The “(Un)forgotten” Pandemic: The 1918 Influenza Virus in Turkish Literary Texts

By Seda Yucekurt

We, the city of Istanbul,

We have seen the mobilization:

Caucasia, Galicia, Gallipoli, Palestine,

The profiteers, typhus, and the Spanish flu,

The unionists,

And the German jackboots, too-

From ‘914 to ’18-

Preyed upon us[1]

In these lines, Nâzım Hikmet, a famous and influential poet in Turkish literature, draws attention to the condition in Istanbul between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War. More importantly, the lines from Nâzım Hikmet’s Kuvâyı Milliye (National Forces, the first version completed in 1939)refer to the illnesses, underlining the fact that these are the main issues to be dealt with during the war as well. Nâzım Hikmet’s reference to the Spanish flu led me to form a research question on the perception and representation of this illness in Turkish literature. In this essay, I aim to lay bare my questions about the literary production in Turkish regarding the 1918 influenza pandemic,[2] which is interestingly and commonly known as the “Spanish flu.” How was this illness perceived and represented during the period in which the pandemic was active? Is it just a temporal background or “a mere footnote in literary history”?[3] Is it forgotten in the great turmoil of the First World War?

My purpose here is not to provide an exhaustive list of works in which the representation of the 1918 influenza pandemic can be traced but rather to examine selected texts to develop an understanding regarding the answers to the questions above. In this essay, I focus on two texts that engage with the 1918 pandemic in Turkish: Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar’s novel Hakka Sığındık (İşitilmedik Bir Olay) (We Took Refuge in God [An Unheard-of Event]) and Refik Halit Karay’s article “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair” (“About the Spanish Flu”). By applying the method of textual analysis, I intend to put forth the viewpoints and approaches to the pandemic. I also take a step towards highlighting the main issues and differences in the representation of the pandemic to understand their contribution to the overall meaning of the texts.

The 1918 virus’s extreme fatality is accentuated in several studies. It is often referred to as “the deadliest flu”[4] or “the mother of all pandemics.”[5] To grasp its severity, one can compare it to the benchmark of the First World War – a determining event at the turn of the century. While the First World War resulted in approximately eight and a half million casualties, “the flu’s death toll hovers around fifty million people in a single year.”[6] These numbers highlight that the 1918 influenza pandemic’s death toll far exceeded that of the First World War.

Even though this pandemic is regarded as “the most severe pandemic in history,”[7]  many studies on the 1918 influenza pandemic emphasize that it is largely forgotten and they seek to bring it back into collective memory. For instance, Guy Beiner, in his introduction to Pandemic Re-Awakenings: The Forgotten and Unforgotten ‘Spanish’ Flu of 1918-1919, expresses that “even though the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 (when taking into account its short timeframe) may have been the most lethal catastrophe in human history, its historical study was notably slow to develop, and a century later still remains surprisingly lacking.”[8] Caroline Hovanec, in her work titled “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Literature and Memory,” points out that “The Spanish influenza of 1918 has been called a ‘forgotten pandemic,’ lost in the archives amidst records of the Great War [the First World War], the armistice, and the new era of modernity ushered in by these cataclysmic events.”[9] So why was this pandemic largely “forgotten”? The conceptualization of the pandemic as a catastrophic event is multifaceted, involving socio-historical and cultural dimensions. The potential answer lies, once again, in Hovanec’s observation, as it coincided with the final stages of the First World War, allowing for socio-historical interpretations based on this contextualization. Apart from the overshadowing effect of the First World War, as several resources indicate, the experiences of the 1918 pandemic may have faded from collective memory due to inadequate documentation and reporting. Does this oblivion or silence prevail in Turkish literature?

The two texts that I examine in this essay promise more than just reminding this epidemic illness. They were written and published during the active years of the 1918 pandemic. Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar’s novel Hakk’a Sığındık (İşitilmedik Bir Olay) was published in book form in 1919. The Spanish flu presents a narrative framework and serves as a thematic tool in this novel. The novel primarily explores the Spanish flu through its impact on the community rather than focusing on its psychological consequences for an individual. By engaging with the Spanish flu, the novel makes visible discrepancies and conflicts within the community.

Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar, Hakka Sığındık: İşitilmedik Bir Vaka (İstanbul: Everest Yayınları, 2020). Source: 

The novel begins with the narration of the huge impact of the Spanish flu in Istanbul and the reactions to it:

In Istanbul, around Hoşkadem, the Spanish flu spreads like wildfire from house to house. It does not cease until three or four lives have been taken from each family. The doctors’ advice and warnings in the newspapers about avoiding the houses, where the disease has occurred, prove ineffective; tragic events resulting from disregard for this advice unfold one after another. No sign of awakening exists in anyone, and ignorant minds persist in their habitual actions.[10]

This passage underlines two crucial aspects regarding the Spanish flu. Firstly, it is portrayed as highly deadly. Secondly, it shows the intellectual conflict between the public and the physicians and reflects the public’s lack of trust in doctors and scientific knowledge. In the novel, some argue, albeit ignorantly, that since doctors themselves succumb to the illness, it is questionable to listen to them and care about their advice. The public believes that the only way to get over an illness is divine intervention. This not only explains the rapid spread of the disease but also highlights the public’s inclination to dismiss reason and caution. This further exposes the underlying issues concerning education and its entanglement with blind acceptance.

Other than the conflict between the public and the physicians, the Spanish flu makes another conflict appear within the community. The novel brings attention to the issue of social inequality, as it emphasizes the disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Nüzhet Ulvi, a character trying to solve this social injustice, makes use of the Spanish flu to alarm and frighten wealthy families. He sends a letter as if it comes from “saint” Abdal Veli, stating that if they send money to the so-called “saint,” he will protect the family members from the Spanish flu. Nüzhet Ulvi makes up this story to get money from two wealthy families and give it to a poor neighbor’s children in need of care. In the end, Nüzhet Ulvi confesses to deceiving these wealthy families and explains why he did so to the police commissioner.

The novel indicates that the Spanish flu makes everyone anxious and scared regardless of social status since both the wealthy and the poor get sick. However, the conflict appears when the wealthy can afford proper nourishment, medical examinations, and care, but the poor succumb to financial difficulties, resulting in children working to earn money for treatment. Hence, the 1918 influenza pandemic sheds light on social inequality and makes it more visible. That is why Nüzhet Ulvi takes action to change this systemic problem.

Another work worth mentioning is Refik Halit Karay’s short article titled “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair” (“About the Spanish Flu”). This article was written in 1918 and later collected together with other articles in the book Sakın Aldanma, İnanma, Kanma (Do Not Be Deceived, Do Not Believe, Do Not Be Taken In).[11] The article starts with a detailed depiction of the Spanish flu symptoms. The narrator begins with his fever, then mentions his headaches, joint pain, and neuralgia. He primarily draws on personal experience, exploring the methods of combating the disease. He speaks of his illness, picturing the hardships faced by the sick, employing humor and irony in his article. He likens himself with the fever to a burning log. Racked with pain, he defines the illness as torture. Therefore, he notes that the Spanish flu took revenge of all bulls and captives of all times in Spain. He connects the illness to the impoverished conditions in Istanbul during the war, noting that when no wood can be found to warm up in the winter, he would miss the Spanish flu with 40 degrees of fever.[12] Every humorous sentence in the article puts forth a bitter truth. In doing so, he draws attention to the difficulties of experiencing this illness and the challenges of getting over it due to the penury and poverty as repercussions of the First World War.

Refik Halid, Sakın Aldanma, İnanma, Kanma (İstanbul: Semih Lütfi Kitabevi, 1943). Source:

Fortunately, we could fend it off without a doctor or pharmacist; otherwise, I would not have been able to treat both Spain and its flu so lightly. In these times, what does it mean to consult a doctor without pledging the house as collateral, and likewise for the pharmacist, one should sift through the chests and put a few pieces of goods up for sale… With the money you would have spent on the doctor’s car alone, you could have held a circumcision festivity, had a juggler, a shadow theater puppeteer, and entertained a neighborhood.[13]

Here Refik Halit does not solely address the difficulty of finding medical professionals or pharmacists; rather, he highlights the excessive cost of medical examinations. In the following lines, he ironically notes that people have no choice but to wait for either recovery or death without seeking medical attention. He suggests that sick people leave their lives to fate.[14] He also states that there is no need to pay money for medical examinations to get over the illness if people continue to starve or pay 200 liras to eat meat.[15] He implies that it does not make sense to “live” under these conditions. Therefore, Refik Halit indirectly attempts to make people understand the reasons behind their destitution.

