Monday, November 28, 2011

Real time World War II

[Edit: the url to follow this twitter account is this one,!/RealTimeWWII. You don't need your own twitter account to read the page. Also, I somehow convinced myself that yesterday (when I wrote this post) was the 29th, when it was actually the 28th. The Winter War starts on the 30th.]

There is a twitter account that tweets as if it is a news agency reporting World War II live (@RealTimeWW2). I find this account fascinating and have been following it now for more than a month.

The depth and the breadth of what this account adds to one's understanding of the war is actually quite large, so I can only touch the surface in this post. The first thing I noticed was how this method of telling the story of WWII really gives you a much more accurate sense of the timescales involved than you get from reading a history book. Six years is a long time. I discovered the account a few days into the initial German invasion of Poland; Britain and France soon declared war and yet no military action has taken place between any of these nations, apart from a few skirmishes at sea.

It would be foolish to interpret this as somehow making the war boring. Though, in fact, contemporary Britain did make this mistake. There are regular tweets describing British behaviour that makes it obvious why the name they gave this part of the war was the “Phoney War”.

“German pilot who fought off 3 planes to let his crew escape is guest of honour tonight at an RAF dinner in France. Off to POW camp tomorrow”

However, it can be assured that from the perspective of the Poles, the Czechs and the Jews in occupied Germany, this war has been far from phoney so far.

“New German decree: 'Aryans' married to Jews have been given 1 year to divorce their Jewish husband/wife or 'face the consequences'.”
"Occupied Poland: New decree orders all Jews in Krakow to wear an armband with a blue Star of David, as seen being sold: "
I have toyed with writing a post about this account for a while and decided sometime ago that today would be the day I write the post. Today is the eve of the second major event of The War. That is, the Winter War between Finland and The Soviet Union. Tweets that have gone out in the last 48 hours are ominous and frightening:

“The USSR has renounced its non-aggression treaty with Finland due to "hostile actions"; Moscow radio reports 3 more incidents on border”

The “incidents” were of course incidents that were faked by Soviets on their own outposts to justify military action. By doing such acts their aggression is made more morally ambiguous and their own populace can be made much more supportive of any action.

Anti-Finnish demonstration marching through Leningrad, chanting "Kulak-bands armed by capitalists should be expelled from the Soviet border"

The truly ominous side of it all though is the Finnish response (seemingly convinced that they can avoid war by showing their lack of willingness to partake in it)

“Finnish army still fully mobilized. Mannerheim has ordered all units out of range of Soviet border to avoid "provocative incidents"

“Finnish government has denied shelling Soviet village of Mainila, says shots came from USSR; they've suggested a joint investigation”

and, almost prophetically given the outcome of the Winter War and the overall War itself.

“Minister of Defence Juho Niukkanen says the Soviets are bluffing: 'They wouldn't be so stupid as to invade in the middle of winter!' ”

Tomorrow, the Soviets will invade and the second major offensive of World War II will begin.

I touched in the above on one of the aspects of this retelling of WWII that is so compelling. That is, our inevitable hindsight. If ever there was a choice to watch a slow-motion train crash, this is it. In 1939, Finland sufferred an exceptionally cold winter. This winter helped them win this war. As did the Russian winter help the Soviets drive out the Germans four years later.

I really could write so much more. Other amazing perspectives this offers are the present behaviour of the neutral countries. They strut and they boast of their moral superiority in taking a neutral stance and yet we know, in less than a year, they will be occupied, despite this “moral superiority”. Germany and the Soviets are very much good friends right now, dividing up Eastern Europe between themselves. Finland will get no help from their future German allies in the impeding Winter War (and yet their success in this war will open the door to German aid).

I am most surprised by the behaviour of both Italy and the United States at this moment. Both are in fact very neutral - despite eventually taking very clear sides. The U.S even had to pass a difficult law through congress to allow themselves to trade with Britain as their neutrality would otherwise not allow it. Seen from this lens it is almost impossible to imagine them joining the war, let alone sending millions of troops to Europe and the Pacific. And Italy! Germany's greatest ally is strutting it's neutrality as boldly as The Netherlands and Belgium.

I couldn't recommend following this account strongly enough. If you don't use twitter, this is good enough reason to do so. It is a remarkably clever idea and method to tell one of the most over-told stories of our time and to find a very fresh and very insightful new angle. It works so well that it even sometimes pulls you into its world. When I read of events in Finland, I wonder why I didn't notice that myself. When I read the tweets I often find myself imagining a poor soul, trapped halfway between two times, able to communicate to us his world, but unable to receive our replies. We can watch his world unfold, filled with the knowledge of the horrors that will befall him, but are powerless to help or warn him or his world. We know how his story ends and we can only watch as the inevitable unfolds.

