Book Review: L. Spinney: 1918 – Die Welt im Fieber

By Steffy Marung

Laura Spinney has written a best-selling book, which is in major (online) book stores currently not available in its English original, but one may still be able to chase one of its translations in German, Dutch, French, Croatian, Italian, Czech or Spanish.* Trained as a natural scientist at the University of Durham in the early 1990s, the British writer and science journalist has written novels, as well as non-fiction books for a wider public and has an impressive publication record both in academic journals such as Nature and Science, as well as journalistic periodicals such as The Economist and or National Geographic. Her work and writing hence often skillfully blurs the lines between academic, journalistic and fictional writing, which nonetheless makes the book an inspiring read for scholars in global studies, as it also provides references and an index.

First published in 2018, just in time for the Spanish Flu’s 100th anniversary, the key argument the book is hinting at is plainly indicated in the title: how the pandemic has changed the world, or world history. That was exactly why it has attracted my attention: While the Spanish Flu is among the most often cited historical analogies in the current debate about Covid19, both public and academic contributions about it remain often focused on national, regional or local accounts. Which is an astonishing finding for a subject, that is said to be global par excellence.

Of the book’s eight parts, part 2 to 6 trace the “race” of the pandemic across the globe in a chronology which covers the months between the first wave of the flu in early 1918 to the second, more dramatic and deadly wave in the autumn of 1918 to its third, minor wave in early 1919. While the first part briefly reminds the reader of how influenza viruses became part of human history probably already 12.000 years ago, the last part addresses the question how and why it is (actually: was not until now) remembered and what we can take from it for the present (and here her judgement is both assuring and frightening). Part 7 turns to the aftermath of the pandemic and to the overarching question of the book: how it has changed world history. To my reading, this is the most fictional part, in which she connects the effects of the Spanish Flu with ensuing historical dynamics as diverse as the outcome of the First World War and the concrete choreography of the peace negotiations in Versaille, the way towards the Second World War and the rise of Hitler, the emergence of the Indian movement for independence, the rise of spiritism in some world regions, or the upswing of preventive and alternative medicine. These considerations might be inspiring, but they cut a much more complicated problem short, while it still might provoke a productive discussion. Firstly, one might argue, that it has been (and is) not the virus and its circulation as such, which has changed global history, but the unequal ways in which it affected different world regions and different parts of societies – which has more to do with the conditions under which they were living and participating in global connections – brings to light connections and inequalities in global history in a much sharper way than before. The virus as a catalyst or as a control strip. Secondly, what has affected global historical dynamics are certainly the ways in which different actors have reacted to it, how men and women, political decision makers and scientists, workers, soldiers, migrants or artists etc. have dealt with it, which conclusions they drew, how they translated it into new ways of looking at an interconnected world, at social and economic inequalities, at the state, at science, at health care, at the body.

Without maybe explicitly wishing to do so, Spinney provides fascinating insights in her rich narrative on multiple scales into a number of aspects that seem to me relevant also for the current situation. One major theme is the high level of scientific and political incertitude and tentativeness of the situation: High expectations were addressed to modern Western medicine – which had just a few decades ago begun its triumph with the colleagues and students of Koch and Pasteur – but the self-confidence of Western medical experts to understand the disease and define ways to fight it was permanently frustrated. A myriad of medical schools were struggling to come up with the “correct” explanation of the disease as well as with answers how to contain and cure it. Microbiologists, immunologists and sanitarians were competing with each other, as were representatives of academic and alternative medicine more generally. The protracted struggle to give the disease a name reflected cultural stereotypes as much as geopolitical rivalries but also the helplessness of medical experts. The months of the pandemic were a long moment of experimentation. This openness resulted in multiple ways in which the competing medical approaches were translated into measures to fight and contain the pandemic. These, in turn, could hardly be coordinated or homogenized between different states, empires or even regions, cities and smaller communities. (Yet, what is almost completely absent in Spinney’s presentation are international organizations or conferences dealing with these challenges and one is left wondering, if they had been as weak as her narrative suggests.) One might be tempted to compare the total conviction of virologists today cited by political decision makers to legitimate their action with the complications of 100 years ago.

Like a picture puzzle, the book unfolds a global panorama, stretching from Alaska to India, from Cape Town to Paris, from New York to the Chinese province Shanxi, from Zamora in Spain to Odessa in the Russian Empire. She thus highlights world regions and their exposure to the pandemic, which have been less prominent in the accounts produced during the last decades, and even less in the current public debate whose imagery of the flu still focusses on the US and Europe: Even if the number of casualties in the Transatlantic North have been tremendous, the (semi-)colonial peripheries in all parts of the world have been suffering much more, although the precise death toll is until today hard to establish for various reasons, but ranges between 30 to 100 million people that have died. Spinney, furthermore, continuously demonstrates, how the pandemic both brought to light and increased social and political inequalities on different scales: globally (between colonial peripheries and imperial metropoles), nationally and locally (within and between these metropoles, between different world regions, between social classes). In more than one occasion she shows, how colonial administrators were far from being the “white saviors” to solve the crisis in the colonies but rather – driven by racism and arrogance – often increased death tolls e.g. in the US-controlled Philippines or in British-controlled parts of Iran, hence highlighting both the brutality and the incapability of imperial control.

Another inspiration the book can provide for global historians are the traces she follows on the circulation of knowledge, which the flu both brought to light as well as promoted. Her hints to connect the French father of microbiology Louis Pasteur via the Russian pioneer of immunology Ilya Mechnikov (a colleague of Pasteur, fighting the flu in Odessa) to Wu Lien-Teh (a Chinese doctor, not only fighting plagues in Chinas and initiating international research on plagues but also introducing masks as a key mean to inhibit infection) invites for the further search for probably less known geographies in the history of medicine, and to include actors such as missionaries, or military doctors in the trenches in France and military hospitals in Kansas.

Finally, while her narrative not only stunningly moves back and forth between all world regions (except Antarctica), she further is able to combine multiple scales of how the pandemic and its management became effective: rural communities, cities, states or empires. And – without conceptualizing these – she hints at the multiple respatializations which came with the reactions to the flu: through different forms of quarantine, variegated ways of regulating (or ignoring) mobilities, of managing behavior and social interaction on many scales. Very often this was complicated by the limited capacities of state agencies to implement such measures: Articulations of “failing states” were as much to be found in London as in Rio de Janeiro.

In sum, the book provides a number of productive avenues to follow from a global history perspective. At the least we might arrive at the conclusion, that what we live through today is neither new in modern history (as Jürgen Habermas recently claimed in Frankfurter Rundschau representing a myriad of similar interpretations) nor has globalization come to an end (as the British philosopher John Gray was cited in Süddeutsche Zeitung, and is joined by many others). This seemingly simple finding might be a starting point for further debate. Not viruses make history, but (wo)man does.

*This review is also published as a contribution to the blog at the Erasmus-Mundus-Global-Studies-Programm:

Steffi Marung: Book Review: Spinney, Laura: 1918 – Die Welt im Fieber. Wie die Spanische Grippe die Gesellschaft veränderte. München  2018. ISBN 978-3-446-25848-8, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 12.06.2020, <>.

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