Why did the Spanish Influenza of 1918 disappear from cultural memory for so long?

28 July 2021

This article first appeared in Queenwood's QNews Edition 40, Semester 1 2021. 

As the Great War finally came to an end, the world collectively faced a new enemy: the Spanish Influenza. Caused by an H1N1 virus, it infected one third of the world’s population and is thought to have killed between 50 and 100 million people: potentially more than World War 1 and World War 2 combined. However, whilst the   flu reshaped populations forever, once it had run its course, it was relegated to obscurity. It was completely overshadowed by World War I- it did not even make it on to the 1924 review of the “most eventful years” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. This neglect of recognition occurred for a few reasons. Primarily, the deep narrative of the war has allowed for endless stories of heroism and bravery, but influenza killed quickly and left no room for glory. Moreover, understanding the nature of a pandemic requires a universal release of data, something that was not done at the time due to the extensive censorship during wartime. Finally, the public’s attention and emotional investment evoked by the flu paled into comparison with that of the war.
However, since the 1960s, research into the Spanish flu has grown significantly. As ‘social history’ has emerged into a discipline, our interest in events only with political and economic consequences has been redirected to the individual human stories behind them. Additionally, it requires a cultural memory to give the flu an identity, which takes time when overshadowed by war, but also may not actually be possible due to a collective suppression of the trauma experienced. Ultimately, whilst the memory of World War I has filled libraries and evoked commemoration for over a century, it is only recently, after significant cultural shifts, that the Spanish Influenza pandemic is receiving the attention it deserves.
The most significant reason the Spanish flu was forgotten was because, unlike World War I, the lack of heroic tales of survival and death prevented commemoration through generational storytelling. Today, the world holds 80 000 books on World War I in more than forty languages, and 400 books on the flu in five languages. The statistic on death tolls suggests that this is severely out of proportion.
However, there is an explanation for this: in the first half of the 20th century, society’s desire to form stories from a   narrative that unfolded with time; stories with a cause, a consequence, a winner, resilience and stoicism, did not fit callously random nature of the Spanish flu. As World War I began, millions of men enlisted with great enthusiasm: warfare was deemed a manly, heroic experience. Soldiers’ sacrifices became trophies for their country, suffering became experiences to be remembered, and their bravery a cause for celebration. However, the shock of the deadly influenza did not result in narratives of nationalism. There was no prologue, no clear end and certainly no winner. Rather, there were millions of personal tragedies, which could only be actively woven together by people; a process of recovering that was subconsciously neglected. In fact, the chief medical officer of the British Local Government Board Sir, Arthur Newsholme, told his people that it was unpatriotic to be concerned with the flu rather than the war (Little, 2020). In the 50 years following the flu, there was little to no information released, as people privately grieved their lost loved ones. The ‘Forgotten Fallen’ became the name coined for those who fell in silence as their lungs filled with fluid, drowning them. But their name and legacy drowned just as quickly.
Throughout World War I, censorship of communication to maintain morale and preserve secrecy was strictly enforced amongst all combatants; thus the release of any news or medical research into Spanish Influenza, as it was known, was also concealed, resulting in a widespread lack of appreciation for its severity. In fact, there was nothing particularly “Spanish” about the Spanish flu. A country neutral in war, Spain was the only nation in war-torn Europe where data on the flu was released to the public. Spanish newspaper headlines were focused on updates of the flu and pages were filled with the names of those who had died. Interestingly, it was this neutral stance in the war that allowed them to respond to the flu correctly: Spanish authorities activated a public health approach, rather than a political approach to defeat the flu. As the rest of Europe were subsumed with the war effort, the press withheld news on the influenza outbreak to avoid causing alarm amongst the public, whose morale was already low. Some authorities even denied the severity of the flu: health experts refused to admit the number of deaths; it was announced that the flu’s duration did not surpass two months - despite it having already been present for half a year (Martini, 2019); and Britain even claimed that their prime minister was suffering from a “severe chill”, rather than the influenza (Little, 2020). The extent of this denial and censorship meant that it took time for the world to grasp that it was facing one global pandemic and not several individual ones. Whilst naming the flu had previously been based on wartime hostilities - in Senegal it was the Brazilian flu, in Brazil the German flu, the Danes thought it ‘came from the  south’, the Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, and the Persians blamed the British (Spinney, 2017) - it was, in the end, the powerful nations in Europe that named the flu “Spanish”.

