World War II told in a series of tweets

Molly Wood Nov 25, 2011

Twitter is more than a platform to tell crack jokes or spout opinions. It’s becoming an incredibly diverse publishing platform as members take the format and apply it to some really creative projects.

One that’s attracting a lot of followers lately is Real Time World War Two, or @Real TimeWWIII. It’s a project by Alwyn Collinson, a recent graduate of Oxford University in England. The premise of the Twitter feed is that it is now this same date in 1939. Hitler’s power is growing and the rest of the world is trying to figure out what to do. Collinson reports the news as it was.

Collinson is committed to seeing the feed through for the next six years, chronicling the war as it unfolds, all in a format you can read from your desktop or phone. He notes that while we see the war as an historical event with a beginning, middle and end, that wasn’t what it looked like in 1939.

“It’s very easy to forget,” he says, “that for people who lived through the war, it wasn’t inevitable. They didn’t know that the good guys were going to win. And for them, every day was fear, uncertainty, and shock as things happened that were a genuine surprise to them. I wanted to create a little bit of that feeling and give people the feeling that when they see an event happening, they get a little bit of that shock and know what it must have been like.”

Collinson got the idea by following the news feeds of today. “So when you read a tweet from something like Occupy Wall Street at the moment, you get a sense of interesting and exciting things happening right now. I wanted to capture a little bit of that feel for history as well.”

As for the task of taking all this history and condensing it into 140-character tweets, he says, “I don’t pretend to be a very good scholarly source, there are much better sources for learning about the past than me, but what I want to do is keep it interesting, keep it engaging. And my main task every day is to look at main events, say well this is what happened, these are things that are important or will be important later on, and also to  give an eyewitness view. To say here’s a very interesting perspective from the time, here’s some fascinating photographs, here’s what it was actually like for everyday people in the army or living in an occupied country or just in a country at war. And in that way, I want to balance every day, important things, things that matter historically with the things that perhaps are otherwise overlooked. Little details that show what it was like and what people cared about at the time.”

I asked him what some of the more compelling events were in the war at this time in 1939. Collinson recalled a recent entry:

Noon. Hitler & German generals/staff officers meeting now in the Berlin Chancellery. Hitler: I wish “to give you an idea of my thoughts”

“It’s known to us now,” he says, “that two of his generals, Halder and Brauchitsch, had actually been planning to depose Hitler because they believe they can’t win the war against Britain and France. And Hitler today had a big meeting with his generals in order to essentially bully them into going along with his plan, so he says things like ‘I am irreplaceable’, you know, ‘the whole fate of the Reich depends upon me’ and essentially he forces his officers through sheer force of personality to fall in behind him, to agree that he will make the decisions about the war with the west.”

6PM Hitler now berating General Von Brauchitsch: “General Staff is shot through with defeatism… stiff-necked attitude” must be stamped out

“And really, reading that, it’s fascinating to get a sense of at the time even his officers were unsure. They didn’t know what was going to happen, rightly so as it turns out, but it was simply, his force of personality that overruled them.

“Today was also the day when, in the city of Krakow in occupied Poland, Jews were first forced to wear armbands with the Star of David on them, and that’s a chilling reminder of things to come as well.”

Collinson said an ongoing problem with the feed is how closely modern events can mirror those of the 1940s. “I get many messages from people,” he says, “saying ‘I forgot what feed I was following and suddenly, I read one of your tweets and I thought there was something crazy going on.’ When I’ve talked about things like the IRA conducting a terrorist campaign in London in 1939, I time-stamp my tweets, put 1939 at the beginning because I thought that there are some things that are still a little bit close to home to be talking about.”

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