I’d agree with one addition. The Treaty of Versailles, by being punitive enough on Germany, inspired such deep resentment that, combined with the treaty of Versailles being insufficiently punitive (permitting Germany to continue unoccupied as a single nation) to prevent Germany being a threat again, it allowed Hitler to come to power.

That and the non-destruction of the German military as happened second time round. Not practical I know, but the invasion of Germany and boots in Berlin would have changed post Great War history dramatically.