I'm developing a setting that has majoritarily experienced a First Industrial Revolution after a period of peace, preceded by a period of warfare sort of equivalent to the Napoleonic wars.

Now I am considering the possibility that a country would have in having developed a strong economy and industry, in parallel of an ongoing armed conflict based around trenches. (Think if World War I would have started earlier than it did, and the technological advancements would have to have been done during the conflict; if that simile helps.)

The causes of the war and the motives for the involved parties to drag out the conflict for so long (i'm thinking as much as 30 years long, but i'm not sure yet, as this seems to be a lot) can be expanded on, but firstly I want to know if it is possible for a country to be involved in this conflict directly and be able to experience industrial and economical growth equivalent to that of the Second Industrial Revolution that happened in Europe before WWI. Note that this country that I'm interested in is not benefitting indirectly from the conflict, nor is it neutral, as it is the one mainly pushing the war forward in time and was the target of the war declaration in question in the first place.

In short, is exponential industrial and economical growth during an extended war time possible at all? If it is, how unrealistic is it to be as strong as the irl 2nd I.R?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a great question and historically the answer seems ot be "utterly YES with bells on". $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 10 '19 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ Note that astonishingly there have been no major inventions at all since the cold war. Nothing. (Air flight, for example, has drastically slowed down, for goodness sake.) $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 10 '19 at 16:13
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Fattie: Lithium batteries. Capsule endoscopy. 3D printing. CRISPR. Artificial retinas. Reusable space rockets. Solid-state gyroscopes. Solid state lidar. Gorilla glass and similar products. Graphene. And, of course, the World Wide Web. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 10 '19 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ D3, You may want to ask this question on the excellent history site. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 11 '19 at 0:05

While there have been several good answers about economics, one thing which puzzled me was the desire to have a "hot" war going for decades. Historically, very long periods of warfare, like the 100 years war, the 30 years war, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic wars and the Cold War were generally short periods of intense combat interspersed with longer periods where the various warring sides were static and building/reorganizing their forces. You could even see the 20th centuries major conflicts (WWI, WWII and the Cold War) as a continuous period of "war" broken into three major episodes of combat and innumerable smaller subsidiary conflicts. The reason these wars went on for so long is the conflict revolved around what was seen as an existential threat to one side or the other (or both).

Reading the war(s) this way also provides a rational for innovations to have time to be created, tested and mature into usable technologies. This also makes it possible to develop the doctrines, strategies and tactics which allow these innovations to be adopted by military forces or civilian economies.

So in order for your scenario to be realistic, the backstory will need to be developed more to identify and highlight the nature of the existential threat, a timeline of the campaigns and probably a political and social timeline as well (for example conversion to wartime economy, the replacement of working men with women or children/retired workers, changes of government due to events on the battlefield [which could advance or retard various projects], alliance partners achieving success or failure requiring your intervention or modifying your timetable and so on).

This will actually be "worldbuilding" om a grand scale.

| improve this answer | |

I'm going to branch off of what Puppetsock posted and get a bit more theoretical. While he's absolutely correct that economic expansion in the conditions of the first world war is extremely unlikely, you could get more 'alternate history' and make those conditions more agreeable.

The main issue that made WW1 so bloody was that military leadership hadn't really adjusted to the realities of warfare in an industrial environment. The combination of 19th century tactics and 20th century weaponry created massive death tolls, due to the fact that modern artillery and automatic weaponry made attacking an entrenched enemy extremely costly, but political motivations required both sides to keep attempting it anyway.

However, if you postulate political conditions on both sides that allow for less pressure on military leadership for quick victories, then a scenario more compatible with your ideas is possible.

You keep the entrenched defenses that both sides established early in the war, but each side is focused purely on defense, with neither side willing to risk massive losses to press an attack. Instead of having to devote resources to constantly replacing battlefield losses, each side devotes their primary energies to trying to find technological solutions that allow them to break the defenses on the other side conclusively and without risk of mass casualties.

This requires two fundamental changes from how things actually went down:

First: Defensive weapons technology has to stay ahead of offensive weapons technology. This is particularly critical with regard to long-range artillery and aircraft. You can't have industrial and technological growth driven by military conflict if your cities are being shelled and bombed. Earlier development and wider adoption of radar would serve both purposes very well, for example, making it easier to shoot down enemy aircraft and destroy enemy artillery before they have a chance to do much damage to civilian targets.

Second: Both sides have to be able to maintain a wartime economy indefinitely. This means continuous uninterrupted access to all the critical raw materials needed to keep the factories going. Iron, Petroleum, Copper, Rubber, etc. In both WW1 and WW2 the German forces had key resources that they were going to run out of if they didn't win quickly, which drove the need for quick victories at all costs. If both sides are comfortably supplied, than neither will be willing to risk upsetting the status quo unless they have an absolutely insurmountable advantage.

