As we reflect on the century of the end of World War I, it is worth remembering that another accident just began in 1918: the Spanish flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people, more than twice as many men as had just been shot, blown or gas to death in the trenches.
When the Paris peace talks began in early 1919, this particularly virulent tribe had already infected one third of the world's population. As Laura Spinney notes in her new book on the subject, "the Spanish flu speculated more radically than anything since the black death." It could also cause neurological problems such as lethargy and paranoia even after the normal symptoms fell.
In a textbook still used today, Principles and practices for medicine, Canadian physician Sir William Osler noted that "almost any form of nervous system disease can follow the flu." This was certainly the case with the 1918-19 pandemic that Osler himself gave.
Scientists recently used nucleic acid recombinant techniques to recreate the Spanish influenza virus genome from lung tissue in victims who were buried in permafrost. In contrast to the common flu, the reconstructed strain can directly infect the brain tissue of laboratory rats. In particular, it affects the lamp bulb that interferes with the weaving cycles and causes symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.
This research opens up a better overview of how this disease behaved a century ago when President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France for the peace talks.
A new world order?
A successful teacher and sincere progressive over all but race was Wilson known for his intellectual enlistment. In early 1918, he had portrayed his famous fourteen points calling for free trade, open diplomacy and a new balance between European power and an international body to prevent future wars.
The fourteen points also rejected any evil against Germany, so Berlin accepted them as the basis for the negotiations.
Compared to the exhausted and exasperated British and French, the United States (and Wilson himself) became the main player at the beginning of 1919, one party capable of creating lasting peace.
But on April 3, 1919, Wilson became ill with flu-like symptoms. Recognizing that "all civilization seemed to be in balance", his doctor read the disease and ordered the bed air.
So far, historians have wondered about this incident, both in Wilson's past health problems and in his performance when he returned to the negotiating table a week later.
Lost chances and dark results
Wilson was not the same man. He easily and quickly lost focus and patience. He seemed paranoid, worried about being spied on by housewives. He achieved some of his specific goals, but was unable or unwilling to formulate a broader vision for a better world.
In other words, he acted as a man with residual neurological problems as a result of a recent battle with Spanish flu.
During the next decisive weeks, Wilson lost his best chance of winning the peace by, in principle, accepting Drachian conditions favored by France. The final settlement punishes Germany with a formal guilt, enormous damages and the loss of approx. 10 pct. Of its territory.
The stunned Germans had little choice but to sign on June 28, 1919.
Back in the United States that fell, Wilson suffered a huge stroke as opposition to the treaty of isolationist senators got steam. He died four years later, his vision of a strong League of Nations prevented by a lack of his own country.
The rest, as they say, is history
Right leaders in Germany raged on their country's betrayal. Among them were Adolf Hitler, who owed Jews and leftists to undermine war effort and vowed revenge over the Allies. In 1940, he insisted on humiliating France by dictating his terms of surrender in the same train car where the 1918 army had been signed.
Could a more powerful Wilson have secured a better peace? Would that peace have kept monsters like Hitler on the edge?
Of course we can't know. But by bringing medical and historical research together, we can get closer to what actually happened and think better about what might have happened.
We can also use this incident to reflect on the amazing power of US presidents, so and now, to shape the fate of unborn millions. Surely it requires a close wave of their mental health.