Did the Spanish Flu Pandemic Really Lead to the Rise of Nazism?

A New York Fed study is making waves for linking the deadly 1918 pandemic to Hitler’s coming to power, but one expert on the rise of Nazism is skeptical

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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German Chancellor Adolf Hitler speaks before 60,000 members of the Hitler Youth in Nuremberg, September 8, 1934.
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler speaks before 60,000 members of the Hitler Youth in Nuremberg, September 8, 1934.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

A new, highly publicized research paper linking the economic devastation caused by the Spanish flu pandemic to the rise of the Nazi Party suggests that the coronavirus outbreak might lead to another bout of political extremism, particularly in the United States. But an expert on that era of Germany's history is casting doubt on its findings, saying that the research is “shoddy” and inaccurate.  

The study, published Monday by Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Kristian Blickle and unveiled in the Wall Street Journal, examines the effects of the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920.  

Based on data from German cities, Blickle’s paper asserts that  “influenza deaths of 1918 are correlated with an increase in the share of votes won by right-wing extremists, such as the National Socialist Workers Party” in Germany’s 1932 and 1933 elections, which led to Adolf Hitler’s election as chancellor.

Blickle writes that deaths from the flu “spurred resentment of foreigners among the survivors,” which, over time, led to increased support for racist and xenophobic parties. These sentiments, he writes, were affected by “the influences of local unemployment, city spending, population changes brought about by [the First World War], and local demographics or when we instrument for influenza mortality.” 

His thesis strikes a raw nerve as worries grow in the United States and Europe as to the long-term political effects of the coronavirus and the economic devastation it is wreaking worldwide, with unemployment soaring to record levels. In the United States, there are already signs that extremist political groups are using the pandemic to strengthen their causes, with anti-Semitic messaging and Nazi motifs cropping up in anti-lockdown protests.

But Thomas Weber, a professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen and author of numerous books on Germany and the rise of Nazism, is skeptical. “When you look at the evidence, there is no causal link” between the pandemic and political extremism, he tells Haaretz.

Weber, who wrote 2010’s “Hitler’s First War” and 2017’s “Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi,” says he was “very surprised” at the conclusions drawn by such a prominent institution as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

As Weber sees it, the death and devastation of the First World War, its economic aftermath and the failure of the Weimar Republic were clearly responsible for the political transformation that allowed for the rise of Hitler and Nazi ideology; there is nothing to show that the trauma of the pandemic had anything to do with it, he says.  

Nurses taking part in a demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
Nurses taking part in a demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.Credit: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/ REUTERS

Hitler never linked his anti-Semitic ideology to the Spanish flu, says Weber. He has found that “no one in postwar Germany blamed the Jews for the outbreak.” While in medieval times plagues like the Black Death heightened European anti-Semitism, after 1800, Weber says, that link was far less common.

A close reading of Nazi writings, including those of Hitler himself and of figures like Joseph Goebbels, found that the disease “doesn’t become part of the poltiical discourse” nor “part of the collective memory.” 

The real reason?

Blickle analyzed municipal spending levels and voter extremism in the years between the Spanish flu outbreak and the run-up to Hitler’s election in 1933. He found that “areas which experienced a greater relative population decline” because of the flu also spent “less, per capita, on their inhabitants in the following decade.” These places, he said, then experienced a more significant shift toward extremism than the rest of the country. 

Blickle “seems to be arguing there was a hidden impact” of the pandemic, says Weber, who interpreted the paper as “attempting to show a correlation between the mortality rate due to Spanish flu in German cities and the tendency to vote for the Nazis. But, the variance is very small – particularly when you compare them to the enormous loss of life in the First World War.”

“Overall, it was the death of over 1.7 million Germans in the Great War that radically reshaped the demography of German cities,” not the country’s 287,000 victims of the Spanish flu, Weber says.

As he sees it, Blickle’s correlation between post-pandemic economic strife and its political effect is the result of the same underlying factor, not a causal relationship. 

“We are talking about poor cities. Such cities were struggling to deal with the influenza outbreak, and ended up with high mortality rates,” Weber says. Poverty exacerbated their difficulties, and they “had trouble with reduced public spending after the pandemic and after the war – because they couldn’t afford to spend as much – leading to more voting for extremists. Yes, there is a correlation, but both look like they are a function of those cities being poor rather than one leading to the other.”  

Weber says that in his past research, he has attempted to separate out the influence of the Spanish flu on German radicalization by looking at countries that were not involved in the First World War. “When I looked at [those] countries, I couldn’t find any kind of figures that would suggest a correlation between a high mortality rate and radicalization in the decade after,” he notes.

Weber wasn’t alone in his criticism of Blickle’s paper. Helen Buyniski, a columnist for the Russian government-backed RT news site, wrote that by publishing “historical revisionist” research, the Federal Reserve “may seek to absolve [itself] from responsibility for the fallout from its own disastrous policies.

“If the Fed is concerned about its hyper-inflationary policies leading to the rise of a new Hitler, perhaps instead of attempting to rewrite history to absolve the financial sector from responsibility for creating the first one, it should avoid repeating the mistakes of postwar Germany,” Buyniski wrote.