According to Erol Köroğlu, this book mainly portrays Refik Halit’s anti-Unionist attitude, comprising his criticism of The Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP), the war profiteers, etc.[16] With the Young Turk Revolution, the CUP became the leading political force in the late Ottoman Empire, aiming at constitutional reforms and modernization. Refik Halit is critical of the authoritarian tendencies of the Committee of Union and Progress. Because of his strong opposition and criticism, Refik Halit had been sent to exile. After he was able to come back to Istanbul, he started to write articles in several periodicals. In the articles he wrote the days before the armistice, as Erol Köroğlu states in his book Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity: Literature in Turkey During World War I, because of governmental pressures, “his oppositionist stand was only implied.”[17] However, after the armistice, “once the Enver, Talat, and Cemal Pashas had fled the country,” Refik Halit showed his opposition more vehemently using harsh language.[18] Therefore, in this short article, he criticizes the regime “in a more indirect way” by highlighting the penury in Istanbul.

In contrast to Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar’s emphasis on social and economic structure in his novel, Refik Halit does not make a distinction within the community but talks about the impoverished conditions that everyone experiences. Refik Halit’s choice aligns with his emphasis on “the nation.” He accuses the Spaniards of being responsible for the 1918 influenza virus, as is seen in holding the Chinese responsible for the COVID-19 virus.

In these war years, every nation showcased its specialty, and the Spaniards did showcase their flu. It is as if it is necessary to do harm to human society collectively, to see that Spain, which we are glad to see remained neutral [in the First World War], contributed to this harm to this extent… How quickly it came; the disease that we had read yesterday as “there was a strange disease!” has now entered our blood.[19]

Spain’s neutrality in the First World War led to an absence of press censorship and allowed the pandemic to be extensively covered in the Spanish media. It was mostly censored in other countries to maintain morale and project strength to the “enemy.”[20] Despite various hypotheses regarding the virus’s origin, it eventually became associated with Spain, highlighting the tension between national and global perspectives. In this article, Refik Halit not only stirs up nationalistic sentiments against the backdrop of the First World War but also implicitly criticizes the individuals responsible for the aforementioned conditions in Istanbul. The 1918 pandemic is, in a way, instrumentalized to discuss increasing economic difficulties and promote the idea of nationalist identity.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a reevaluation of previous pandemics. This reevaluation provides an opportunity to see and discuss what has changed and what has remained the same within a century. Despite its significant impact, the 1918 influenza pandemic’s relative obscurity invites reflection on the socio-historical context and the overshadowing effect of the First World War. Combining illness studies, health politics, and memory studies, interdisciplinary research could further enrich our understanding of this catastrophic event. Referring to the literature on the “forgotten”1918 pandemic at the beginning of this essay, I aimed to open up a discussion on how the 1918 influenza pandemic is remembered in Turkish literature. In the scope of this essay, I explored the representation of the 1918 influenza pandemic in two texts.[21] In focusing on the pandemic, Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar asserts his commentary on social inequality, and Refik Halit Karay underscores the lack of healthcare accessibility and poverty in Istanbul. The 1918 influenza virus transcends boundaries uncontrollably. Even though it spreads out of control, these authors write about it to discuss the above-mentioned issues that might be changed or kept “under control.”


[1] Nazım Hikmet, Bütün Şiirleri (İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2019), p. 545. Original text in Turkish:

Biz ki İstanbul şehriyiz,

Seferberliği görmüşüz:

Kafkas, Galiçya, Çanakkale, Filistin,

vagon ticareti, tifüs ve İspanyol nezlesi

bir de İttihatçılar,

bir de uzun konçlu Alman çizmesi

914’ten 18’e kadar

yedi bitirdi bizi.

[2] I came across different denominations of the 1918 pandemic in several sources. It is called the “flu”, “influenza” or “virus.” Since it is the most commonly used medical term, I prefer using “influenza.”

[3] Caroline Hovanec, “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Literature and Memory,” (master’s thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2009), p. 1. Hovanec, in her work, refers to Alfred W. Crosby’s argument on the absence of the pandemic in the oeuvres of American writers. The literature regarding the Spanish flu indicates that it is a forgotten pandemic.

[4] Ryan A. Davis, “Introduction: Epidemic Genre and Spanish Flu Narrative(s),” in The Spanish Flu: Narrative and Cultural Identity in Spain, 1918 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Kenneth C. Davis, More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (New York: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), 2018).

