Teacher's Guide: Total War

In World War II, fire bombs, air raids, and the atomic bomb kill millions of civilians and leave many more injured and homeless. As the fighting grows more fierce and sweeps across nations, ordinary citizens join the war effort, often at great sacrifice.

Unit Themes and Topics:
civilians in World War II

human rights and human endurance
military strategy
military technology

Connections Across History
connection: when: where: program:
antiwar efforts 1919-1935 France, Germany Great Britain, United States "Lost Peace"
Nazi Germany 1926-1945 Germany, Eastern Europe "Master Race"
World War II propaganda films 1939-1945 Germany, France, Italy, United States "Great Escape"
bombing of Hiroshima 1945 Japan, United States "Fallout"
postwar economies 1945-1973 Great Britain, France, Italy, United States, West Germany "Boomtime"

Note to Teachers: This program contains graphic scenes and emotionally powerful material. We recommend that you preview the program before using it in the classroom.

Betty Lawrence
(nurse, England)

"I thought that if they can do this to us -- do it to children -- we should do it to them. I know it wasn't a nurse's philosophy. . . but that's the way I felt then. Do it to them."
photographic portrait of Betty Lawrence


Before Watching

1. Based on Betty Lawrence's quotation, what can you tell about her experiences in the war? As students watch the program, have them take notes on how civilians in different countries were affected by the war.

After Watching

1. What stories in the program affected you most? Why? What did you learn from those stories about the physical and psychological effects of World War II on different people?

2. Why did military strategists target civilian populations in World War II? How did modern technology help them strike these targets? How and why did attitudes toward targeting civilians change during the war


Ask students to cite examples from the program of human rights violations. Ask: Why are human rights often violated in wartime? Can the violations ever be morally justified? Then ask students to create their own lists of human rights. Give them copies of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights*,. Discuss the preamble, and ask: What are the declaration's goals? How does it propose to accomplish those goals? Is the declaration applicable to peace and war time?

Invite a grandparent, relative, or other community member to come and talk about his or her experiences during the war. Ask students to prepare questions beforehand for the guest speaker. After the visit, have students discuss how the guest's experiences compared with those presented in the program.

FOCUS: The Home Front

The following lesson focuses on a program segment about the evacuation of children from war zones, the drafting of British women to produce military equipment, and the bombings of London and Plymouth. European citizens recall their experiences.

Program Segment
approximately 14 minutes

The beginning of the program

Betty Lawrence says, "I know it wasn't a nurse's philosophy. . . but that's the way I felt then. Do it to them."


Before Watching

1. As a class, brainstorm definitions of the term total war. Discuss examples of total war and who is affected by it. As students watch the program segment, have them consider if and how they might change their definitions.

2. In your opinion, should women and children be treated differently from men during wartime? Why or why not?.

After Watching

1. Why were industrial cities such as Plymouth important military targets? How did the collaboration of industrial and military power affect the distinctions between civilians and soldiers, men and women, and adults and children?

2. How were the lives of women and children affected by World War II? How do you think their roles in the war effort were different from women's and children's roles in previous wars? Why was the participation of women and children important? How did governments encourage them to participate?


Have students research how the war affected the work of American women, including specific changes in their participation in the labor force before, during, and after World War II. Then ask students to draw on the research to write a letter from an American woman to her husband, brother, father, or son overseas, describing how the war and her work for the war have changed her life. Have students consider the age, geographic location, economic background, and ethnicity of the woman whose life they are describing.

Discuss how women's roles in the military have changed since World War II and how public opinion about those roles has changed. Have students research the debate about women entering military academies, the military, and combat. Then ask students to write a newspaper editorial or draw a cartoon using the facts they researched to support their opinions.

Divide the class into small groups and assign each group to represent civilians in a city bombed during World War II, such as London, Plymouth, Hamburg, or Tokyo. Ask each group to list some of the short-term and long-term problems faced by individuals, families, and cities after the bombing, and the steps that would be necessary to solve these problems. Have the groups present their lists and discuss the similarities and differences among the lists.

Program Summary

Fears of of what future war will entail are reflected in the film "Things to Come." The new wars go beyond these expectations as civilians now become the targets and casualties.

Use the following information to assist in finding specific segments within the program. The times listed on the left indicate minutes into the program.

05:00 The German blitzkrieg through Poland, Holland, Belgium and France catches many civilians by surprise. Soon thousands are turned into refugees -- forced to wander in the open, exposed to attack by German planes.

07:00 The Germans are confident at home. The entire country supports the war effort -- even children help collect scrap for the factories.

08:00 Britain must quickly catch up to Germany's production level. Women now enter the workforce in massive numbers, but doing so turns them into targets for German air raids. Germans bomb cities of southern England, including Plymouth and London. It is now clear that no one is safe in this war.

14:00 The US joins the war after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and begins to convert its industries to war production. Everyone is recruited in the war effort.

18:30 The war hits the Soviet Union especially hard. Russians, Slavs, and other Eastern Europeans are treated as sub-human by the Nazis and used as slave labor.

22:00 Germans are united in their support of "Total War" against non-Germanic peoples. The consequences of this philosophy are demonstrated when the Allies strike Hamburg. Casualties reach 42,000, exceeding British civilian losses.

28:00 China has been subjected to Japan's unrelenting invasion since 1937. Atrocities against non-Japanese civilians are extensive. Chinese and Koreans are kidnapped, enslaved, or executed.

31:00 Leningrad is under siege for two and a half years. The city resists the Germans despite rampant starvation, illness and death, and becomes a symbol for the nation. The radio orchestra under Shostakovich endures and puts on the Seventh Symphony during the siege.

40:00 The massive US industrial effort fuels the war against the Axis powers.

42:00 The war finally reaches Japan itself. Japanese citizens try to prepare, but are unable to cope with the US onslaught. Despite horrific incendiary attacks, Japan persists in the war effort until the US drops the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.

50:00 The war ends, having cost 55 million lives, the majority of which were civilians. Refugees try to find their way home, often only to find their cities burned and leveled.

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