Do events march inexorably? – tweeting the fall of Finland in 140 characters
March 3, 2012 Leave a comment
A few weeks ago I signed up to a Twitter feed (@RealTimeWWII) that promises to narrate the Second World War in real time over the next six years. A tall order – but what I’ve seen so far has got me mesmerised, and has revealed to me a sense of the contingent chaos of events (or the ‘froth’ of history as Braudel styled events).
So far each 140 character tweet has given me daily glimpses of the closing stages of the Soviet invasion of Finland in February 1940. An incursion of 465,000 Soviet troops that I now know (from looking up ‘how it ends’ in a history book) will result in the Finnish Government signing a peace treaty on 12 March and ceding 16,173 square miles of territory to the Russians in return for an end to the so-called ‘Winter War’. But, I didn’t know that I until I looked it up, as the tweets are resolutely ‘present tense’ in their focus. They give no knowing nod to the reader, no ironic “…and we all know what happened next, don’t we” aside. Indeed, I had no awareness of the Winter War at all. It garners little attention in synoptic treatments of the 1939-45 conflict. It is simply not a focal point of Western European memory so far as the Second World War is concerned. From a British perspective, the Winter of 1939-40 was a ‘phoney war’, one in which Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and D-Day had not yet happened. My upbringing was steeped in these inherited ‘memories’, these ‘myths’ (in the sense formulated by Barthes (1973) and invoked by Calder 1991) as foundational stories of national identity. The aborted British ‘Stratford’ plan to invade neutral Norway in an attempt to bring support to the Finns and additionally to capture Scandinavian ore-fields and deny those crucial resources to the Nazis or their then allies, the Soviets has little or no place in the common-place remembrance of that war. Indeed, the Winter War is an awkward piece of the jigsaw, because it requires us to position the Finns as the ‘good guys’ and the Soviets as the ‘baddies’. Yet within 18 months events will see the Finns fighting alongside the Axis forces and the Soviets switching from (uneasy) allies of the Nazi’s to their victims in the face of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia.
The delivery of the events in the Winter War, blow by blow, via this Twitter feed during February has got me thinking about the role of contingency – and the ways in which history books present an after-the-event ordering of the ‘messy’ events. In their pithy ‘newsflash’ style, these tweets and the ‘moments’ they invite us to sample, reveal at best (like our own contemporary news feeds), unsteady trends in events but not certainties as to outcomes. For, whilst by late February the Finns were falling-back to secondary lines of defence, there was no rout, and still no certainty that the Soviets would soon get their territorial prize. The last fortnight’s tweets have thus narrated what Geoffrey Cox, a British journalist embedded with the Finnish army, described – looking back on what were to him recent events – that the Soviet breach of the Finns’ secondary defence line on 13th February marked: “the first of the bulletins of gradual defeat which were to come steadily, day after day, til the end of the war” (quoted in Gilbert, 1990: 42)
In thinking about why I find these tweets compelling, I have found assistance in both Tolstoy and Foucault. I must confess that I have never read War and Peace but I have read Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ (Berlin, 1984), which examines Tolstoy’s approach to history. Berlin finds a tension in Tolstoy’s approach – a tension between theory and practice. He finds in Tolstoy’s work a faith in an underlying guiding hand to events, but also an impossibility of human perception of the multiplicity of factors at play in forming the ‘march’ of history, the ”thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible” (63). In their fractured moment – by – moment revelation the tweets make this sea of contingency more evident than any history book can, because such books require a backward looking, synoptic and ordering approach. The fact that I was unfamiliar with the Winter War also helps me to receive the moment-by-moment uncertainty (at least in a confined, localised way – because I may not know who’s going to win the battle, but I already know who wins the (global) war). This also echoes another point made by Berlin on Tolstoy’s behalf – that the more familiar a historical event is, the harder it is to imagine how things could have turned out any different (a side-function of the myth effect perhaps).
Meanwhile Kendall and Wickham (1999) invoke Foucault in urging researchers to approach history by foregrounding the play of contingencies (rather than causes) and to abandon any instinctive desire to see the playing out of history as an inexorable march towards a foregone conclusion. Events are messy, and influences between people, materials and abstract systems play out in complex, irregular and uncertain associative and feedback relationships. They also invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s messy rhizome model, in preference for a more conventional tree diagram, by which events branch out from root causes. Indeed, this echoes with Berlin’s recall that Tolstoy had travelled some of this distance already many years before with his own remark that “the leaves of a tree delight us more than the roots”(Berlin, 1984: 14).
In the desperate ebb and flow of Soviet attack and Finnish counter-attack and the undulation of the border – and it’s variable fortunes at each location along the Mannerheim Line (the Finnish defence lines) and fluctuation over time we are given bite-sized glimpses of being enmeshed within the tangles of the metaphoric foliage. But, the tweets are no more objective or omniscient than any other historical account, for they are still based upon hindsight and selectivity (and a sense of poetics). By poetics, I mean that they require an artful arrangement – elements of shock and humour – by turns confounding or confirming the reader’s expectations. The tweets therefore unsurprisingly foreground the ‘on the ground’ visceral experience of the Finns and the Soviets and dwell upon the materialities of their circumstances. Much is made of the extreme cold, the fatigue, the confinement of the bunkers and vastness of the frozen plains and forests in which battle rages. In short, the abject. This ‘shock treatment’ approach works well as ‘punctum’ a term popularised by Barthes (1981) to describe the way in which a photograph can ‘hit the nail on the head’ and transmit a piercing insight or understanding to the viewer. These tweets achieve something similar in their brevity and their arrival intermixed amongst the subscriber’s other tweet feeds of (in my case) ‘real’ news, and matters of law, built environments and related titillation. To sit on a bus and, as I idly catch up on tweets received, be transported momentarily through time and space to a frozen battlefield is a heady experience. But, it is also entertainment. At a time of ‘present-day’ carnage in Syria and other contemporary battlegrounds dark reverie inspired by the myths of Finland are – at best – a guilty pleasure.
For Barthes (1973: 142-143), myth is a creation, a process that “abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences” and gives events “a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact”. Thus some events become foregrounded and also simplified. They become totemic – and the gritty, messy, uncertainty of the ebb and flow of the living out of the stages of that event disappear, except to the extent that they are emblematic of the myth. If the Winter War has any mythic existence at all then it is as the David and Goliath courageous fight of the vastly outnumbered Finns, and their defensive improvisation with their bunkers, bicycles, skis, forest paths, snow, cold, petrol, bottles and rags (Finns invented the ‘Molotov cocktail’). And the tweets very evocatively engage these features of the Winter War, and suggest a desire to give particular focus to the material exigencies of the 1939-45 conflict – the rationing, the changes to ways of living, the ruination and the individual’s experience within the ‘global’ conflict.
This tweet project is very skilfully done, innovatively uses modern technology to puncture the present with the past and for these reasons is right up my street and very much reflective of contemporary ways of seeing. In compiling and presenting its depiction of the Second World War it is no less selective than any other historical approach, but it’s a fascinating ride.
Barthes, R. (1973) Mythologies, Granada: London
Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography, Vintage: London.
Berlin, I. (1984) The Hedgehog & the Fox, Elephant: Chicago
Calder, A. (1990) The Myth of the Blitz, Jonathan Cape: London.
Gilbert, M. (1990) Second World War, Fontana: London.
Kendall, G. & Wickham, G. (1999) Using Foucault’s Methods, Sage: London.
Langer, W.L. (1969) An Encyclopedia of World History, Harrap: London