“Don’t Know Much About History?” – Pandemic Perspectives

Can we learn from history? This is not just a question historians ask themselves but also a question of social relevance. In some cases, the only choice is to learn in order to prevent, for example regarding the Holocaust. ‘Never again’ is a simple but urgent demand. But what about other cases – for example, a pandemic?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

When I first read an article from Alfred von Reumont (1808–1887) it was the beginning of July 2020. Germany just ended its first lockdown; I was able to see my family for the first time in months, and life slowly got easier, kind of normal. Nonetheless, the discontent over the implemented Corona-policies grew in some parts of society. In several German cities the so called ‘Hygienedemos’ (literally translated ‘hygiene protests’) were organised, and the question of whether those measurements were appropriate or not was discussed all over the media. While researching for my thesis, I coincidentally (we should not forget about the role of coincidence in research) stumbled upon articles about the cholera in 1837 by Reumont and I was struck by the parallels with the current situation.

A message from the past

Alfred von Reumont was a historian and Prussian diplomat. He lived in Italy when the second cholera pandemic spread over Europe (1829–1841). He reported about it in the German journal ‘Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände’/’Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser’ (literally translated as ‘Morning Paper for Educated Classes/Educated Readers’) and wrote about issues we are all too familiar with by now:


In Naples, the cholera has ended, and if the quarantine measures have not been lifted yet, they cannot remain much longer since the whole people grumbles and the consequences of the isolation can be felt in the entire state.* [21.4.1837]

the omnipresence of the topic and the struggle with political responses…

What are people thinking about? Cholera. What are they talking and dreaming about? Cholera. What are they preparing for? For cholera. Worries? Worrying here is of a very special kind. Have they procured a proper amount of beds? Are the pharmacies equipped with the drugs […] that have generally proven to be the most effective? Have the medical services taken adequate precautions? Are the apartments and streets of the greatest possible cleanliness? We do not dare to answer these questions in the affirmative. For an Italian government, cholera is a being of strange nature.* [16.8.1837]

denying the disease and inconsistencies in governmental reactions.

The occurrence of cholera in Rome is connected with circumstances which give rise to the saddest considerations. Their presence was long denied, even though individual cases were registered in the first half of July. The doctors gave no definite opinion; what could the Roman doctors have known about cholera? Negating the existence of the disease while closing single hospitals is one of those inconsistencies we got so used to that we stopped wondering about them.* [14.9.1837]

Reumont wrote about political measures and the dissatisfaction of the people. Very often – I could not help myself – I read ‘Corona’ instead of ‘cholera’.

“It’s all just a little bit of history repeating”

So, can we learn from history? Historians have not yet found a definitive and unanimous answer to this question. Nevertheless, studying history is not just important to understand the past. A lot of things European societies claim as uniquely contemporary phenomena – like vegetarianism, migration, media revolution, or handling health crises – already happened in the past, although in a different way. Circumstances and contexts change throughout the years: As for the pandemic, while in the (long) 19th century there were six cholera pandemics, each lasting for several years, in 2021, within a year, a vaccine has already been developed, and we can all hope the COVID-19 pandemic will be over soon. What is clear is that history forms the present. Learning about history helps us to understand recent events better. And ideally, we can also learn from history.

PS: On a happier note?

Speaking of pandemics, there are some parallels between the Spanish flu (1918–1920) and Covid-19. We could have learned from the Spanish flu that the second wave is potentially deadlier than the first one. However, after the peak of the pandemic during the second wave, it got slightly better. So, history can also be a reason for – at least a little – hope.


* These text passages were translated freely from 19th century-German. Therefore, some sentences can sound strange, but I wanted to keep as close to the original language as possible.


Collage by Alexandra Rabensteiner

(cutouts by digipress: Rom, Ende Juli. Vorbereitungen auf die Cholera [Rome, End of July. Preparing for Cholera]; Freitag, den 21. April 1837. Rom, April. [Friday, 21 April 1837. Rome, April ];  Donnerstag, den 14. September 1837. Korrespondenz-Nachrichten. Rom, Ende August. Die Cholera [Thursday, 14 September 1837. Correspondence Messages. Rome, End of August. The Cholera]; Background by cocoparisienne@pixabay.com; Portrait from Aachener Geschichtsverein)


Further readings:

Tognotti, Eugenia, I’m a Historian of Epidemics and Quarantine. Now I’m Living That History on Lockdown in Italy, 11.3.2020, https://time.com/5800993/quarantine-historian-italy/.

Zhang, Sarah, We’re Just Rediscovering a 19th-Century Pandemic Strategy. The first way of fight a new virus would once have been opening the window, 22.2.2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/02/bad-air/618106/.


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