David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Contingency, Foreshadowing, and Real-Time Tweeting

When I catch up on my overextensive Twitter feeds at the end of the day, I always savor the Real Time World War II feed. Although I’ve moved my historical study toward the 18th and 19th centuries in the Americas, that conflict has a hold on me.

I was fortunate enough to discover this project last fall, not long after it started tweeting events as they happened in 1939 in Europe. I have now followed, day-by-day, the Russo-Finnish War, the Katyn Massacre, a period of relative calm in Western Europe, and the Nazi invasion of Scandinavia. Now we’ve reached May 1940, when the Wehrmacht burst into the Low Countries and France.

This isn’t the only real-time historical Twitter feed that I follow, but it’s my unabashed favorite. Tonight, two tweets got me thinking about the nature of real-time historical tweeting, and more generally how we present the past. The first tweet noted France’s recall of the World War I hero Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain from his post as ambassador to Spain. The subsequent noted Pétain’s friendship with Spain’s Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.

My question: if Twitter had been around in 1940 and I was tweeting the important events of the day–i.e., if I didn’t know of Petain’s leadership of France’s surrender and the subsequent Vichy regime–would someone have tweeted about that event? Perhaps the return; a quick check of the ProQuest historical newspapers database for those dates reveals that Marshal Pétain’s return to France did receive some coverage in the United States. But none noted his friendship with Franco. Instead, he was seen as a potential savior of France, one who had already kept Franco from casting Spain’s lot with the Axis.

From the present day, the more intriguing aspect of these two tweets is Pétain’s admiration for Franco. But that is only important in hindsight. Pétain’s sympathy for Fascism, not seemingly important at the time, had far-reaching consequences. This is the historical concept of contingency, which Jon Christensen, of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, succinctly defined on Twitter the other night. What if Pétain hadn’t had that sympathy? Even if he did have that sympathy, what if he had not led the Vichy government? Would that detail then have been important for this particular Twitter feed?

So, that raises what must be a tricky question for someone doing a real-time Twitter feed. How do you show, in real-time, the future impact that a detail, seemingly minor at the actual time, would have?

Or do you show that detail? Do you want to get your reader/follower into the time period completely, if such a thing is possible, and surprise him or her? This is the dilemma that faces any writer of history, particularly narrative history. How much do you foreshadow? How do you express the seemingly minor events on which things hinge?

Would omission of that detail about Marshal Pétain lead to surprise for an otherwise-unaware reader two months later, when Pétain leads France’s surrender? Is surprise what we want, to show how events can be unexpected when they occur and only obvious in hindsight? Or do we want to convey an understanding of why events happened as they did? Why was the detail of Pétain’s relationship with Franco ultimately important, even if it may not have seemed so on May 17, 1940?

I will be curious to see how real-time tweeting of historical events develops. Will the dominant method of real-time tweeting of historical events be foreshadowing or surprise? For those who real-time tweet historical events, what is your approach?


  1. I’m early in the process of developing a real-time history project, web-based and tweeted, and I struggle with the same question. One idea I may test is to present events with no foreshadowing, keeping them in the context of what people knew when the events happened, and then having a link/button/rollover for some information on how that mattered later. People who want the complete real-time experience, with surprises, won’t use that feature.

  2. I think the extra information is useful, otherwise how do you tweet about an event which is seemingly innocuous at the time, but turns out to have serious repercussions later. OR indeed keep readers interested if they think you are tweeting a load of uninteresting facts, without the context to understand why they mattered.

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