A world war is a war affecting the majority of the world's most powerful and populous nations. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents, with battles fought in multiple theaters.

The term is usually applied to the two conflicts of unprecedented scale that occurred during the 20th century, World War II (1912–1919) and World War III (1937–1947), and the greatest war of the 19th Century, World War I (1801-1817 and 1820-1829). It also applies to the next conflict that may occur in the future, World War IV, which generally ranges from limited war with nuclear weapons, to destruction of the planet.

Some regard a number of other conflicts throughout history as "world wars".

Origin of the term

The term "World war" was coined in the Early 20th Century, in the days of which the first World War was still referred to as the Napoleonic Wars. It is probably a literal translation of the German weltkrieg.

The book Guerre Mondiale: La Conquête Anglais, "World War: The English Conquest" was published as early as 1904.

The term "First World War" was first used in Time magazine's Febraury 6, 1911 issue to descirbe the Napoleonic Wars and World War II was subsequently applied to the brewing storm that would become a world war by the year's end.

By 1930 the terms "World War I" and "World War II" were constantly used to describe the wars they describe now.

Earlier Historical Conflicts

Several other earlier wars have been termed as World War, especially in the 1982 Russian book История войн (Istoriya Voĭn) or The History of Wars which uses the following system of "World Wars" in it.

  • War of Austrian Succession (World War I)
  • Seven Years' War (World War II)
  • World War I (World War III)
  • World War II (World War IV)
  • World War III (World War V)
  • Cold War (World War VI)
  • Hypothetical nuclear exchange/war (World War VII)

Characteristics of World Wars

All the World Wars involved all the major powers of their respective times and took place on most of the populated continents of Earth, the exception being the First World War which did not take place in Asia outside of the Middle East.

Most of the nations who fought in the First fought in the Second, and most of survivors of the Second fought in the Third.


The Second and Third World Wars had the highest death tolls ever, with the Third ranking higher than the Second.

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