In 1924 Encyclopædia Britannica published a two-volume history of the 20th century thus far. More than 80 authors—professors and politicians, soldiers and scientists—contributed chapters to These Eventful Years: The Twentieth Century in the Making as Told by Many of Its Makers. But the book’s sprawling 1,300pages never mention the catastrophic influenza pandemic that had killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide only five years earlier. And many history textbooks in subsequent decades just note the 1918–1919 flu pandemic as an aside when discussing World War I, if at all.
Until quite recently, the pandemic had remained strangely faint in the public sphere, compared with other momentous events of the 20th century. Monuments and federal holidays commemorate people lost in both World Wars. Many popular museums and blockbuster movies recount the sinking of the Titanic and the Apollo moon missions. But the same cannot be said for the 1918 flu (often referred to as the “Spanish flu” because of mistaken beliefs about its origin). Of course, the pandemic was not forgotten entirely: many today are aware it occurred or even know of ancestors who succumbed to it. But the event seems to form a disproportionately small part of our society’s narrative of its past.
That such a devastating pandemic could become so dormant in our collective memory puzzled Guy Beiner, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, prompting him to spend decades researching its legacy. “We have an illusion. We believe that if an event is historically significant—if it affects many, many people, if it changes the fate of countries in the world, if many people die from it—then it will inevitably be remembered,” he says. “That’s not at all how it works. And the Spanish flu is exactly a warning for that.”
Beiner began collecting books about the 1918 pandemic 20 years ago. For a long time, they emerged in a very slow trickle. But now, as the world reckons with COVID-19, he can hardly keep up with the outpouring of both nonfiction and fiction. “I have, in my office, three stacks [of novels] waiting for me—huge stacks,” he says. Previously a niche topic even among historians, the 1918 flu has been compared to the current pandemic in terms of the fatality rate, apparent effectiveness of masks and social distancing, and potential economic impact. In March 2020 alone, the English-language Wikipedia page for “Spanish flu” garnered more than 8.2 million views, shattering the pre-2020 monthly record of 144,000 views during the pandemic’s 2018 centennial.
The worldwide “forgetting” and ongoing rediscovery of the 1918 flu provide a window into the science of collective memory. And they offer tantalizing clues about how future generations might regard the current coronavirus pandemic.
WHAT IS COLLECTIVE MEMORY?
Pioneered in the early 20th century by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the study of collective memory has garnered widespread interest across the social sciences in recent years. Henry Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, defines collective memory as “how we remember ourselves as part of a group … that forms our identity.” Groups such as nations, political parties, religious communities and sports fandoms, he explains, weave events from their collective past into a narrative that reinforces individual members’ shared sense of who they are.
Researchers often use open-recall methods to study groups’ collective memory of well-known historical events. For example, Roediger and his colleague James Wertsch, also at Washington University in St. Louis, asked Americans and Russians to name the 10 most important events of World War II. Americans most often cited the attack on Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings of Japan and the Holocaust. Most Russians highlighted the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk and the Siege of Leningrad. The only event that appeared on both lists was D-Day, known in Russia as “the opening of the second front.” The events most strongly recalled by people in each country, the researchers say, reflect that nation’s narrative framework, or schema, for remembering the past.
Such a study could indicate what specifics about the 1918 flu people are aware of. But “as far as I know, nobody’s done it,” Wertsch says. “If you did a survey, you would come up with nothing.” Even in making comparisons with COVID-19, he says, few individuals can cite significant details about the earlier pandemic. Wertsch notes that collective memory seems to depend largely on narratives with a clear beginning, middle and end. “If there’s one cognitive instrument that is the most ubiquitous, most natural…, it’s narrative,” he says. “Not all human cultures have arithmetic number systems, let alone calculus. But all human cultures use narratives.”
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