Pandemic Recovery with History as Perspective

Nick Shepherd/Ikon Images

edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a Visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Published June 12, 2020


There are dozens of books about personal resilience, but what do we know about how cities and nations bounce back (or don’t) from potentially existential disasters like pandemics?

One explanation for why we rarely even consider the question is linked to what empirical researchers call selection bias. Many of the societies that have vanished, their people scattered or absorbed into their conquerors, have simply been forgotten. Think of the mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi pueblo dwellers centuries ago or the “vanished kingdoms” evoked by the historian Norman Davies in his 2010 book, Vanished Kingdoms.

In modern history the range of outcomes is striking. Only five years after the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans (over twice the highest projected casualties of Covid-19, as of May 2020), “normalcy” — a word popularized but not coined by Warren Harding, one of our more hapless presidents — had resumed. During the Great Depression that followed a decade later, John Maynard Keynes’s acolyte Alvin Hansen of Harvard foresaw “secular stagnation” before the revival of the late 1930s and the wartime and postwar boom. But looking back at the 1930s, the revisionist economist Alexander J. Field called the Great Depression “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.”

Then, in the early years following World War II, Germany and Japan appeared irreparably shattered by bombing, invasion and hunger, only to become two of the most dynamic postwar economies. And who could have foreseen how Vietnam, pummeled by 2.5 million tons of U.S. bombs in a vain attempt to save it from socialism, would come out of the war raring to join the Asian Tigers in growth?

International power politics can explain some miraculous recoveries. Remembering the unintended consequences of World War I reparations in Germany and fearful of communism, the United States helped rebuild the Japanese and West German economies while largely assuming the burden of protecting them from invasion.

Tale of Two Cities

But much also turns on circumstances before the fall. Generations of children in Chicago’s public schools have studied how the city boomed after the 1871 fire, one of the most spectacular conflagrations in American history. The fire was almost perfectly timed, clearing a large swath of firetrap structures, making room for new industries (and a new building code) that cemented the city’s role as the nation’s transportation hub of the railroad age when St. Louis, with its more central location and direct Mississippi River access, had a stronger purely geographic claim.

Contrast the Chicago fire with the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. San Francisco, like Chicago, was rebuilt. Its major port, neighboring Oakland, remains one of America’s biggest. Yet San Francisco ceded its relative economic position to the far more dynamic Los Angeles until Silicon Valley burst at the seams and extended its reach to the north.

This was not inevitable. Without the destruction of 80 percent of the city and the need for years of rebuilding, westward migrants probably would have continued to flock to San Francisco. But at a crucial time, newcomers were diverted to Los Angeles.

That was not necessarily bad news for residents of San Franscisco, which was handsomely rebuilt and remained a cozy haven for old-money families and the real bohemia of North Beach. Relative decline can be pleasant, or so the city’s gentrification protestors appear to believe. A more growth-oriented city probably would have ripped out its cable cars once buses could climb its steep grades — Chicago abandoned its own 41-mile system in 1906.

Tale of Two Countries

The most illuminating contrast in recoveries is not in the United States but at the northern and eastern ends of Western Europe. Denmark and Hungary have a surprising number of things in common. Their languages are relatively rarely taught elsewhere, but (or perhaps because of this) they have unusually rich literary cultures. Both have a reputation for outsized scientific and technological achievement. And genius to match: the physicist Niels Bohr and the mathematician John von Neumann, for example. Both have made colorful additions to global popular culture — think Legos and the Rubik’s Cube.

But they also share a less happy distinction: both lost territories critical to their identities in historic wars. Indeed, Denmark has more experience in losing acreage since the 17th century than any other European state. When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Danish kings ruled Norway in a union not dissolved until 1814. At its apogee, the Danish empire included Iceland, Greenland and colonies in South Asia and in the New World.

During the Napoleonic wars, the British navy shelled Copenhagen after the Danish government refused to turn over its fleet before the French captured it. Civilian deaths may have reached 2,000, and a large part of the city was destroyed.

What could have been the coup de grâce for Denmark was delivered by Prussia, which after the failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848 was consolidating its dominance over other German states. In 1864 Prussia invaded the Denmark’s ethnically contested southern duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, detaching Denmark’s breadbasket.

Thus, in 60 years, Denmark had gone from regional power to backwater. But, as with San Francisco, slippage is not all bad. As the Danish historian Uffe Ostergaard told The New York Times when Brexit was brewing: “It was a defeat, but in the defeat the beginning of a success story, and of a national story as a small power.”

With hindsight, Denmark was lucky. The country lost a lot of territory, but it kept a lot of human capital (and consolidated ethnic social capital) that proved far more valuable. And, in part, because its defeat occurred before industrialization, Denmark had breathing room to build a globally competitive economy and society on its own terms.

Thanks to a high level of literacy and excellent technical education, it became a pioneer of intensive agriculture for world markets — especially bacon and dairy products. Moreover, Danish nationalism, unlike its German counterpart, mellowed and turned inward. Danish cultural leaders repudiated the previously strong German influence in favor of rediscovery of its native folk culture.

