Reliving World War II, one tweet at a time

"Those tweets seem less and less like something that belongs in the history books."

Credit: AP Photo/Diana Ofusu
Credit: AP Photo/Diana Ofusu

“I feel that we are very interested in telling a story about the war that glorifies us,” Alwyn Collinson tells me by phone. What actually happened — and how individuals down on the ground felt about it at the time — is usually too morally complicated for our modern sensibilities, and so we replace it with something more straightforward, something that makes us feel better about ourselves. “We are more interested, nowadays, in the narratives that prop up our modern system, or that fit in with our modern preconceptions,” Collinson said. “We’re not interested in, so much, in how people felt at the time.”

But he is, in fact, very interested in how people felt at the time. So much so that he devoted six years to running a massively popular Twitter account that documents World War II in real time. He started over again last week, on August 31, describing how “25 Luftwaffe planes are now bombing Polish city of Wieluń, completely unopposed; Germany hasn’t yet declared war.”

As things have gotten a little heated (in more ways than one) since 2011, Collinson’s feed, though not intentionally winking at our current circumstances, feels all the more pointed and poignant. It’s more than a little surreal to have these missives from 78 years ago pop up in your feed alongside the headlines of the minute, like a visual remix that tricks you into seeing a news bulletin from 1939 in the same way you see a text alert from thirty seconds ago. Especially when both past and present news alerts feature swastikas.

In Collinson’s account, World War II and all its now-certain aspects — that Hitler would rise but ultimately fall; that America would join what was long seen as a fight the country could avoid; that “Nazi” would become shorthand for “absolute evil” — lose their air of inevitability. The superiority and safety of hindsight dissolve, replaced with unease, confusion, even terror.

Collinson’s goal, essentially, is the erasure of hindsight; it’s to stop us from imposing everything we know now on everything that happened then. Read on for more thoughts from Collinson, who has a day job as the digital editor of the Museum of London, on why he believes Germany is the only country on Earth that has meaningfully reckoned with its past atrocities; what we lose when we mythologize history; and why he really wants to read your grandparents’ diaries.

Take me back to six years ago, when you launched this account. What were you thinking about? 

Though I did study history at university, I’m not particularly interested in military history. But I was really impressed by how social media gave you a real feeling that you were in amongst events. And I thought, how could you do that with history? How could you make people feel that they were living through history at the time? This was right around the Arab Spring, and you felt like you were participating, almost, or had a front row seat, to a momentous event. So I wanted to create that same impact, but with historical events. I thought, World War II is probably the single most-studied event in human history, so there will be lots of material. Maybe that should have been a red flag.

For someone who, as you say, is not into military history, this is a surprising choice of project. What drew you in?

I’ve always been more interested in the social and political [side]: How the war shaped the world, rather than the blow by blow. The maps with the arrow moving to another part of the map really do bore me. But the fact that people lived through these incredible events, which still are impacting our lives today — and the way the Second World War developed absolutely still resonates today — that is fascinating.

Talk me through your research. Where does most of your material come from?

I have a library of books. I have access to newspaper archives. The majority of my research is done by the internet and the most rewarding part, the part that’s really adding value, is when some of my followers contact me and say, “My grandfather served, I have his diary, here’s a photo of him at this time,” or “Here’s my mother in uniform.” Nowadays, generally it’s someone related to [the person who lived through the war] who contacts me. When I started the project six years ago, I would get people who themselves had lived through the war contacting me with their own personal reminiscences. But now it’s on the cusp of living memory; it’s almost vanished from living memory. We’re seeing history vanish before our eyes.

In all your studies here, what has surprised you the most? 

I think for me, the single most interesting thing, because I spend so much time looking at contemporary documents—as opposed to late historical retellings—is how much the war didn’t fit the narratives that we’ve necessarily assembled around it afterwards. That’s not to say historical perspective isn’t a good thing, because it is, and people living through events don’t know where things are going at the time. But they do have a personal sense which is otherwise lost beneath the wheels of history.

When people were looking at the outbreak of war, they didn’t know how long it would go on, how transformative it would be. But there are certain narratives we take for granted now. The absolute evil of the Nazis being responsible for the Holocaust, we take that for granted now. But someplace like the U.S., which didn’t enter the war until more than two years after it began in Europe, [there were] American defectors at the time who wrote that this was a struggle America shouldn’t have to be involved in. That was a really interesting perspective to take. Or Nazi supporters in Britain, France, and America, people who were pro-appeasement or even more pro-Nazi, like Charles Lindbergh, the classic American example.

The Chinese nationalist contribution to fighting the Japanese [is] often overlooked, because it’s part of modern Chinese history to elevate the contributions of the communist forces in the Second World War. We are more interested, nowadays, in the narratives that prop up our modern system, or that fit in with our modern preconceptions. We’re not interested in, so much, in how people felt at the time.

