Did society really forget the Spanish Flu?
This entire series of posts rests on the claim we did. Yet memories of the Spanish Flu – also known as the Great Flu – exist. Obviously they do. The disease has a Wikipedia page. Science is still studying it – in 2018 a special Spanish Flu edition of the American Journal of Public Health came out, in honour of its 100-year anniversary. It even has a couple of references in pop culture. The book Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is about the ravages of the 1918 flu.
So how can we say that the flu – which killed as many as 50 million – was forgotten?
To answer this question, I got on Zoom with Professor Guy Beiner, historian and the pre-eminent global expert on forgetting. The conversation was a delight and I can tell you Beiner is an absolute treasure. Employed by the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Tel Aviv, (and perhaps the only owner-operator of an Irish accent in the neighbourhood) his specialties are three-fold: Irish history, memory, and the Spanish Flu.
Northern Ireland turns out to be an excellent place to study forgetting, because a lot of protestant residents were part of a big rebellion against the British in 1798, but that aspect of their history is now not publicly mentioned.
But Beiner’s big focus when it comes to forgetting is the Spanish Flu. He is no recent devotee to the question. He tells a great story of meeting a publisher for drinks in New York in December 2019, and pitching a book on his life’s passion, the memory of the Spanish Flu.
“It sounds promising but will there be a readership for this?”, he recalls the publisher asking. “Three months later I get an email, ‘Why isn’t this book here already?!’”
Beiner likes to find the exceptions and the nuance. To make things complicated. This is how he started our chat:
“On the one hand it’s an easy case to make the case for the amnesia of the great flu. You’re in Australia, you’re in Melbourne, you have that massive ANZAC monument, pyramid-like structure [he means the Shrine!] … The huge culture of remembering ANZAC in Australia, compare that with the great flu, there’s nothing. You won’t find one monument to the great flu – or you look around you’ll find a couple, but you wont find any major monument… You won’t find any museums, you won’t find any remembrance day, you won’t even find the most banal thing! You won’t find one stamp commemorating the dead of the flu, right!? So if there’s collective memory, this is collective amnesia.”
But then he complicates the narrative.
“I don’t like the term collective amnesia, it’s too easy… Memories had been there but they didn’t have the chance to surface.”
After wrestling with the way in which society deals with aspects of history, Beiner invented the concept of “social forgetting.” And social forgetting is not the same as private forgetting. Memories don’t die immediately, and that’s very good news.
Professor Beiner told me about a historian who puts ads in newspapers asking for stories of Spanish Flu, and laboriously visited people in their homes and recorded their stories one at a time.
“People remembered, they just needed to be asked,” Beiner said. In other words, the memories were there, like a great aquifer beneath the surface, but without public remembrance they lacked a well-spring, lacked a way out.
Incidentally, it occurred to me the historian mentioned would have saved a lot of time if he had the internet at his disposal. One could attempt a project of eliciting memories online at a fraction the effort. I gave it a go. My first shot looked like this.
No takers. A failure. Hmm.
But my second attempt? It looked like this:
Eleven thousand upvotes and over one thousand comments!
(Yes the two posts are basically identical in content – but not in form. Never underestimate the importance of re-writing to make an idea catch on!)
The volume of memories elicited by one Reddit post is impressive. The other notable thing is their level of detail. Primarily, these stories are bare outlines. One sentence or two. For example, “My great grandmother died of it, and my great grandfather remarried to her identical twin.”
Imagine the intensity and richness of that series of events. The scorching emotion and the familial repercussions. Yet what remains of the memory is skeletal. That’s how memory looks when it has decayed substantially. If we had asked for war stories, by contrast, it is likely far more richness of detail would be on offer.
There’s a lot of public war history out there to tap into. The Australian government, for example, maintains an enormous website to help people find the war records of their family members: https://discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/ It is an extremely impressive bit of infrastructure and well worth digging into if you’ve got ancestors who went to war.
No such system exists, it goes without saying, for archiving and preserving Spanish flu memories. The absence of flu memorials is not just an Australian oddity, it is systemic and global. Despite the millions of lives lost – more than were lost in world war one – it is not something we’ve set about remembering. At our great cost.