The pace and trajectory of recovery will, in part, depend on flexibility to adapt to almost unique circumstances that have increased economic inequality, reduced competition, exacerbated racial and ethnic tensions and deeply undermined confidence in the institutions of democratic capitalism.

Craft culture, it’s worth noting, unexpectedly proved a foundation for Danish industrialization. The original wooden Lego set was one of the products of a Danish woodworking shop that responded creatively to the 1930s depression by shifting to high-quality toys. Robotically produced plastic and stunning global marketing came later.

After World War II, craft skills helped create other design-conscious industries in furniture, tableware, jewelry and electronics. Consider, too, that the isolated island communities at the core of the movement toward cultural independence were among the earliest adopters of wind energy. Today, by no coincidence, Denmark is the globe’s largest supplier of the giant turbines that dot ten thousand windy hillsides from Patagonia to Finland.

Hungary, like Denmark, was overshadowed by a bigger German-speaking neighbor in the mid-19th century. But the capitals, Copenhagen and Budapest, are as unlike as two dominant cities can be. The former is a pleasure park full of greenery. The second is manifestly imperial and bears the scars of centuries of occupation, war and rebellion.

Hungary’s compromise with Austria in 1867, which ended military rule and gave it co-equal status as a separate kingdom under the Habsburg emperors, launched an industrial boom that the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs compared to America’s resurgence after the Civil War. Like New York, it was a magnet for workers migrating from the countryside of Eastern Europe. The Hungarian nobility, uniquely among European aristocracies, welcomed non-Hungarian entrepreneurs — including Jewish industrialists and bankers — who were willing to adopt Magyar language and culture.

A Hungarian factory built the first electric railroad engine. Budapest had an underground Metro in 1897, seven years before the first New York subway line was completed. In 1900, Budapest had 22 daily newspapers — more than Vienna.

But history caught up with Hungary, whose defeat in World War I led to losses of territory and population proportionately greater than those of Denmark in 1864. Carving out territory for Romania, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Croatia and the new Republic of Austria amounted to Europe’s deepest national humiliation since the 18th-century partitions of Poland.

Hungary began a painful recovery under a succession of authoritarian governments, but it was far from the dynamo it had been before the war. Rebuilding was especially challenging because Budapest, in contrast to Copenhagen on the Jutland peninsula, was in Europe’s geographic center of gravity between East and West, North and South. Its rail network, radiating from Budapest, was thus truncated by new borders and customs barriers. The victorious allies even forced Hungary to rip up one side of major double-track railroad lines, fearing their potential for facilitating some future military mobilization.

Hungary still might have used its strength in science to recover. The Hungarian geniuses celebrated in popular histories of science — the mathematician John von Neumann, the physicists Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, the aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán — might have made a tolerant, diverse Hungary a center of a new generation of industries. But the rise of right-wing politics and anti-Semitism undercut the standing of the education system in both financial and academic terms.

Of course, there was much more to Hungary’s problems than bad karma: its alliance with Germany in the 1930s and in World War II, the devastation of Nazi occupation and the Holocaust (residents of Hungary were by far the largest group of Jews deported to Auschwitz), the postwar Soviet occupation and the failed 1956 revolt resulting in another wave of emigration by the best and brightest. And the curse continues; now it must contend with the “illiberal democracy” championed by the nation’s Oxford-educated democrat-turned-strongman prime minister Victor Orbán.

Where Most Historians Fear to Tread

Generalizing about why some economies/societies succeed and some fail when put under great stress may be a fool’s game. But it is fun — and conceivably enlightening. Hindsight makes it clear why the devastating blows to Denmark and Hungary had such different outcomes. Geography, geopolitics and culture played roles — as did luck, that indispensable fudge factor.

The $64 trillion question now is which societies will make adequate recoveries from the body blow delivered by the Covid-19 pandemic and which will stagnate or continue to decline. In this case, of course, a lot has to do with how well individual countries minimized the impact of the virus in the first place, with prizes going to countries that are well led, socially cohesive — and, again, lucky by virtue of factors ranging from geography to demography.

But such path dependence is not complete. The pace and trajectory of recovery will, in part, depend on flexibility to adapt to almost unique circumstances that have increased economic inequality, reduced competition, exacerbated racial and ethnic tensions and deeply undermined confidence in the institutions of democratic capitalism.

Recent reports suggest two possibilities. Germany’s strict observance of rules, including industrial hygiene and contact tracing, together with a strong medical infrastructure and management-labor cooperation, helped it keep factories open. German firms also learned best hygiene practices from their Chinese factories, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

In the developing world, Rwanda has emerged as a possible winner. A BBC report notes the country’s excellent governance and quick response to the pandemic, earning it a high resilience rank along with Denmark and Singapore, among other nations.

In a world of global interdependence, it is impossible to pick tomorrow’s winners. But history shows that even in the worst circumstances, cultures of recovery are still possible.

main topic: Public Health