Copernico asked: What role have epidemics and pandemics actually played in history, especially in Eastern Europe? How were they combated in the past? What impact did they have on the course of history? What role do they play, for example, in the context of human migration movements?
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Epidemic and Pandemic
(00:18 - 00:50) The older German term is “die Seuche“. Several other terms exist in late medieval and early modern German but this is the original term. Epidemic and pandemic can be distinguished quite easily: Epidemic describes the outbreak of a contagious disease on a large scale, while a pandemic affects the entire globe or large parts of the world, i.e. several continents.
Since when have pandemics existed?
(00:52 - 02:00) The point at which such a disease can be considered a pandemic is still disputed in the field of research; sometime in the 19th century contagious outbreaks of disease traveled from Europe to America – for example the 19th century cholera epidemics, which reached North America through extended naval traffic, but especially the flu epidemics of the 1880s and the 1890s. Among them were diseases that traveled from China to Russia – in Russia it was called the “Asiatic Flu”, when the disease arrived in Great Britain it was called the “Russian Flu”; national attachments are always part of it, evidently – and eventually spread across the USA. This would be without a doubt such a pandemic event; it is very typical for the flu epidemics of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and it shares many similarities with Corona in terms of disease patterns and pathogens.
Eastern Europe and Epidemics
(02:01 - 03:14) Eastern Europe is certainly an interesting topic in this regard, for several reasons: First, such epidemics usually run a course that ties at least Asia and Europe together – which means they initially surface somewhere and spread out through infection processes and Eastern Europe in particular was often considered a gateway for epidemics from a West European point of view. Those epidemic waves continued from the late medieval period to the 18th century – especially German-Polish territories were hit hard by massive epidemic waves after the Great Northern War in the early 18th century; cities like
Kaliningrad is a city in today's Russia. It is located in the Kaliningrad oblast, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland. Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, belonged to Prussia for several centuries and was the northeasternmost major city.
Szczecin (German: Stettin) is a large city in northwestern Poland inhabited by nearly 403,000 people and the capital of the West Pomeranian Voivodeship (Polish: Zachodnio-Pomorskie). Szczecin is located on the Szczecin Lagoon and borders the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg. The city was part of Prussia for several centuries.
(Szczecin) were massively affected by outbreaks of disease in the time period after the Great Northern War – the phenomena of such epidemics travelling through Eastern Europe to the West have taken place several times. However, the opposite is true as well.
Eastern Europe as a Center of Epidemics
(03:15 - 06:14) Eastern Europe’s reputation as center of epidemics is deeply rooted in stereotypes and images that have colored the perception of Eastern Europe. In actuality, historically speaking, these epidemics also arrived from the Mediterranean region. However, in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, Eastern Europe is stigmatized as an uncivilized, somewhat uglier twin of the Western enlightenment cultures – a space that is less civilized, hygienically less-organized and a look at Eastern Europe from a German perspective – during this period in Germany there was the idea of the “clean citizen”, who prides themselves on their hygiene – demonstrates how this Eastern Europe is less hygienic, how it harbors great diseases, and how it is fraught with the danger of infection. According to Koselleck, the time around 1800 can be described as the “saddle period” – this period brings forth images that survived into the 20th century and formed the perception that Eastern Europe was an incredibly dangerous nexus for diseases and various illnesses, which was demonstrated in the German Empire as well: The second German Reich, the “Bismarckreich”, integrated major parts of East Central Europe, for example the Polish territories, into an imperial structure, and especially the
Province of Posen
deu. Posen, pol. Prowincja Poznańska
The historical province of Poznan was situated in eastern Prussia from 1815 to 1920. Currently, the territory of the former province is entirely in Poland. The capital was the city of the same name, Posen (present Poznań). About 2 million people inhabited the area.
– Greater Poland, or Wielkopolska in Polish – is considered a region of interest in this context, as it was considered particularly susceptible to diseases and illnesses. From a military perspective, this is a problem: Large numbers of German troops were stationed here, which is why this region had to be “culturally improved” – part of the so called “Hebungspolitik” or “policy of cultural improvement”, an attempt is made to further develop cities, to renovate them – and thus springs forth the perception that Eastern Europe is dangerous, which can be seen on WWI postcards, not unlike those to be found at the Herder Institute; a perception that proclaims that “Eastern Europe is less developed and a lot more dirty.” Ideas like this survived into the early years of the Bundesrepublik, where such accusations resurfaced from time to time. Eastern Europe is a very interesting region where both the perception of oneself and the others’ perception play a major role and result in such images.
Epidemics in the Past
(06:15 - 07:27) Historically speaking, epidemics have always been a time when many norms are overridden. Civil rights, which already existed in early modern cities, were drastically restricted when an epidemic was at the city gates. Ultimately, little has changed in that regard: The only aspect of life that is restricted even further these days is the religious one, i.e., churches. Historically, nobody would have dared to completely close all churches, even in times of the plague. Instead, special measures were taken, whereby individuals, so-called “Pestprediger” or “plague preachers”, were chosen to continue sermons and other services provided by the church. The idea of closing all churches was considered inconceivable and impossible in the early modern period. It is only an option in our time, which somewhat demonstrates the degree of secularization in our society.
Nationalism and Epidemics
(10:59 - 12-15) Catastrophic events like epidemics generally raise the demand for scapegoats. From a human perspective, it is difficult to accept that tragedies like these happen seemingly without a reason; people need something or someone to blame and especially when dealing with epidemics it has become common practice to shift the blame onto other groups – one possibility are outsiders: The Jewish communities in late medieval and early modern times always had the reputation of spreading diseases, a clear example of such a scapegoat strategy. The Sinti and Roma were a similar case: Since the 19th and 20th century, a thesis has been constructed within the developing nationalism that it is the neighbor – or enemy – who is to blame for such epidemics, hence terms like “Russian Flu” or “French disease” for syphilis have been coined – which is completely nonsensical. Such allegations appear time and again and can accordingly encourage chauvinism and nationalism.
Effects of Epidemics
(12:16 - 13:35) It has been theorized that the upswing of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries was empowered by the preceding plague epidemic. This plague epidemic brought with it enormous casualty figures – 20 or 30 percent of the population – but created a surplus of resources for those who survived, and one theory states that this development encouraged innovations that contributed to a global expansion of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. This theory is certainly disputed but it showcases how epidemics as a catalyst of modernization are being discussed within the modern discourse. It is safe to assume, however, that epidemics somewhat strengthen the state apparatus. Epidemic prevention has always been a central motivation regarding the construction of a strong, functioning state.
Historical Measures against Epidemics
(13:36 - 15:05) It is interesting indeed, that these plague epidemics produced an extensive catalogue of preventive measures: Distancing oneself from others, ventilating one’s surroundings, avoiding contact with larger numbers of people – all these preventive measures are part of a catalogue that was already being developed during the plague epidemics of the 17th and 18th century – a look at plague regulations of the early 18th century, for example from Danzig or Königsberg, will yield similar results: People were ordered to cover their mouths, for example. Many preventive measures that are being employed during the current Corona epidemic can be found in those regulations. In this regard, the measures have not changed much; what has changed is, through the advent of bacteriology and virology in the late 19th and the 20th century, that it is now possible to reliably identify pathogens and to employ the correct countermeasure, such as vaccines. This was not an option in older time periods but it is astonishing that, in terms of hygiene policies, the differences between the 18th and the 21st centuries appear smaller than we might expect.