Culture Re-View: How did 'World War II' get its name?

Adolf Hitler, front, salutes parading troops of the German Wehrmacht in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 5, 1939 after the German invasion.
Adolf Hitler, front, salutes parading troops of the German Wehrmacht in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 5, 1939 after the German invasion. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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Everyone knows it now as World War II, but was that always going to be the case?


28 April 1942: World War II gets its name

There’s a great little gag in an episode of time-travelling British sci-fi show ‘Doctor Who’ where Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is speaking to a World War I soldier and refers to it as such. “What do you mean World War One?” the soldier asks, horrified.

While in the show, the Doctor apologises for giving away historical spoilers, it also points out an interesting question about the two World Wars. When did they start being referred to as World Wars I and II? One theory puts the official naming of World War II on this day in history.

In Europe, the First World War was generally referred to as “The Great War”, both during and in the subsequent decades after. Over in the US, it was originally referred to as the “European War”, until they joined the fray in 1917.

After the US joined the war, generally nomenclature for it became “The World War”. In a letter dated 31 July 1919, President Woodrow Wilson made a recommendation that this would become the official name of the war and it was adopted thereafter. Although many Britons continued calling it The Great War, the US term was used by Winston Churchill in his 1927 memoir of the events.

Before the Second World War actually happened, the use of “World War II” was already common in the same way we currently speak about “World War III”. In fact, the first known example is in the Manchester Guardian in 1919.

When World War II gained its current name is less clear though. Essentially, it became known as “World War II” through force of habit. There are no definitive first times it shows up, but there’s plenty of evidence that while some people referred to the war against the Nazis as “The War” even today, others started calling it “World War II” as early as 1939. Time Magazine’s issue on 11 September 1939 refers to “World War II began last week at 5.20 am (Polish time) Friday, September 1”.

Anyone who started calling the 1939-1945 war “World War II” naturally started adding a “I” or “First” to the previous war.

AP/1940 AP
British Royal Air Force patrol planes are seen in flight over an unknown location, on June 18, 1940, during World War II.AP/1940 AP

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it the “Second World War” in 1941, although he didn’t particularly care for the term.

On this day in 1942, he had a public survey run to find a better name. Over 1,500 submissions were entered. Roosevelt’s own submission for the war’s name was “The Survival War”, while others wanted it called “The War for Civilisation” and “The War Against Enslavement”.

In the end, none of the submitted alternatives captured the American public’s imagination, and so they reverted to the original name, “World War II” or “The Second World War”.

As the war neared its end, on 10 September 1945, President Harry Truman signed a request from the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, to officially name the war “World War II”.

NB: Russians generally refer to it as “The Great Patriotic War”, but they also pretend the war only began in 1941 because before then, they were on the same side as the Nazis. They don’t like it when you bring that up though.

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