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German History Students Mark Kristallnacht With Real-Time Twitter Project

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, November 11 2013

"The Stuttgart Synagogue burns amidst jubilation from the surrounding crowd."

"Cafe-owner Marcus is found dead in Düsseldorf; his tavern was completely destroyed overnight, he was shot."

Those are not the kind of Twitter posts you might generally expect to see in your Twitter feed.

For several years now, special commemorative pavement stones commemorate Holocaust victims by their last place of residence in many German and European cities through a project called "Stumbling Blocks" (Stolpersteine). This year, a group of German historians have been marking the 75th commemoration of Kristallnacht and the November pogroms that followed with a realtime-tweeting project to raise awareness of the historical events in Twitter feeds.

"In a sense they are digital stumbling blocks," initiator Moritz Hoffmann told Der Spiegel. "The real stumbling blocks confront people on the sidewalk, with us it is instead tweets that break into everyday life."

Hoffmann and his team of four project participants are all history students from across Germany based in cities like Heidelberg, Bonn and Mainz. They got to know each other through their studies and through Twitter, Hoffman told German broadcast news outlet the Tagesschau, and all share an interest in new ways of conveying history.

They drew inspiration from a public broadcaster's project last year to live-tweet the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a blog post outlining the team's plans, Hoffmann wrote that while the Berlin Wall project had the admirable intent of trying to communicate history in a non-didactic way by posting casual comments from fictional representative participants in the historical events such as East German officials and a journalist in Berlin, he criticized that the narrative tone of the tweets did not really do justice to the weighty historical significance of the day.

With the Twitter project @9Nov38 --- Today 75 Years Ago, the team hopes to address some of those issues by finding a way to make the history accessible while keeping the basis in historical fact, he explains. He notes that in their university studies, the emphasis is always on the importance of clean scholarly work, yet on Twitter "we can't place a footnote after every tweet, and historiographical annotations can't really take place in 140 characters."

Given those constraints, he writes that the team members' underlying mission is to approach the project from a scholarly correct perspective, with no fictional elements, and to only post information they have evidence for. The actual historical events cited in the tweets are written in the present tense, he explains, those offering retrospective context in the perfect tense.

The project is not only focused on the events of the 9th and 10th of November, but also the escalation in the days and weeks that follow. The events of Kristallnacht "are in retrospect to be seen as an historical break, after which the discrimination against Jews in Germany became a systematic persecution that reached its culmination in the Holocaust," the project website explains.

"We are not just confining ourselves to 24 or 34 hours, but we want to trace what happened exactly 75 years ago, to the date and if possible to the time of day," Hoffman writes. In cases where no specific time of day is evident in the historical sources, "we pay attention to authenticity, and when that isn't producible, then we have to set that specific tweet aside."

At the conclusion of the project by the end of November, the team will post a database of all the tweets with historical citations. Primary sources the team members are using include personal letters, memories, government documents and news articles, as they also explore the role of propaganda and the National-Socialist press.

The Twitter project started in late October with posts about the expulsion of Polish Jews from the German empire. The posts detail how the 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, who is illegally staying in Paris, receives a postcard from his sister Berta, who was expelled with her parents and other Polish Jews to a camp in Poland, in which she describes the family's suffering. On November 5, the account notes that a group of Hitler youths threw rocks at the synagogue in Kassel. Back in Paris, the young Grynszpan leaves the home of his uncle, who refuses to provide money to the family members in Poland. The tweets recount how Grynszpan then decided to take revenge with an attack on the legation secretary of the German embassy, and how the attack is invoked by the National Socialist press, Hitler and the Propaganda-Ministry to spur on the violence against Jews and the synagogues that was already occurring. On November 7, the tweets highlight that the Propaganda Ministry directs all German newspapers to report "in grandest form" on the assassination attempt, and that newspaper editorials must point out that the "assassination by the Jew must have the most serious consequences for the Jews in Germany."

On November 8, the account notes the arson and destruction of synagogues in several cities. On November 9, the account notes that Hitler and Goebbels are at a dinner gathering with members of the SS paramilitary organization as they learn the news of the death of the legation secretary in Paris. The tweets note that after a consultation with Hitler, Goebbels delivers instructions to those assembled regarding demonstrations against Jews, with the audience understanding his speech to mean "that the party should not appear as the initiator on the outside, but should in reality organize and execute those actions."

The account then goes on to detail the further arson attacks on synagogues, violence against Jews and Jewish businesses, arrests and government actions in cities including Berlin, Baden-Baden, Frankfurt, Münster, Leipzig and Munich. The members of the team each have specific areas of regional focus, such as the Rhineland, Thuringia, the Rhine-Main region, and the city of Warendorf and the surrounding area.

In addition to documenting the acts of violence and the government actions, the account also notes more ordinary experiences, pointing out that some teachers took their classes to a synagogue to sing anti-Semitic songs, noting a pupil who witnessed a burning synagogue on his way to school and found his Jewish classmates missing in school and "isolated" instances of resentment reported from people in the streets, such as "This cannot be what the Führer wishes" or "There will be payback for this, sometime."

On November 11, the account cites a diary entry from Goebbels celebrating the success of the activities in Berlin and elsewhere, noting 100 deaths "but no destruction of German property."

For the most part, reaction to the project has been positive, with media outlets intrigued by the original and innovative approach of engaging with the history, though there has been some backlash and questions as to whether having such tweets in the Twitter feed along with far less serious content leads to trivialization.

In a blog post, Hoffmann acknowledges that some might prefer more traditional historical sources for such a serious topic. "But with books, newspaper articles and TV documentaries we are not reaching certain parts of the public anymore ... documentaries may have more than 140 characters, but they can't offer a real-time experience," he writes. He adds that the day before, 1,000 users clicked to see the full-text of the postcard to Herschel Grynszpan and suggests that anyone who opts to follow the account is indicating at least a basic interest in the subject matter. And while it is impossible to know all the motivations of those who interact with the Twitter feed, Hoffmann suggests that the project is not a greater threat of trivialization than the channel-surfing and reenactment that is often common to television coverage of history.

The @9Nov38 account is not the first or only account seeking to commemorate tragic historical events with real-time Twitter reenactment. Last year in April, several accounts attempted to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in real-time, inadvertently highlighting many of the questions that exist around the timing of the events then, with time-differences across a century complicating the real-time experience.

Journalist Paul Brandus of @WestWingReport is running @JFKElmStreet, tracing the events leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that tragedy.

But while the @9Nov38 tweets are full of accounts of anti-Semitic violence and agitation, press propaganda and intimidation, those reports are a marked contrast to the news out of Germany today, with Berlin having become a refuge of sorts for government transparency advocates, including Edward Snowden supporter journalist Sarah Harrison, journalist Laura Poltras and Wikileaks supporter Jacob Appelbaum. "Already in the few days I have spent in Germany, it is heartening to see the people joining together and calling for their government to do what must be done – to investigate NSA spying revelations and to offer Edward Snowden asylum," Harrison wrote in an open letter.