Reenacting the German Invasion of Poland, on Twitter

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A project to tweet the events of World War II serves up some important lessons on history, and how we process unfolding events

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It began with a single tweet:

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And ever since then 24-year-old history buff Alwyn Collinson has been tweeting, at a rate of about 11 tweets per day, the events of World War II as though they were unfolding now, 72 years later. Over the past three months, he's announced, tweet-by-tweet, the German invasion of Poland in sometimes horrifying detail, such as today's tweets about the deportation and murder of 72 children from the Owinska Mental Hospital.

Collinson explained the reason for his project in an interview with the BBC, "I looked at the way in which Twitter could be used to give voice to people in parts of the world where traditional media sometimes doesn't reach, and I thought perhaps it could do something similar for the forgotten voices of history, and help people connect to the past in a way that just often isn't possible."

(World War II isn't the first historical event to receive this real-time treatment: Over the past year, a group of bloggers led by historian Adam Goodheart has been blogging the events of the Civil War, 150-years-to-the-day later, at The New York Times.)

Collinson's is an intriguing conceit, one meant to provide us a small answer to the question, What would it have been like to be alive then? If we follow the history of World War II in the same way we follow the unfolding events of our own time (such as following the Occupy protests or the Egyptian revolution on Twitter), maybe in some way it will make that time feel closer, more understandable.

For me, it does do that -- in one way: Collinson's tweets evoke the fog of the present, the difficulty of seeing the big picture when you're stuck inside it. But the flipside of this is that I lose some of the understanding that the intervening years can provide. That is to say, that in gaining a small idea of what it was like to be there in 1939, I forgo some of the perspective of 2011. But, then, what could be a better lesson of history than the reminder that it's hard to make sense of the present.

Image: AP.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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