[5] Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics,” in Emerging Infectious Diseases vol. 12,1 (2006): 15-22, doi:10.3201/eid1201.050979.

[6] Hovanec, “The 1918 influenza pandemic in literature and memory,” p. 1.

[7] “1918 Pandemic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accessed on April 4, 2023.

[8] Guy Beiner, ed., Pandemic Re-Awakenings: The Forgotten and Unforgotten ‘Spanish’ Flu of 1918-1919 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2022), p. 1.

[9] Hovanec, “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Literature and Memory,” p. 1.

[10] Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar, Hakk’a Sığındık (İşitilmedik Bir Olay) (İstanbul: Özgür, 2016), pp. 23-24. Original text in Turkish: “İstanbul’da Hoşkadem taraflarında İspanyol nezlesi, yangın gibi, evden eve saldırıyor; her aileden üç dört cana kıymadıkça sönmüyordu. Hastalık çıkan evlere, elden geldiğince girip çıkmaktan sakınılması için doktorların öğütleri, gazetelerin uyarmaları etkisiz kalıyor; bu öğütlerin tersine gidişten doğan acıklı olaylar birbirini kovalıyor, kimsede uyanma izi görülmüyor, cahil kafalar hep bildiğine gidiyordu.”

[11] Refik Halid Karay, “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair,” in Sakın Aldanma, İnanma, Kanma! (İstanbul: Semih Lûtfi Kitabevi, 1943), pp. 33-36.

[12] Karay, “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair,” pp. 34-35.

[13] Karay, “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair,” p. 36. Original text in Turkish: “Bereket ki hekimsiz, eczasız savuşturabildik; yoksa İspanyayı da, nezlesini de bu kadar ehven geçiştiremezdim. Bu zamanda hekim ne demek, evi rehine koymadan doktora buyurunuz demek kabil olamaz, eczacı için de sandıkları karıştırıp satılığa birkaç parça mal çıkarmalı… Doktorun yalnız arabasına vereceğiniz meblâğ ile evveli bir sünnet düğünü yapar, hayal, hokkabaz oynatır, bir mahalleyi eğlendirirdiniz.”

[14] Karay, “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair,” p. 36. Original text in Turkish: “… hekime, eczacıya avuç dolusu para dökmeği anlamam, işi kadere bırakmalı.”

[15] Karay, “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair,” p. 36.

[16] Erol Köroğlu, Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity: Literature in Turkey During World War I (London, New York: Tauris, 2007), p. 176.

[17] Köroğlu, Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity, p. 176.

[18] Köroğlu, Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity, p. 178.

[19] Karay, “İspanyol Nezlesine Dair,” p. 36. Original text in Turkish: “Bu harp senelerinde her millet ortaya bir marifetini koydu, İspanyollar da nezlelerini… Sanki cemiyeti beşeriyeye elbirliğiyle fenalık etmek şart, bitaraf kaldığına sevindiğimiz İspanyanın da hiç olmazsa bu kadar zararını görmek… Ne de çabuk yürüdü geldi; daha dün “garip bir hastalık varmış!” diye okuduğumuz illet bugün kanımıza karıştı.”

[20] M. Kemal Temel, Gelmiş Geçmiş En Büyük Katil: 1918 “İspanyol” Gribi (İstanbul: Betim, 2020), p. 50.

[21] On the 1918 influenza pandemic in Turkish literature see Feza Kürkçüoğlu, “İspanyol gribinden beri 100 yıldır değişmeyen anlayışımız: ‘Bize bir şey olmaz!’.” T24.,2596

About the author

Dr. Seda Yücekurt Ünlü obtained her B.A. from Boğaziçi University, Department of Turkish Language and Literature, B.A. from Boğaziçi University, Department of Western Languages and Literatures (double major), M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern Turkish Literature from Boğaziçi University. After having worked as a Research Assistant at Boğaziçi University for three years, she continued her studies as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. She taught courses on Turkish Language and Literature in the Turkish Courses Coordinatorship at Boğaziçi University. She is currently an instructor at Özyeğin University, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her dissertation focuses on illness and narrative in Peyami Safa’s novels.

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Citation: Seda Yucekurt, The “(Un)forgotten” Pandemic: The 1918 Influenza Virus in Turkish Literary Texts, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.01.2024,

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