WHAT IS COLLECTIVE MEMORY?
Memories are personal. They sit in the brain. But memory is not just about the endurance of sparks in the old grey matter.
The godfather of the concept of collective memory is a Frenchman named Maurice Halbwachs. One of those polymaths who seemed to crop up in Europe 100 years ago or so, Halbwachs had big contributions in statistics and philosophy but his most enduring intellectual legacy is the idea of collective memory.
Halbwachs followed Emile Durkheim in rejecting overly individualised accounts of how society works. His favourite hobby was to stir up the psychologists.
“ …one is rather astonished when reading psychological treatises that deal with memory to find that people are considered there as isolated beings,” writes Halbwachs.
His ground-breaking ability in statistics gave him unique insight into how social context affected individual outcomes. He could see the patterns in the numbers and took a great interest in the collective. When he began applying this collective approach to questions of memory, he was alert to the way society affects memory:
Memories can be continually reinforced by society or allowed to wither by a society that ignores them. (As we saw in post 3, which memories get reinforced is about politics and power.) Thus, Halbwachs concludes, memory is collective.
It is absolutely the case – even the psychologists agree these days – that memories must be retrieved to be refreshed. The more opportunities there are for retrieving memory, the longer the memory endures. ANZAC day and Armistice day and the thousands of war memorials around Australia help us keep the war(s) alive in our memories.
The lack of public memorialisation is vital to the forgetting of the Spanish Flu. Forgetting is baked in by a public realm that has until recently acted as if the Spanish Flu never happened. Our collective memory of it has for the last century been a pale and sickly thing.
(Halbwachs, by the way, was sent by the Nazis to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, at age 68, and died in there. We will come back to his legacy in a future post on memory and war.)
There’s an important caveat on the above discussion about private memory and social forgetting. Private memories can become public. The Reddit thread above is, it occurs to me now, an example. A thousand flu stories were just transformed from private to public.
It is absolutely no coincidence this is happening now, as covid viruses are tearing into lung tissue around the world.
Recurrence is major way old disasters are remembered. When a cyclone hits Mauritius, that’s when previous cyclones are discussed, for example. When a flood hits Brisbane, conversation turns to previous floods, and the TV channels show old footage, etc. Another example: According to Google Scholar, a disproportionate 17 per cent of all papers written about the Spanish Flu were authored in the last two years
One big thing that stopped Spanish Flu from being forgotten even more profoundly? The AIDS crisis in the 1980s. As Alfred Crosby writes in the introduction to the second edition of his book The Forgotten Pandemic, it sparked renewed interest, and book sales.
“For some of us, the malady recalled to memory what the Surgeon-General of the United States Army Victor Vaughan, had written about the peak of the 1918 pandemic: “At that moment I decided to never again prate about the great achievements of science.” – Alfred Crosby on AIDS
Crosby’s book came out in the 1970s, and sold very few copies. But it did have an impact.
“It starts the historiography of the flu,” Beiner says. “There were a few books before that, but after Crosby, that’s when historians start noticing the flu… It starts a trickle. Some PhDs begin appearing after Crosby, he’s a landmark in many ways.”
That was in the late 1970s. Crosby’s book was reissued by the publisher in the 1980s, and sold fast. The reason was AIDS. The pandemic created a newly receptive audience. The same happened again during SARS in 2003. New pandemics lifted public interest in the old, and what little material existed memorialising the Spanish Flu became of vital importance, bringing old private memories to the surface.
Whether things are remembered or forgotten is not static. Obviously individuals forget. But for society memory can move the other way. If we try – if we want to – we can remember things that are previously forgotten. We can reverse social forgetting of floods and storms, wars and even genocides, so long as the private memories remain alive. And doing public memorials will strengthen those private memories.
We can stop the process of social forgetting that Guy Beiner describes and make these memories vivid and relevant. And, importantly, heed their lessons. The world is doing that with the Spanish Flu right now, which is good, but might it be coming just a tiny bit late?!
That’s why this topic is so important. If we can learn how society forgets, how it errs, how it stumbles into the same traps again and again, we can – hopefully – start remembering before it’s too late.