One war, 6,100 tweets (and counting): Interview with Mechthild Herzog, @RealTimeWW1

, by Juuso Järviniemi

One war, 6,100 tweets (and counting): Interview with Mechthild Herzog, @RealTimeWW1
A photograph posted on the @RealTimeWW1 Twitter account on 25 October: Girl crying in front of a smashed piano in Denain, France on 25 October 1918. Photograph: Imperial War Museum (© IWM (Q 3308))

One hundred years ago, soldiers were forced to lie in filthy trenches and senselessly charge to their deaths on plain fields. Europeans in the battlefield and on the home front suffered from disease and privation. Today, we have the duty of remembrance – and the opportunity to follow events from precisely a hundred years ago “in real time” on Twitter. On the centenary of the Armistice, Mechthild Herzog, manager of the @RealTimeWW1 Twitter account, looks back on the past five years spent between the keyboard and the warzone.

The project originating from the University of Luxembourg, and a winner of the European Parliament’s Charlemagne Youth Prize from 2015, will continue to narrate the immediate aftermath of the war, but 11 November is undoubtedly a key milestone.

“Yesterday I prepared the tweets for the day of the armistice, for the day of the end of the war (or was it?). It made me, I admit, quite emotional – having followed this war on a daily basis, having read, seen and heard what people felt during these more than four years, how they experienced the war personally, in their everyday lives, in different countries and places and situations. And now, all of a sudden, fighting is about to end. The battlefields go silent – or are filled with the singing and celebrating of troops. With the hasty preparations of others to finally go back home. At the same time, revolution breaks out in many places, all over Germany, for instance – and some left-wing politicians and activists in the Netherlands will try to trigger a revolution of their own. What a day indeed to answer questions about the project.”

Juuso Järviniemi / The New Federalist (JJ): Do you have a specific interest in World War I history? How did you come up with the idea?

Mechthild Herzog (MH): By now I certainly do. Although, to be frank, when we started this project in 2012/13, it was not much more than another university project. One of our professors, Benoît Majerus, had the idea to transfer the concept of the @RealTimeWWII Twitter account (run by Alwyn Collinson) to the First World War, i.e., to tweet ‘in real time’ what happened exactly 100 years ago in different places in the world.

Our class – students of the Master in European Contemporary History at the University of Luxembourg – consisted of young people from different countries across Europe, from Portugal to Romania and many in between, so we had access to sources in a variety of languages. We used this knowledge, as well as our individual expertise in different subject areas, to start to create a puzzle of WWI stories that would give an impression what it meant to live during these years of war.

One of the underlying ideas was to show how the war tore Europe apart – and how young people from all over Europe could together tell the stories from that time, united in what is now the EU, on a continent that has on the one hand been pacified, but that faces on the other hand new and old conflicts, tensions, indeed battles in some of its territories (the latter beyond EU territory, but the former certainly also in some of its member states). This was what was the starting point for us to get involved in this project: to enter people’s everyday lives in today’s world with stories from everyday life 100 years ago. Twitter is the perfect medium for that – easily accessible for people all over the world, forcing us to be concise in the stories we told, allowing us to add pictures and links and videos etc. Hence also from a pedagogical point of view, in terms of teaching us how to transport scientific knowledge, this project was extremely valuable.

JJ: How did the team prepare the tweets? Where did you find the material, how many people worked on the project and what kinds of things did you need to take into account?

It is difficult to answer these questions because everyone in the project wrote their tweets differently. We have an online tool in which we save prepared tweets, and which sends them out automatically on the day and at the time we specified in the system. Besides official events, our tweets cover stories about the individual people being affected by the war, about soldiers and nurses, queens and prisoners. So their diaries, letters, poems, photographs are taken to tell the less known sides of the history of World War I, the personal, the individual, the tangible stories of 100 years ago that make people of today understand what it means to live during such a war – after all, many of us are lucky enough never to have lived during war times, and might take peace too easily for granted.

With regard to the size of our team – well, Benoît Majerus initiated the project and got it running, and he taught the courses in which we got students from the above-mentioned Master in European Contemporary History on board; and I gradually took over from 2014 to manage the tweets and the project as a whole. How many students have contributed to @RealTimeWW1 in the end – I admit I cannot say. I would say around 50; but there was not one consistent team, but people writing tweets and saving them in our database, and then new people coming in contributing more, while others left university and moved on.

When it comes to the rules and potential pitfalls we needed to take into account both for the project as a whole, and for every single tweet, there are a number of points worth mentioning:

  • With every tweet, a link to a historical source or a text providing further background information is offered. Thus, we want to guarantee the academic value and profundity of our project.
  • Every tweet tells its own little story that can be understood without much further knowledge (which in itself is hard enough, given the limited space). At the same time, the tweets are supposed to form a bigger picture, to complement each other, to connect to each other.
  • We decided to tweet as if we lived during the time we tweet about. That means, as a rule: do not tell more than the person in that very situation, at that very point in time could have known! The main idea behind @RealTimeWW1 is to offer its followers an impression of how people perceived the everyday life of war exactly 100 years ago. Events that are seen as crucial for the further development of the war today may for the people in 1917 just have been another war headline in the newspaper, just another battle that is lost or just some land that is given up but will surely be conquered again soon. Only it won’t. At the beginning of the war, people were genuinely convinced all would be over by Christmas 1914. And on 1 November 1918, many thought they should prepare for another hard war winter on the front...
  • There are a number of temptations associated with the project which all of us involved have to be mindful of. One of the biggest is the temptation to tweet something only to attract a high number of clicks, re-tweets and new followers, positioning the content as second priority. For instance, photos with animals on them usually go very well – but they do not always tell a story. Here, we sometimes need to be strict against ourselves, and critically ask every single time: is this a story worth telling?

