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Study Shows Pandemics Can Give Rise to Fascism

A new study published earlier this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says that the rise in deaths from the worldwide 1918 influenza epidemic may have contributed to the later rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s. 

In 1918, Germany was reeling from a postwar economic decline following its devastating loss in World War I. The flu epidemic dealt the country another blow, as nearly 300,000 Germans died from the disease between 1918 and 1920. The new study, conducted by economist Kristian Blickle, said that the epidemic “profoundly shaped German society” in the years after World War I, and that its effects lasted into the global depression times of the 1930s, when fascists came to power in Germany, vowing to make that country great again after years of defeat, debt and dissension.

“Influenza deaths in 1918 are correlated with an increase in the share of votes won by right-wing extremists” during German elections at the time, says the study. It says that the vote for Nazis and other right-wing parties in German elections after the war and the 1918 epidemic was “stronger in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues.” The Nazis and their ilk stirred fear and scapegoating in the populace of Germany and, said the Fed study, “the disease may have fostered a hatred of ‘others,’ as it was perceived to come from abroad.” 

Today’s global pandemic provides more fodder for those who would use the tragedy of the coronavirus to spread political viruses of fear and falsehood. On Mar. 17, a statement from the Anti-Defamation League said, “As the coronavirus continues to surge globally, antisemitic, xenophobic and hateful messages and conspiracy theories are proliferating rapidly online.” Indeed, one doesn’t have took look too far in cyberspace today to see memes and messages that stir primal fears and hatreds in ways that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would have envied. Extremist movements like fascism thrive during times of tumult, and the current worldwide pandemic is just one more event that can be used by authoritarian regimes to widen and strengthen their powers.  

In 1918, when the influenza epidemic raged around the globe, there were fewer than 2 billion people on the planet. Presently, the world’s population nears 8 billion. In today’s crowded and shrinking world, global transportation and instant communication make possible the quick spread of viral diseases and online misinformation. Despite having a world-class educational system for much of its history, Germany’s population fell under the spell of the Nazi regime. Indeed, for all its culture, the country also had a long antisemitic past. In his 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, author Daniel Goldhagen reminds readers that in Germany, antisemitism was deeply rooted among students and faculty members on the campuses of the the country’s universities. Book burnings during the Nazi regime were sometimes led by university students.  

Authoritarianism is again on the march in America and around the world today, and the COVID-19 pandemic is just one more warning that, unless we guard our liberties and exercise our collective responsibilities, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” could become the land of the lockstep and the home of the craven. A May 16 editorial piece in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, includes sage civic advice for this nation’s voters in its prescription that “Americans must put a president in the White House come January 2021 who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.”