History, tourism and epidemics, the example of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice

Recent events teach us how fragile the tourism sector is. The Covid-19 epidemic reminds us of this fact, which has been known for a very long time in a historical perspective: the slightest disturbances - whether geopolitical, military, economic or health-related - have an immediate and profound impact on the entire chain of tourist activity: tour operators, transporters, hoteliers, inn-keepers, leisure activity leaders, etc. The deflagration causes a domino effect that is difficult to stop and it is difficult to restart. The unheard-of violence of the Covid-19 brought to a standstill - for how long? - an economic sector that is said to be the largest employer in the world. It has also highlighted the desperation of thousands of tourists surprised in their places of stay by the restrictions put in place and being force to stay and wait for a more or less long time, sometimes very anxiously, for the means to get home. The hotel room or the cabin of the cruise ship suddenly turns into a prison that one could have done without. While it is easy after the events to denounce the carelessness of these thousands of people or the immorality of tourist promoters to "think" tourism as they did, it is useful to repeat that there are many historical experiences to remind us of this fragility. 

Many blogs, newspaper articles, television and radio programs tell us how old the epidemics are and their impact on societies to make us understand that there is nothing new under the sun and that our belief in the indestructibility of our societies was only an illusion1. However, there is little research specifically on the links between epidemics and tourism. In 1974, the great malaria specialist L.J. Bruce Chwatt, published an article on the links between air traffic, which was booming due to the growth of tourism, and epidemics, pointing out that " "the growth of the tourist industry, has greatly increased the risk of transmission and greatly increased the difficulties of preventive action"2.

This article led a French scientist, migration specialist and director of research at the National Institute of Demographic Studies, Jacques Houdaille, to extend Chwatt's thinking. Houdaille pointed out that "The international regulations that have been in place since 1951 to prevent the transmission of certain epidemic diseases have been fairly well observed for some fifteen years. However, during the 1960s, the rapid development of tourism prompted the immigration authorities to relax their vigilance. Advances in commercial aviation contributed significantly to this."3." Each in their own way and using their knowledge, these two scientists put their finger on a phenomenon that we did not want or could not foresee: the impact of epidemics. As proof, in the introduction to a special issue of a magazine devoted in 2007 to the economic history of tourism, we ended up asking ourselves whether tourism has a future: "Tired visitors, exhausted sites, discouraged destinations, fraudulent tour operators, overcrowded airports, blocked motorways, everything indicates that, barring miracles, tourism is heading towards a wall where happiness will certainly not be there"4. No miracles have, it is true, occurred, but neither was there any mention of the dangers of an epidemic as if it were indecent to invoke its possibility. The Covid-19 gives us the opportunity to be more attentive to the very essence of tourism which, like the god Janus, has two sides, one happy side, most often put forward - and for good reason - and the other, the dark side. At the beginning of the 20th century, a famous German writer wrote a text of astonishing topicality in these days of confinement. In his short story Death in Venice, Thomas Mann wonderfully (if one can use that word...) describes the process that leads ... tourists to be caught in the meshes of a net from which they can scarcely extricate themselves5. Beyond his masterful literary mastery and his intrigue that sees a writer, Gustav Aschenbach, take on a mad passion for a teenager, he is a very shrewd observer, showing the underhanded spread in Venice of what he calls "Indian cholera". 

Mann's text helps to see how the epidemic has spread in Europe and particularly in Venice and how it affects the city and its inhabitants, especially tourists. In his "demonstration", Thomas Mann describes a process that can be divided into several stages: 

1. Asian origin of the epidemic -> 2. Arrival of the epidemic in Europe -> 3. Identification of "patient zero" -> 4. Transmission of the epidemic -> 5. Symptoms -> 6. Measures taken by the authorities -> 7. Public reactions -> 8. Implications (departure or containment). 

Let's review these steps and see how Mann develops them6

First, Thomas Mann places the origin of the epidemic in Asia. 

For several years, Indian cholera had shown an increasing tendency to spread abroad and travel. Engendered in the hot swamps of the Ganges delta, arising from the mephitic exhalations of that wilderness of primordial world and islands, luxuriant but inhabitable and shunned by man, in whose bamboo thickets the tiger crouches, the epidemic had raged throughout Hindustan unremittingly, and with unusual violence, had spread eastward to China, westward to Afghanistan and Persia, and, following the main caravan routes, had brought its horrors as far as Astrakhan and even Moscow. 

Secondly, Mann describes the arrival of the epidemic in Europe. He identifies precisely those responsible: 

But while Europe trembled in fear lest the phantom might enter its territory from that point, and by land, it had been carried across the Sea by Syrian merchants, had appeared in several Mediterranean ports simultaneously, had raised its head in Toulon and Malaga, had shown its mask repeatedly in Palermo and Naples, and seemed to be a permanent fixture throughout Calabria and Apulia. The north of the peninsula had been spared. But in the middle of May of that year, the fearful vibrios had been discovered in Venice twice in the same day, in the emaciated, blackened corpses of a cargo-ship crewman and a female greengrocer. The cases were kept secret. But a week later there were ten, there were twenty, thirty, and in different neighbourhoods. 

The third stage of the mechanism is the identification of "patient zero" and then the infections that gradually surround the whole city despite the denials of the city authorities: 

A man from the Austrian provinces, who had spent a few vacation days in Venice, died upon returning to his hometown with unmistakable signs of the disease, and so it came about that the first rumors of the epidemic in the city on the lagoon made their way in German-language newspapers. The Venetian authorities replied that health conditions in the city had never been better, and took the most urgent measures to combat the illness. 