JJ: The @RealTimeWW1 account has nearly 14,000 followers on Twitter. What has the public reaction to the project been like?

MH: The interaction with followers has been, and continues to be, very enriching. A constant exchange with the project’s public has developed, though obviously all connected to the war events and developments. People ask for clarification, post additional information, draw lines to today’s world, in which some developments seem to be so very similar to the situation 100 years ago. When, for instance, at the beginning of the project the Ukraine crisis broke out, connections were drawn repeatedly to WW1’s Eastern Front; and the cholera epidemic of 1914 was by some compared to the Ebola outbreak 100 years later. Plus, of course, some followers reflect either on how happy we can be to live in countries at peace today, or they ponder on the possibility of another war breaking out, given remaining and newly arising international tensions.

While this exchange with followers has mostly been with non-academics, there has also been significant interest among the academic community surrounding the project’s Digital Humanities background, the pedagogy of teaching with such a format, and the benefits and limitations of publishing on a scientific level in social media with a mere 140 – now 280 – characters. So we presented the project at a number of universities and conferences.

A German prisoner of war upon his capture at the Battle of Messines in June 1917.
© IWM (Q 2292)

JJ: As you mentioned, on the Twitter feed you often see stories of ordinary individuals, both soldiers and civilians. Are there any stories from the past four years that have particularly touched you?

MH: Oh, certainly. Believe me, I could fill a whole evening – or night, more likely – with anecdotes that moved me. Just now, right before we started, I had to sit still for a moment and ‘move in my heart’ that 100 years ago, the war would (have) be(en) over. That the longing of so many partners, spouses, parents, children, friends for peace and reunion – and also simply for better food supply and less public savings etc. – would be over.

At the same time, 100 years ago the possibly worst pandemic in our history, an influenza pandemic by some referred to as the ‘Spanish flu’, killed people all over the world. Millions were affected, millions feared for their lives and those of their beloved ones. I read some terrible, touching stories about that – for instance about the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who died of the flu on 31 October 1918, three days after his six-month pregnant wife.

Such stories, of course, are just instances in the lives of those who lived through the war – there are also some personal stories that I followed more closely, where we tweeted diaries. Probably the single most touching one for me personally was the diary of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, who writes vivaciously and in an incredibly funny and ironic (and boy, is he arrogant!) manner about his everyday life. Which takes place first in revolutionary Russia, until he flees via Siberia and Japan to the US where he experiences the end of the war. And the Spanish flu, which makes him believe his life is over for a couple of days. The stories he tells, and how he tells them – he made me laugh and think and dream with him many a time...

Yet, it was not only dramatic stories that touched me over the last years: sometimes, it was just little instances like the picture of a German soldier who had been taken prisoner of war by the Brits, and who looked so utterly happy and at peace on the photo that one felt immediately how much it meant to that guy to be away from the battlefield.

JJ: While running the project, what kind of things have you learned about war and peace? What lessons should modern-day Europeans draw from World War I?

MH: This project has truly given me a wide range of impressions what it meant for people to live during WWI. How it affected every sphere of people’s everyday life (including people in neutral countries) – yet also how they managed to find their own sources of consolation and happiness, and indeed their own ways to uphold routines and to keep their lives running, despite shortages and cuts and dramatic news and deprivation.

At the same time, I find it hard to answer the question about lessons to learn from WWI. Of course, the obvious lesson should be that war is terrible and should be avoided at all costs. Yet WWI was very different from whatever a world war would be like nowadays – and I fear this is the big danger: the factors and reasons and conditions that together led to the outbreak of WWI will not be repeated, because so much has changed. That means that we cannot prevent what is ahead of us simply by looking back and saying: oh, that’s how the same or similar dynamics turned out last time, so let’s do something different this time round! It simply will not look the same.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not be very cautious when tensions arise between nations, between powerful players on the world stage. This, certainly, both world wars of the 20th century should have made sufficiently clear – but this is something any rational human being would sign at any given point in the history of humanity, I dare say. Something the @RealTimeWW1 has made me more sensitive about is: our tendency to put certain groups of people into boxes, if repeated in sufficient frequency and without reflection about what we are saying and whom we are judging, can have utterly horrible consequences.

Xenophobic, racist, antisemitic language can be traced throughout all newspapers of the belligerents, throughout the entire period of WWI. Of course I was strictly against such language before the beginning of the project already – but following media and private conversations from 1913 to 1918 over the last years has demonstrated to me even more clearly how subtly such tendencies can start, and what power they can develop over time if not checked, if not opposed, if not critically pointed out as what they are: unjustly oversimplifying, unfoundedly stigmatising, unnecessarily and dangerously hateful.

In the end, I believe, if we want to learn from the past, if we want to try and avoid such wars, such in their entirety incomprehensible horrors – we need to break them down into stories we can relate to. An inconceivably high number of casualties will not stick in our minds, will not open our eyes to dangers of building-up tensions, of xenophobia and antisemitism and racism and comparable evils in our time. Personal stories will, stories of people we can connect to, stories that make us think about how our own lives would have unfolded at the time, how we would have behaved, how we would have been influenced, how we would have looked at others. How we would have suffered. How we would have lived. Stories that make us think how we might have been able to change the course of events, how these unfathomable horrors – or at least parts of them – might have been prevented.

Maybe such personal, tangible stories will open our eyes to comparable developments in the present. If our @RealTimeWW1 project could tell some such stories, and if a few of them moved one or the other person around the world, every single hour invested in it was worth it.

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