Wikipedia has the following on the Spanish flu:

The pandemic broke out near the end of World War I, when wartime censors suppressed bad news in the belligerent countries to maintain morale, but newspapers freely reported the outbreak in neutral Spain, creating a false impression of Spain as the epicenter and leading to the "Spanish flu" misnomer.

What is the proof that governments censored the news reports? It seems non-trivial to substantiate this claim.

For example, searching for grounds for this claim, I found this paper. It writes the following in the abstract, and gives it as a likely reason, but it seems hard to get an actual proof of this:

Looking at Great Britain as an example of the period, it is argued that the virus has often been forgotten as a result of press censorship and state denial in a time when countries could not afford to look weak.

  • 4
    You omitted the citation from the Wikipedia snippet you quoted, which contains quotes like, "In the United Kingdom, newspapers were forbidden from discussing the outbreak in detail under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914. High-ranking British civil servant Sir Arthur Newsholme refused to take measures like instituting quarantine and shutting down public transport because he believed focusing on the war effort should claim top priority, says Arnold."
    – MCW
    Aug 9, 2022 at 10:54
  • 1
    "What is the proof that governments censored the news reports? It seems non-trivial to substantiate this claim." During wartime, every single government routinely controls the news reports. If anything, the opposite statement (free press without any restriction on information) would be non-trivial.
    – Greg
    Aug 10, 2022 at 5:25

2 Answers 2


The existence of censorship in many countries during WWI (and many other wars) wasn't exactly hidden. Many countries had official structures and organisations for censorship, underpinned by official legislation.

In an article on censorship for the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, Eberhard Dehm writes

While on the continent censorship was introduced in 1914 and justified by the proclamation of the state of siege, in Britain and later in Italy and in the United States the parliamentary bodies had to be consulted.[3] Censorship was thus authorized in Britain by the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), in Italy by the decree of 23 May 1915, and in the USA by the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Most urgent was the control of the media, and also, somewhat later, of correspondence. All countries rapidly organized central censorship offices: the Oberzensurstelle (Chief Censorship Office) in October 1914 in Berlin, subordinated to the Nachrichtenstelle (Intelligence Bureau) of the Oberste Heeresleitung (Supreme High Command, or OHL), which did not take up its work until February 1915; the Bureau de la Presse (Press Bureau) in Paris under the direction of the Ministry of War; the Official Press Bureau, jokingly called Suppress Bureau, in London; and in April 1917 the Central Censorship Board in the United States.

Even the US military itself has an article on its website on press censorship in World War I. There, they write

The objective of wartime censorship was to prevent the exposure of sensitive military information to the enemy. Similar censorship had been practiced by the U.S. Army in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. During World War I, however, the press censorship system was formalized and extended, according to the Army's official history, to include anything that might "injure morale in our forces here, or at home, or among our Allies," or "embarrass the United States or her Allies in neutral countries."


Subsection 10F, Press, implemented a form of "voluntary censorship," bolstered by the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, and the Sedition Act of May 1918, as well as several executive orders. Essentially, in a climate of cooperation fueled by patriotism and common sense, journalists dutifully avoided writing about topics recommended off-limits by the military.

We can savely assume that widespread knowledge about outbreaks of a severe disease would have been considered to "injure morale". Therefore, either the press would avoid the topic on its own, or the censorship structures as outlined by the quotes above would remove any articles on the topic.


The on-line British Newspaper Archive has a vast number of issues of British newspapers. Searching influenza or influenza deaths shows a very sharp rise in reports in July 1918 when the worst wave to date hit the British Isles, then a lull, and then a bigger rise in October and November.

Without a subscription I can only see snippets, but they are of a most alarming, even sensational, character, reporting high numebrs of deaths, especially of young people, in towns and districts all over the country.

It does not seem that news of the epidemic was suppressed in the UK.


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