Fourth stage: the expansion takes place through the infection of food products and their transmission to humans: 

But probably foodstuffs had been infected, vegetables, meat or milk, for, denied and hushed up as it might be, death flourished in the narrow lanes, and the prematurely occurring summer heat, which turned the water of the canals lukewarm, was particularly conducive to its spread. In fact, it seemed as if the epidemic had experienced a revivification of its strength, as if the tenacity and fertility of the germs that caused it had redoubled. 

In the fifth stage, Thomas Mann presents the symptoms of infected patients. 

Cases of recovery were rare; eighty out of a hundred victims died, and horribly, because the disease was attacking with extreme virulence and often in its most dangerous form, called the ‘dry’ form. In such cases the body was not even able to discharge the water that was excreted in massive quantities from the blood vessels. Within a few hours the patients dried up and, with convulsions and hoarse moans, chocked on the blood that had become as thick and sticky as pitch. They were better off in the occasional instances when, after a slight indisposition, the disease took the form of a deep coma, from which they no longer, or just barely, awoke. 

The sixth stage can be seen in the measures taken by the authorities, or rather the denials for fear of alarming the tourists and seeing them fleeing from La Serenissima. 

At the beginning of June the isolation sheds of the Ospedale Civile quietly became filled up, hardly any space was left in the two orphanages, and there was frightfully heavy traffic between the quay of the Fondamente Nuove and San Michele, the cemetery island. But the fear of causing general harm to the city, concern for the recently opened exhibition of paintings in the Public Gardens, and anxiety over the tremendous losses with which the hotels, business and the entire multifaceted tourist industry were threatened in case of a panic and a boycott, proved to be of most weight in the city than love of the truth and respect for international conventions; these concerns induced the authorities to maintain obstinately their policy of silence and denial. The chief medical officer of Venice, a distinguished man, had resigned from his position indignantly and had been clandestinely replaced by a more compliant personality. 

In the seventh point, Thomas Mann focuses on describing the reactions of the public. 

The populace knew this; and the corruption of their leaders, along with the prevailing insecurity and state of emergency that the stalking death had brought forth in the city, resulted in a certain demoralization of the lower classes, an incitement to criminal and antisocial impulses, which took the form of intemperance, shameless behaviour and a growing crime rate. In the evening one could see many drunken people, which was unusual; it was said that malicious riffraff were making the streets unsafe at night; muggings and even homicides occurred rapidly: it had already been proved on two occasions that persons who had allegedly fallen victims to the epidemic had really been made away with, poisoned by their own relatives; and professional vice took on conspicuous, excessive proportions hitherto unknown here, and at home only in the south of the country and in Orient. 

The eighth stage is the decision stage. An English employee of a travel agency admits that the situation is very serious and that the only conclusion to be drawn is to leave Venice without delay, before the quarantine is installed for all its inhabitants, to which - unlike all the other tourists who ;were escaping, leaving; numerous cabanas were empty; there were many unoccupied tables in the dining room, and in the city a foreigner was only rare to be seen- Aschenbach cannot get down to it, bewitched as he is by the passion devoted to Tadzio, the angel of death. 

The short story of Thomas Mann cannot be seen as an exact replica of what is happening with the Covid-19. It would be pointless, even silly. Of the eight steps mentioned, most do not factually fit the present situation, even though the effects of globalization or government reactions or the manifestations of the disease are in many ways the same in both cases. It is not a question of taking at face value the writings of a writer whose immense power of imagination and suggestion is well established. We know that the paths between literature and history are very complex and problematic7.

An in-depth study of the sources used by Thomas Mann to describe the "Indian cholera" epidemic would be interesting. His description does not spare us either stereotypes about populations (people from the South and the East) or geographical areas (Asia). But his text helps us to analyse the infection process in its tragic sequence: from the arrival of the epidemic to implications in the form of departure or quarantine. This sequence leads to an inevitable halting of tourist activities... With Thomas Mann, their death, personified by the hero, is the only outcome. It is to be hoped that after Covid-19, a rebirth will take place. 

Laurent Tissot (University of Neuchâtel) 


1 See, for example, the very interesting blog of the Economic History Society: The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health: Research from Economic History Part A long-view-on-epidemics-disease-and-public-health-research-from-economic-history-part-a/ and B: economic-history-part-b/.(accessed 3 April 2020. See also Nicolas Weill, "Face à la maladie, les limites du pouvoir" in Le Monde, 3 April 2020

2 L.J. Bruce Chwatt, “Air Transport and disease”, Journal of Biosocial Science, avril 1974, 6, p. 241-258.

3 Jacques Houdaille. “International tourism and disease” In: Population, 30e year, n°1, 1975. pp. 140-142. The author also wonders why the spread of yellow fever has never occurred.

4 Laurent Tissot, «Le tourisme: de l'utopie réalisée au cauchemar généralisé ?» In: Entreprises et histoire. - Paris. -No 47(2007), p. 5-10.

5 In her blog of February 23, 2020, GeoSophie - Geopolitical Landscapes, geographer Sophie Clairet takes up without analyzing them the excerpts from Thomas Mann's short story in the context of Covid-19. (accessed April 5, 2020).

6 We use the English translation of Stanley Apfelbaum published by Dover Thrift Editions in 1995, pp. 52-57 (accessed 06.04.2020). 

7 A very good clarification can be found in Haddad Élie, Meyzie Vincent, « La littérature est-elle l’avenir de l’histoire ? Histoire, méthode, écriture. À propos de : Ivan Jablonka L’histoire est une littérature contemporaine. Manifeste pour les sciences sociales, Paris, Seuil, 2014, 333 p., ISBN 978-2-02-1137190 4 », Revue d’histoire moderne & contemporaine, 2015/4 (n° 62-4), p. 132-154. DOI : 10.3917/rhmc.624.0132. URL : See also, Nikolay Koposov, De l’imagination historique. Paris, Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 2009.