Reconstruction of historical events on Twitter with RealTimeWWII
Hitler spent decades preparing his campaign for world domination. Alwyn Collinson, 24, a recent graduate in Renaissance history from the University of Oxford, hatched his own plan to invade Poland in just five days.
On August 26, Mr Collinson was just a marketing executive at an Oxford magazine playing around with the idea of launching some sort of real-time Twitter project that would grab people’s attention – maybe something like Orson Welles’ ‘war of the worlds’ in 1938. radio, but that wouldn’t scare them to death.
Then suddenly he had the idea to tweet the greatest land war of all time, and August 31 – about 72 years an hour after Hitler’s tanks crossed the border – the Twitter feed RealTimeWWII was in progress.
Since then, the dominoes have fallen rapidly. The number of subscribers rose from around 300 to 10,000 in mid-September, after the presentation of the project on The Next Web blog. By November 9, 1939, when two British spies were captured by the SS in the Dutch border town of Venlo, the total had reached 45,000. As of last week, Mr Collinson had over 140,000 subscribers, eclipsing the figures for similar flows like @ukwarcabinet (based on documents from the National Archives of Great Britain detailing the debates of Winston Churchill’s cabinet in 1941).
Volunteers started translating the RealTimeWWII stream into Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish, with discussions underway for versions in French, Dutch and German.
“The amount of interest surprised me,” Mr Collinson said recently in a telephone interview. “I have no claim to great historical scholarship. I just want to interest people.
He seems to have chosen an effective medium. “Those who forget history are doomed to re-tweet it,” says TwHistory’s slogan, an educational website that started in 2009 with a recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg in salvos of 140 characters or less. So, apparently, are those who remember it.
You can hardly spend an hour on Twitter without getting carried away a blow-by-blow account civil war, Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed polar expedition in 1911 or the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, not to mention a host of biographical offerings from Paul Revere, John Quincy Adams, Churchill and Samuel pepys, the 17th century London chronicler, who amassed more than 22,000 followers. Pepys’ maid Jane Birch even has a flow – or at least until last March, when she abruptly quit after posting complaints about her employer’s incessant snoring. and incontinent dog.
Mr. Collinson puts a face of attractive modesty on his wildly shameless project. Last Tuesday, as Hitler berated his generals for their lack of faith in his ultimate triumph – “stuff of dramatic irony,” Mr Collinson said – he was busy putting the finishing touches on a marketing program for Daily Information, the magazine where he keeps a job while broadcasting up to 40 war-related tweets a day, timed as much as possible on time. (The SocialOomph social media tool helps him schedule posts for when he’s supposed to work or sleep.)
“World War II gives me something to do with my time,” he said. “Office work keeps me anchored in the real world. “
When the project began, Mr Collinson relied mainly on “a few authoritative books,” he said, as well as anything he could find through Google. But over time, his readers have led him to distant and obscure sources. A reader sent him an article in a Polish newspaper describing an assassination attempt against Hitler in October 1939 which was not mentioned in the chronologies he was viewing. Others sent links to the wartime diaries of loved ones posted on little-read blogs.
Mr Collinson said his goals were to educate his supporters on the basic sequence of events and give ordinary people an idea of what the war looked like who had no idea how it would end.
“I still get dozens of tweets every day from people saying, ‘I forgot I was following WWII, and suddenly I thought the Germans were about to invade Holland,'” he said. Mr Collinson said. “This is exactly the effect I want: to convey fear, uncertainty, shock. That’s what it was for the people who lived it.
Most professional historians have been sympathetic to Mr. Collinson’s approach.
“People in the past didn’t live in the past, they lived in their own present,” said Timothy Snyder, professor at Yale and author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” said in an email. “These types of tweets give the past the genuinely confusing character of the present.”
Max Hastings, whose new book, “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945”, was one of Mr. Collinson’s earliest sources, agreed. “I don’t think it can replace the kind of cohesive narrative and analysis that only books can provide,” he said. “But it does offer a sense of immediacy and rhythm that younger audiences, in particular, find appealing.”
Attractive for now at least. Andrew Roberts, the author of the recent narrative story “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War”, wondered if Mr. Collinson would be able to maintain readers’ interest during the known period. under the name of “funny war”, also known at the time as “boring war”.
“It wasn’t the most exciting time,” Mr. Roberts said. “Regarding the land war, nothing happens between October 18” – when Hitler issued a directive for the invasion of the West – “and the invasion of Norway and Denmark.”
Mr Collinson, however, said he “looked forward to, if that’s the word”, the Soviet invasion of Finland on Wednesday, though he is not sure whether he can make it to the Allied victory over Japan in August 2017. “If I tried to keep going for six years, I would go crazy,” he said.
Other historic Twitter efforts have failed. @PatriotCast, a War of Independence feed with some 2,600 subscribers abruptly ceased operations last January with the rather disappointing news that “a large shipment of gunpowder has arrived in Egg Harbor, NJ” @MonticelloTJ , a feed based on Thomas Jefferson’s diaries, went silent in September 2010, after weeks of tasteless remarks about the weather and condition of the Monticello millet field. Most controversial a 10th anniversary The 9/11 feed set up by The Guardian in Britain closed its doors after just 16 tweets, following a public outcry.
Mr Collinson said he was attentive to questions of taste as the Holocaust approached. But he’s also determined to stick with his neutral and factual approach, even though the internationalization of the stream has opened his eyes to the limits of his own British perspective.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of Chinese history at the University of California at Irvine, points out that this bias was evident from Mr. Collinson’s first tweet. The Chinese, after all, date the start of World War II not to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, but to the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937.
Yet, Mr Wasserstrom said, RealTimeWWII may have claimed the ultimate tweetable historical event: rich in documentary sources but not yet overwhelmed by data feeds like Twitter.
“You couldn’t tweet something that was happening in tweets,” Mr. Wasserstrom said. “You would just go crazy. There is something about WWII. Even though it’s huge, there is something manageable about it.