Recreating history on Twitter

Recreating history on Twitter

Unlike “live tweeting”,the practice of covering breaking news events via short updates on Twitter have no erroneous reports that later need to be corrected.

Like watching a building collapse in slow motion,a Twitter account run by a group of German historians provides hour-by-hour updates of the horrors of Kristallnacht,a night of anti-Jewish terror 75 years ago in Germany that plunged the country on a path to the Holocaust.

The account,@9Nov38,for the date of the widespread violence and destruction of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses across Germany and Austria,is practising what could be called “historical tweeting” — using the brevity and immediacy of Twitter to recreate events from the past as if they were playing out before our eyes.

“Most people in Germany know about the topic because of school,” said Moritz Hoffmann,a 29-year-old history graduate student at the University of Heidelberg,who is one of the five historians who operate the Twitter feed,which is in German. Despite that awareness,the 140-character format still manages to stir people.

There is a similar Twitter project culminating in tragedy this November — the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s @JFK_1963,which sends updates from the life of the former president. The project began with Kennedy’s election in 1960,and each year there has been a new Twitter feed filled with the events of his presidency.


The periodic Kennedy intrusion into more than 20,000 Twitter timelines has helped keep him alive in people’s minds,said Rachel Flor,the director of communications at the library. “His words are really what resonate with people,and you can see that in the real-time responses to many of his speeches,” she said.

The tweets for November 22,she said,were prepared in advance,relying on news reports,beginning with Kennedy’s landing in Dallas and concluding with the solemn words of Walter Cronkite pronouncing the president dead at approximately 2.35 pm.

“The tone is already there in their coverage,” Flor said. “Those old news clips and transcripts already have the urgency and solemn nature. Walter Cronkite already captured the enormity of the event.”

Unlike “live tweeting”,the practice of covering breaking news events via short updates on Twitter — whether the Boston Marathon bombings or Arab Spring protests — the Kristallnacht and JFK accounts have no erroneous reports that later need to be corrected,or,for that matter,raw,emotional outbursts. The voice in these posts is the voice of God,or at least the voice of history or the voice of Cronkite.

Yet,for all the dispassionate phrasing,there is an emotional power to these posts — and that power comes from the Twitter format. If every historian is trying to immerse her readers in the world that is being conjured,then a service like Twitter that intrudes on daily life — that grabs people’s attention while they are consumed by the trivialities of life — would seem a perfect educational tool.

In its three weeks of existence,@9Nov38 has published nearly 400 posts and gained 10,000 followers,with widespread coverage in the German news media.

“The limitation to 140 characters has a special effect,” said Birte Förster,who has been translating the tweets into English . Through the Twitter format,“you somehow cannot escape the message,” she said.

Hoffmann said that one stumbling block was a November 11 tweet about how,in 1938,the annual Cologne carnival began “despite their city’s many vandalised buildings and synagogues”. Many people at the 2013 carnival received that tweet and were taken aback. “It was the exact same time and it disrupted the usual carnival tweeting,” he said.