Coronavirus, the First World War, and Germany

Given the current focus on the Coronavirus, and the widespread fear of it, it is relevant to German history and the present situation to discuss how the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, affected Germany and its efforts to win the First World War.

Obviously, the rapid spread of the Spanish Flu through the German Army and the civilian population had a deleterious effect on the German war effort. Perhaps most crucially for determining the outcome of the war, the virus played a major role in halting the German Spring Offensives against the Allies in France. The Allied troops were infected first by the virus, and by the time of the German final push against the Allied lines, were recovering and for the most part had returned to normal combat effectiveness. The Germans, in contrast, had only recently been introduced to the virus and so by the time of the final attack in July were still suffering its ill effects. Further, due to the allied blockade the Germans had been suffering food shortages and so had to introduce strict rationing on their forces. Hunger and deprivation made the German soldiers more susceptible to the virus than the comparatively well fed Allied troops. Around 500,000 German soldiers fell sick, and as many as one fourth of the troops in some units were unable to fight. The virus also indirectly contributed to the lack of supply that German units suffered from by disorganizing logistics departments and halting rail traffic as necessary workers fell ill. The Germans finally failed to break through the Allied lines as the exhausted and under supplied troops were staled and eventually pushed back by superior Allied forces.

On the home front, the Spanish Flu exacerbated the suffering of the German civilian population already beset by shortages and war-weariness. Like the soldiers on the front, the German population was underfed and only just sustained by German grain requisitions from defeated nations in Eastern Europe. The German population was thus vulnerable to disease, and over 420,000 German civilians died from the Spanish Flu. The German government attempted to suppress reports of the virus and hide its severity from the public, but the wide spread of the virus ultimately made those efforts in vain. The virus weakened the German war effort by killing a great deal of its productive workforce and further exhausting its population and undermining confidence in the government’s honesty and ability to protect its citizens. That along with the weakened support for the war that resulted from the failure of the Spring Offensives contributed greatly to popular demand for an armistice.

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