I was just talking to a friend who believes that American schools teach Vietnam very badly because we don’t know how to teach loss — that if America didn’t win a war, we are just not equipped to discuss it in a meaningful or helpful way. I imagine this is true in Britain as well, but I can only speak for the U.S.: It’s amazing how the tenor of World War II history here is rooted in, “We won because we were right.” 

Absolutely. There’s this really easy World War II narrative: Of course it was British pluck and American know-how and all this other stuff. But the majority of fighting and dying was done by Soviet troops who, if not the bad guys in comparison to the Nazis, were not square-jawed Hollywood heroes themselves. It’s very easy to get comforting narratives that the Nazis and Japanese lost because they were evil. But in fact, we need to reckon with the fact that it wasn’t right; it’s might.

[It reminds me] of The Simpsonswhen Bart goes, “There are no good wars except for the following: the American Revolution and World War II.” It has become a mythological subject. “The Greatest Generation” is a hell of a name for a generation to give themselves, given that they were the ones writing all this!

Basically, I feel that we are very interested in telling a story about the war that glorifies us. And that doesn’t go for just America and Britain; that also goes for places like Poland and the Ukraine. They are places where the past is really live. They’ve passed laws within the past year criminalizing words in certain contexts like “Polish Death Camps“, because what people mean when they say that is, “Nazi death camps that were set up in Poland.” But the Polish government has its own mythologized version of World War II, and the fact that Jews were killed by Poles as well as Germans does not fit. History is tremendously more complex, and we do a disservice when we bury that behind this simplistic narrative.

You say you get submissions from people who tell you that their parents or grandparents or whoever lived through the war, or are veterans or survivors and so on. Do you ever hear from any Germans?

Not so much! But that is, at least in part, due to language. Although most Germans speak excellent English. There have been some, over the course of six years, from everyone except for the Japanese, I think, and that’s very likely a language issue. But all the major nationalities you’d think of have contributed.

But it’s interesting you say that, because Germany is possibly the only country in the world to seriously address its past and its actions in a way that is genuinely clear-eyed and recognizes the way that our modern successes are often founded upon extraordinary crimes committed by our ancestors, and that goes for almost every country in the world. It’s not just a question of Confederate memorials in the U.S. or the British Empire in Britain, which has almost no popular awareness of horrors committed by the British across the world. And the less said about the way Japan has acted to deliberately forget the actions of their Empire during the war, the better.

Why do you think Germany is able to succeed at that where just about every other country in the world has failed? Or maybe a better question is, why don’t more nations follow that example, now that we’ve seen it in action? 

They were occupied by two rival nations for 60 years after the war. The American occupation is a bit of a loaded term, but the Soviet occupation was very real, and American involvement in their government was very intrusive. They were absolutely forced to reckon with their past. It is literally written into their constitution. It’s disconcerting that it arguably takes that level of constantly having your nose rubbed in the less pleasant parts of your past. When you’ve got huge American military bases and your country split in half because of your parents’ and grandparents’ crimes, you cannot forget your past.

It’s a brute force solution which I really doubt is available to the United States, given the abrupt end of reconstruction in the U.S., the way that the South very quickly ceased to be under military occupation. If the Union forces had stayed in the South for 60 years after the end of the Civil War, perhaps America would have a more clear-eyed view of its history.

To what degree, if at all, do current events influence what you tweet about?

It’s something that has become more and more contentious, because I feel like, as time has gone on, basically the world has become more and more of a war-like place. Not to say that it in any way resembles the Second World War, which was a period of [such] monumental horrors that it makes you happy to live in the world today. But when I started this project, there was no war in Syria, in Libya. There was a much smaller refugee crisis. There wasn’t the resurgence of Nazis that we’re seeing across the Western world. All of those have inevitably been referenced by people who read my tweets.

I try, as far as possible, to keep away from seeking out those parallels. I think that would be a facile and false way of doing this history, basically. That’s not to say that I’m not a bit cheeky sometimes in choosing which particular issue to settle on. But I’m always worried that my tweets will be taken for real news. Actually, occasionally, they are.

Do people sometimes misread your tweets as modern news dispatches? Like when people believe The Onion?
 
That’s an excellent comparison, actually. I get some panicked responses. I am occasionally worried when I tweet about bombings and invasions. Those tweets seem less and less like something that belongs in history books.

How does this account work, just practically speaking? What’s your day to day?