Twitter @just_shaun


  1. Other fascinating aspects are of course the constraints imposed on the teller of this story. He or she must tell this story in 140 character pieces. It is fascinating how this causes the story to develop. you only get pieces of each event. It's like seeing tiny snippets of an extremely detailed photograph, that you've only ever seen before from a distance.

    There is also the things offered by the birds eye view we get. We can see the British mockery of the war, at the same time as we see the murder of thousands of Czech protesters (by Germany) and the removal of thousands of Polish dissidents (by the Soviets). We see secret German plans to invade Holland at the same time as the Netherlands complains aggressively when Dutch ships are commandeered by Britain for trading with Germany. And yet, there is an added element of omniscience that we have because we also know what *will* happen. There really are some truly dramatic things the various characters of either side do or say, which will only appear dramatic given the conclusion of the war (the Finnish defence minister's comment about the winter is one - as are many of the pro-German actions taken by the neutral countries).

  2. Hi Shaun,
    Nick passed this on to me and I think it looks really interesting. Quick question - I'm not 'on' twitter, can I get these updates on google reader or email, or do I need to sign up to twitter? Thanks and hope you're well.

  3. Hi Yona,

    You don't need a twitter account to read the WW2 account. Just check this url each day, or whenever you choose.

    I think that to have the twitter feed automatically show up on google reader you would need to have a twitter account that you then give google reader access to (using this app).

    Thanks for the interest. Of course, if you wish to keep up to date with this blog on google reader, you need only click the follow button in the panel on the left there (or like the facebook page).

    And I am well, I hope all is well with you and Nick too. Say hi to Nick for me.

  4. Four minutes ago:

    Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov has announced USSR is breaking diplomatic relations with Finland due to "constant provocations & hostility"

  5. The insights this gives really are incredible. The Soviet Union is mere hours away from invading Finland and the French are worried about the lack of saxophones in their marching bands:

    "Labour Ministry: saxophone makers are henceforth exempt from conscription; military bands in France report 'serious shortage of saxophones'"

  6. The allies didn't have a clue at this point of the war. This is just as bad as when they were dropping anti-Nazi leaflets on Hamburg while Warsaw was under siege and Poland was crumbling.

  7. This really exemplifies how the tedious or nonsensical parts of history are often ironed out in the retelling. I love how this just tells everything how it is - I guess that partly due to the Twitter format given the lack of space means there's no room for subjectivity.

    I can't wait to see how it ends!

  8. I think it is mostly due to the fact that significant things really do take time to happen (i.e. rather than the length of each tweet - sometimes the account reports something over three or four tweets anyway). Even waiting now, for 12 hours, for the bloody Soviets to hurry up and invade Finland is taking forever. So, the things that happen in the meantime get reported. And that is the lack of saxophones in France and the engagement ring that some British women donated to the war effort.

    Imagine a live tweeting of a scientific revolution.
    90% of the tweets would be ridiculously mundane. It would be good for the self esteem of modern scientists, to realise just how long stuff takes to happen.

    I don't want to see how it ends. I know how it ends. It is going to be a long six year journey to that end.

  9. Along with Karl Lagerfeld and On Kawara's feeds, this might be the most convincing justification for the existence of twitter I've ever encountered! History isn't just strange and tedious, it's true that the really scary stuff sometimes boils down to 120 characters..

  10. And within hours of the war starting, we have this:

    "Bad roads & rough ground are slowing Russian advance to a crawl. Huge traffic jams of tanks & supply vehicles within miles of border"

    What could possibly motivate someone to invade Finland in the winter?

  11. It's funny how this format creates the illusion that there was actually a WW2 twitter stream: that we're hacking into the real time media feed of back then.

  12. Yes, exactly. I almost opened my post with something like:

    "Imagine we live in a world where World War II happened today. All the weaponry used was exactly the same as in the real war and the result of every battle was the same. The only difference was that it was reported with today's media. How would the war look to 24 hour news channels, to the internet... to Twitter"

    Of course a real, live, twitter feed would be much less interesting than this one because it would have almost no information. The only reason this is interesting is that we get to read Krushchev's private thoughts on the invasion, Hitler's secret invasion plan of the neutal countries, etc, etc. But the illusion that some dude is really sitting there, hiding in a bunker, tweeting about his world, is definitely still there.

  13. "Finns joke about huge Russian invading armies: 'They are so many, and our country is so small, where shall we find room to bury them all?'"

    Awesome! I love the outward humility disguising a powerful inner confidence...