Combining these two factors allows both sides to be potentially able to realize the kind of economic benefits that the United States did during both World Wars. The war provided the political and economic motivation to devote far more resources to industrial and technological development than would otherwise have been possible, yet the United States did not suffer the kind of manpower and infrastructure losses that the rest of Europe did. As long as everything stays in balance, you have a steampunkish equivalent to the Cold War where everybody is preparing for a war that nobody REALLY believes is actually going to happen.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks a million, that "defensive on both parts" scenario is kind of what i'm looking for, I will try to devise political conditions on both countries to make this happen. $\endgroup$ – D3lf Oct 10 '19 at 16:51
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @D3lf you basically need both sides to have a population that's in a very nationalistic mood, and you need both sides to have independent access to all the resources they need to drive their economy without having to fight with each other to get them. In WW1 and WW2 both, Germany didn't have the capacity to keep its economy on a wartime footing indefinitely without capturing resource-rich areas from the opponents. Arguably, the ENTIRE point of WW2 from a German perspective was capturing the oil fields in the Caucasus. This meant they HAD to attack, and win, or ultimately starve economically. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 10 '19 at 16:57

Not absolutely impossible. But very unlikely.

WWI consumed men at a drastic rate, averaging about 50,000 military deaths per week for the whole war, and a similar number of civilian deaths. Those who were not killed were under huge pressure to join up and get involved in the fight. So generally, any potentially productive individuals were siphoned off for the war effort.

Production was also siphoned off for the war effort. This Wikipedia article indicates that artillery production grew from 91 in 1914, to 8039 in 1918. Total GDP in the UK grew, but primarily because war production ballooned.

If one side had slackened their effort in order to devote effort to growing their domestic economy, they would have had to accept getting hammered in the war. That could not go on very long before they found themselves over run.

The example of WWI does show one potential way the economy could grow during such a war. And that is the entry of women into industry. Previously, women did not enter factories to any great extent. During the war they entered all sorts of factories in all sorts of capacities, in order to release men for the war. It's possible that this change would have allowed an expansion of the domestic economy adequate to overcome the loss of men to the war. It would require a training period, and quite a lot of adjustment. And the entirety of society would need to be reshaped. But in principle, it could make the difference.

So, if the war caused old outmoded and outdated ideas to be dropped in favor of more efficient ideas, it is just barely possible it could make changes that would cause the economy to be revamped. It would be precarious and slow at first. But just possible.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ This answer is really interesting, thanks for taking the time to answer! What if single women were considered as eligible for conscription as well in this hypothethical country? What if they were able to join the industrial workforce in the first place if they chose to? $\endgroup$ – D3lf Oct 10 '19 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ This makes little sense, puppet. Famously, EVERYTHING - EVERYTHING - was invented during and because of WW2, notably "all of computer science", endless "minor" things like radar and jets, and, oh, nukes. Then as I point out during the cold war, everything else that was left to invent, was invented. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 10 '19 at 16:13
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Yes much was invented. But not much happened to it as far as the economy until well after the war ended. While the war was on things mostly just sat in the labs. You mention nukes, computers, radar, and jets. These in particular didn't get any civilian use until after the war was long over. The economy was massively directed towards war production. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Oct 10 '19 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ P, to me that just makes no sense. Stuff was RUSHED in to production - actual massive use - during the war, to an amazing degree. Notably jets, nuclear bombs, radar, computers ... a huge list $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 10 '19 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @D3lf I has been proven that if two group went to war, one sending only men, the other sending both men and women, the second would get early victories, but the first would win by population attrition. You want pregnant women and disposable men to keep your fighting force efficient. $\endgroup$ – MakorDal Oct 11 '19 at 7:42

Let's think about this:


1. The cold war was indeed a war of (economic) attrition.

(The west won as it happens - the other blokes got outspent.)

So did either of the two sides have a second industrial revolution during the cold war period?

2. Yes, in fact that is literally exactly what happened. The "computer and space age" is the only thing ever described as a "second industrial revolution" and that was literally entirely due to the cold war, not merely happened at the same time.

In short the answer here seems to be a resounding "Yes, precisely!"

Moreover, in general all sides seemed to be spurred on by wars, no matter how much under the gun.

"Fortress Britain" was precisely being attrited to heck, when they invented more or less everything .. radar, "all of computing as we know it" (naturally, being British, they then more or less killed off Mr. Turing as a way of saying "thanks" for doing that), modern jets/aircraft, etc etc etc.

In the US as well as being subject to WW2 on all fronts starting from nothing, the US was able to steal all the relevant nazi scientists and then, astonishingly, invent nuclear weapons all while being in a raging massive world catastrophe.

Really - the answer to the excellent question here is just "Yes, and how."

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for your perspective! While I do agree with you in principle, your answer to my question seems to be focused more on the Cold War period, while I was tending my question to be more around the period from 1870 to 1914, from which the Second Industrial Revolution is said to have started. $\endgroup$ – D3lf Oct 10 '19 at 16:30

When an intensive war is fought, it will put a significant burden on the economies of all the parties involved. That is unless the war is merely used as a stimulus by the parties involved, and not fought with a goal of conquest but with a goal to ensure it's perpetuity.

The novel Nineteen Eight Four discusses a similar theme where there is a perpetual war with the three superpowers who continue to change their alliance, and reframe it as needed.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for taking the time with my question! What you said is really interesting. The war is indeed perpetuated by both parties with the purpouse of maintaining "stability", in that sense. Tensions do not arise in the border in which the war is fought because of the war front there, if that makes sense. I will look into that novel you recommended as it seems very similar to my case. Thanks a lot again! $\endgroup$ – D3lf Oct 10 '19 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ Again this seems totally a-historical guys. From the stirrup to computers to nukes, it was all invented in the heat of war. It's a commonplace history - of - technology observation that shit gets done when a war is on. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 10 '19 at 16:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.