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This Documentary Series Will Teach You About World War I in Real Time

A week-by-week approach to the Great War

smithsonian.com

Thanks to the internet, smartphones and social media, news travels faster these days than ever before in history. Even though it might sometimes feel like it has always been this easy to communicate quickly over long distances, it wasn’t so long ago that the postal service and telegraphs were the fastest ways to talk about current events. But for the last few years, a historian has been telling the story of World War I in a series of short YouTube documentaries one week at a time, in as close to real time as he can get, Luke Winkie reports for Vice.

"Even though the episodes are 10 minutes long, this is way more comprehensive than any documentary," Indy Neidell, the documentarian behind The Great War, tells Winkie. "It's really cool to make it in real time, and that we get away from the Western front and you get to see the stuff that happened in Africa and Persia."

Since 2014, Neidell has published a short documentary every week covering the events from the corresponding week in 1914 and onward. While most high school history classes might focus on the events that took place in Europe, however, the benefits of covering World War I one week at a time means that he can take his time with the particulars. One installment might focus on who Franz Ferdinand actually was beyond his usual bit part as the war’s catalyst, while another on how Wilhelm II celebrated his birthday as his forces struggled in the heat of battle.

By getting so deep in the weeds on the war, Neidell and his colleagues can tell the story of the war from all different sides. In addition to talking about how the Allies waged war, they also cite the news stories written in the Central Powers. With the volume of stories told each week, Neidell gets at the heart of the complexity and nuance of a war that reshaped the world for decades to come, but is too often told over just the space of a few hours of school time.

"If you watch Ken Burns's The Civil War, it's brilliant but static," Neidell tells Winkie. "You might be sitting at home saying, 'My great-great-grandfather fought in the war, and he wrote in his diary that this happened and that happened,' but that can't become part of the show. The Great War, however, is worldwide, free, interactive, and evolving all the time."

Currently, Neidell is 113 weeks into the war and the Red Baron just won his first aerial victory on the Western Front. Once he finally finished diving into World War I, Neidell plans on jumping forward to the 1950s and the Korean War, Winkie reports.

Neidell isn’t the only historian to experiment with telling history in real time on the internet. Since 2011, Alwyn Collinson, an Oxford-trained historian, has been diving into historical events from World War II in real time via his Twitter account, @RealTimeWWII. While a bit less of a production than putting together several 10-minute documentary episodes every week, Collinson’s dedication to retelling World War II’s history is maybe even more intensive as he attempts to retell the history as it happened down to the date and hour, Niamh Scallan reported for the Toronto Star in 2011. Currently, Collinson is up to 1944, and with two years to go, there is plenty more history to tweet.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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