This time around, I’ll be reusing most of the material from the first time, so that will reduce even further the sense of me trying to tailor my work to the headlines. For the first time around, I tended to jump around: At first I’d be doing a bit of a blow-by-blow of the outbreak of the European war. Then as time went on, I would do a kind of day-by-day, I’d choose one arena of conflict, or one particularly important event, and talk just about that. I spend an hour a day, or longer on the weekends, to build up a snapshot of a single event, to give that level of: This is what it looked like from the ground. Rather than: Here’s the whole sense of what happened today in the war.

Do you think of your tweets as political? Or does it seem that way because now it is political to just state facts, to acknowledge history in an accurate and not jingoistic way?

I really honestly never thought this would be in any sense a contentious statement, but I have heard that question before, and I can say I’m categorically anti-Nazi. I don’t feel in any sense that that’s a controversial viewpoint. But again, I don’t think it’s necessary to go into the study of history saying, “You know what? I’m really going to be biased against the Nazis.” That comes naturally out of the study of history.

I have always striven not to take a political viewpoint, except perhaps to say that I think it’s more interesting to look at what people thought and said at the time, and what actually happened, rather than trying to go back and give our own perspectives. And quite naturally, you’ll wind up rooting for anyone who is not Hitler. I really don’t want to draw any parallels between World War II and modern events… It’s more useful to look at the events and see if you think there are truths to come out rather than trying to stick labels.

As you say, people willfully misremember that there were Americans and Brits who were pro-Nazi (or not anti-Nazi in an active way). What else do you think are the big misconceptions, on the part of the average person living now, about what they would have thought, or how they would have felt, if they were young and alive during the war?

I’ve never thought of it in those terms before. What an interesting question. Alive and young is an interesting one. I think a lot of people underrate the appeal of the extreme ideologies of the 1930s. It’s very compelling, the narratives that fascists and communists are spinning at the time, and it’s extraordinary the way that those pulled mainstream conversation after them.

If you look at the New Deal, of which World War II was the natural culmination, the U.S. government in the Second World War, in many senses, took complete control of the nation’s economy. People were denouncing that as absolutely communist at the time. That’s one of the reasons there were fascist supporters in the U.S. People underestimate the degree to which, if you weren’t fascist, you probably would have been a communist, if you were young and idealistic, because they were seen as the two possible alternatives. In many ways, World War II and the Cold War, which follows, is kind of this extraordinary story, in a sense, of liberal democracy surviving against what seemed to be the two possible futures of humanity. So I think that’s one thing.

People underrate the degree, I think, to which they might have been seduced by, if not fascist ideology, the kind of conservative [movement]. Because there were never enough Nazis to form a majority, even in Germany. It was always enabled by the conservative right. And that’s not in a modern sense; I mean the anti-communist right in Germany. It was the same elsewhere. The people who were asking for appeasement in France and Britain were people who saw fascists as bad, but better than a communist takeover. You can’t project your modern political sense backwards and say you would have picked the winning side.

And I think a lot of people were deeply naive about fascism in particular. When you look at news reports at the time, Hitler is this cartoonish figure in a lot of senses. He’s ranting and raving. And what people say about fascists is that they’re gangsters. They’re not seen as embodiments of evil; they’re seen as Al Capone-esque people running the country as thugs. They’re ludicrous. That sense of these people as being contemptible and stupid really got a lot of people’s guard down, in a sense.

It’s not true that the concentration camps were discovered when American soldiers arrived and suddenly people saw how evil Hitler had been. The Polish Underground were smuggling people in and out of Auschwitz to report on the horrors there, and they were not believed or seen as being important, at least at first, by Western leaders. People had been fooled in World War I by propaganda and they would not get fooled again. They didn’t believe that they had real possibilities, these extreme ideologies.

This is a bit of a strange comparison, but it reminds me of Matilda and how the Trunchbull did deliberately insane things to children because she knew no one would believe them.

In a sense, yeah. And I think that it’s almost gone the other way now. All the Nazi iconography, it’s become a byword for evil. Darth Vader dresses like a Nazi. But at the time, that wasn’t the case. It was new. It wasn’t fuddy-duddy old conservatism. it was a new thing, different from the failed ideologies. And the Nazis dressed—and I mean the fascists in Italy and Britain and America—they dressed smartly and were seen as being rather snazzy. You shouldn’t expect a new threat from an extreme ideology to look like the old one.

Twitter gets a bad rap for plenty of legitimate reasons, but it does seem like your work would be impossible without it, that you couldn’t do what you’re doing here without this specific medium. 

I think that’s fair. I think both sides of that are absolutely fair. For me, Twitter is a tremendous timesink. Not just my own work. It’s like someone has hacked into the human brain, and if this was a rat in a cage, [and asked], what would it want to see over and over again? And that’s feeding our worst impulses. But I’m really happy with my Twitter project. I’m really gratified that it’s connected with so many people. I don’t have many trolls. I wish the only Nazis on there were the ones in my feed.