Coronavirus latest: NY Fed study links Spanish flu to extremism

NY Fed study links Spanish flu to extremist voting in 1930s Germany

James Politi in Washington

A staff report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has found a correlation between deaths from the influenza pandemic in 1918-1920 and extremist voting in Germany in 1932 and 1933, in research that will fuel concerns about the long-term social and political implications of the coronavirus outbreak.

The NY Fed study, released on Monday, found that German cities hit hardest by the disease that spread at the end of the first world war ended up, more than a decade later, with lower public spending and a higher propensity to vote for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.

“Influenza deaths themselves had a strong effect on the share of votes won by extremists, specifically the extremist national socialist party,” the NY Fed research, authored by Kristian Blickle, found. “This effect dominates many other effects and is persistent even when we control for the influences of local unemployment, city spending, population changes brought about by the war, and local demographics or when we instrument for influenza mortality,” it said.

The NY Fed report said the coronavirus outbreak had “renewed age-old questions about the economic and social effects of pandemics”, saying the 1918 outbreak had “profoundly shaped German society going forward” .

Its findings could raise alarm bells about the long-term ramifications of coronavirus at a time when western democracies are already grappling with the reality of populist leaders in power or close to power. Germany has not been hit as hard as other European nations such as Spain, Italy and the UK by pandemic – and one big difference compared to the 1918 influenza outbreak is that last century’s disease affected young people more.

The NY Fed research suggested that one of the 1918 influenza pandemic’s consequences was a disturbing “resentment” towards foreigners and minorities. “The correlation between influenza mortality and the vote share won by right-wing extremists is stronger in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues,” it said.

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