Influenza pandemic fueled rise of Nazi Party, research shows

New York Post | 5 May 2020

The influenza pandemic that gripped the globe a century ago helped the Nazi Party rise to power in Germany, a new study says.

Right-wing extremists such as the Nazis won a greater share of the votes in parts of Germany that suffered larger numbers of flu deaths during the pandemic that started in 1918, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The link held up even when researchers accounted for factors such as past right-wing voting, regional unemployment and a city’s religious and ethnic composition, Fed economist Kristian Blickle said.

“The deaths brought about by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 profoundly shaped German society going forward,” Blickle wrote in the paper.

The findings come amid concerns about a rise in anti-Semitic abuse fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a spike in rhetoric falsely accusing Jewish people or Israel of manufacturing or spreading the virus to maintain control over the world.

Jews were similarly blamed for the bubonic plague in the 14th century — a smear that may have helped the Nazis in the 20th century. The Fed researchers found a stronger correlation between flu deaths and right-wing extremist voting “in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues,” Blickle wrote.

A street scene in Berlin, showing the shattered fronts of Jewish-owned stores
A street scene in Berlin showing the shattered fronts of Jewish-owned stores [Bettmann Archive]

“Given that it was disproportionately fatal for young people, the change in demographics may have affected regional attitudes going forward,” the paper says. “Moreover, the disease may have fostered a hatred of ‘others,’ as it was perceived to come from abroad.”

Areas with higher flu death tolls also spent less money per capita on government services in the decade following the pandemic — especially when it came to services used by young people, such as schools, according to the study.

That finding comes as governments around the world consider how to shore up their economies during the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

“Given a number of econometric challenges, we are cautious about the interpretation of our results,” Blickle wrote. “Nevertheless, the study offers a novel contribution to the discussion surrounding the long-term effects of pandemics.”

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