However, the presence of censorship did not just impact the name of the flu. Today, as we suffer from COVID-19, it has been the constant release of informative data that has allowed the public to properly understand the importance of conforming to public health orders and restrictions in such a precarious time. But 100 years ago, this did not happen. Although it is admittedly difficult to analyse data when a war and pandemic coincide, the lack of effort by authorities to prevent facing another crisis resulted in a serious shortfall of understanding of the pandemic they were living through. Thus, as the war continued to receive universal attention, analysis, and research into the significance of the flu completely diminished in the public sphere.
Finally, the public remained oblivious to the reality of the flu because they were considerably more invested in the events and outcomes of the war. As millions of soldiers travelled across the globe for war, the flu silently spread at an uncontrollable rate. The second wave of flu began in October 1918, coinciding with the Allied assault on Cambrai and the collapse of the Hindenburg line (Honigsbaum, 2018). When the third wave came and flu deaths were peaking, so did the armistice and the end of the war - unsurprisingly, the flu was overlooked. World War I was a total war, which, by its very definition, involves all sectors of society and priorities warfare over non-combat issues. As such, governments, civil societies, and economies were completely focused on the war effort, meaning that the preoccupation with war by so many millions of people left no room for the flu. The end of the war brought months of grieving communities and nations, who celebrated and remembered lost loved ones after five years of devastating warfare. Thus, mourning individuals who died from a flu seemed almost callous, resulting in families privately acknowledging their fallen before returning their focus to the national disaster at hand. Whilst it is incorrect to argue that everyone completely disregarded and forgot the flu, there is no doubt that the emotion evoked by the tension, severity and longevity of the war overwhelmed the emotion evoked by the flu. Ultimately the fervor of nationalism and militarism, combined with strict wartime censorship, meant that the universal devastation wrought by influenza was overlooked.
By 1960, forty years after the flu, approaches to history were undergoing changes which led to a dramatic increase in historical research into the flu. Social history, which takes as its subject social experiences, was emerging as an important school of thought in history.  American professor Alfred Crosby’s book, Epidemic and Peace, 1918 in 1976 marked the beginning of the global interest and research into the flu. In Linda Bryder’s review of Crosby’s book, she explains that previously there was  a ‘dominant focus by most historians on change over time, and on the political, economic, and intellectual processes that explained those changes;  a study of a random natural disaster such as the 1918 epidemic had nothing to offer that historical endeavor.’ Whilst the flu cannot be considered “a random natural disaster”, and it can be argued that it in fact did impact the end of the World War I, it is indisputable that the flu was neglected partially because it could not be defined purely by the economic and political factors that typically captivate historians. In 1998, a conference in Cape Town was held to mark the flu's 80-year anniversary. Thirty-six papers spanning disciplines including virology, pathology, epidemiology, demography, history, anthropology, geography, and gender studies were delivered. This multi-disciplinary academic approach reflects a new way of investigating and remembering history, with emphasis placed on individual experiences to fully understand the extent of an event’s impact on all sectors of life. A step in the right direction, these efforts are admirable and ongoing. Giving voice to the legacy of the flu continues to be a work in progress, which, perhaps, given the current calamity will reinvigorate analysis of the Spanish Influenza.
Furthermore, understanding how cultural shifts, where individual stories are built into a collective memory, is vital in appreciating how the flu’s legacy has been constructed. As with the Spanish flu and World War I, the Black Death coincided with the 100 Years War and had a death toll of up to 100 times that of the latter. Yet the Black Death has received its own tribute and story; possibly one that even overshadows the war itself. The difference being these two events were 700 years ago. It has taken multiple generations of collective effort to dissect, analyse and then commemorate this plague.
However, there is another aspect worth considering: there may never be a sufficient collective memory of the flu to shape its identity and legacy. As David A Davis puts it, ‘the individual represses the traumatic experience by internalising it, which only defers the event’s impact.’ Individuals cannot completely forget a traumatic event in their life; it is these events that shape a person and their beliefs and values. However, if this event  is suppressed within the individual rather than discussed and analysed, it will be lost to cultural memory; and if everyone within a culture does this, the event will be lost completely.’ It has already been discussed why people internalised the trauma experienced by the flu, but the possibility of such a concrete denial of  this event rendering the impact of the flu lost to history forever is an undeniable concern. Collective memory is vital to the formation and then preservation of an event’s identity. A loss of contact with the event throughout time means that ‘the apparently not known becomes the actually not known.’ (Davis, 2011). That is, the absence of literary works, museums, commemorations, and memorials due to the sense that influenza seemed insignificant and trivial compared with the carnage of World War I has become a reality believed by many. The historical void created by the silence on the pandemic may have severed the link between the past and the present; whilst literary and artistic works can mediate this divide for us, there may be too few historical sources to draw on. Ultimately, as we seek to provide the flu with appropriate recognition and legacy, we need to acknowledge that it is possible that the endless trauma in the first half of the 20th century may have relegated the Spanish flu to relative obscurity.
Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet and father of Surrealism, having survived a shrapnel wound to the head and the drilling of a hole into his skull, died of the Spanish flu a week before the armistice of World War I.  (Spinney, 2017). Apollinaire’s tragic and cruel end is just one of many stories where a life was lost to the unforgiving influenza after surviving the war. And yet, whilst his death is recorded, it is his time as a writer and experiences in the war that defines his legacy. So, will anyone ever be defined by their experience of the Spanish flu? Most likely not. Soldiers died heroically. The sick just died. No data on the flu was released at the time, and the devastation of the five-year war trivialised the impact of Spanish Influenza. When considered in these terms, it becomes clear why the flu was forgotten. Today, it seems impossible that in 4 years’ time, COVID-19 will not make it on to the review of the most eventful years of this century. Yet, with the tumultuous, ever-changing events we are living through, no one can really know how our contemporary pandemic will be defined. So, although the Spanish Influenza was one of the greatest losses of life in the history of the world, it occurred during a century of worldwide trauma and devastation, and thus may never be truly acknowledged or adequately remembered.

Alexandra Harrop
Year 12 HSC student

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