Re:reading WWII in the digital age [guest blog]

What makes me happiest about starting Re:war are the positive reactions I get when I tell people about it. When I told my good friend Hannah about Re:war, she was incredibly excited and came up with all kinds of ideas for articles to contribute. Hannah is currently engaged as a PhD student in Bergen, Norway, doing some pretty groundbreaking research on digital culture and electronic literature, and the place where these two intersect. In this guest blog, she outlines several ways in which the media of the future – apps, virtual reality, and electronic literature – help us interact with the legacy of the Second World War, and invites others to examine the topic in more detail.


Re:reading WWII in the Digital Age

By Hannah Ackermans

In Against World Literature, Emily Apter suggests that no translation can ever do justice to a literary work, but this doesn’t stop people from translating it anyway. Similarly, it is a common stance that no artistic representation can do justice to the horrific reality of World War II, even though a vast body of work about the war exists in seemingly every medium imaginable. This overbearing idea of impossibility resonates in many reactions to representations of the World War. In a New York Times interview, Art Spiegelman reflected on his experiences after publishing Maus:

“Don’t you think that a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?” one angry reporter asked him when the book was published in Germany. “No,” Spiegelman replied, “I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.”

As is exemplified by the anecdote above, immediate reactions to works about WWII are often not only judgements about the content of a work, but also about how fit a certain medium is to engage with WWII. An implicit distinction is made between serious and trivial platforms, which is assumed to dictate how serious or trivial the story itself will be. Media used by people to narrate stories and present information is ever-changing, as creators draw on the means of technology available to them.

So, it was to be expected that with the rise of the digital age, writers, historians and artists began to use the specific tools of digital technologies to create both fictional and nonfictional narratives about WWII. In this article, I will demonstrate how three types of digital narrative are being used to represent WWII: the mobile app, electronic literature, and the virtual reality. Afterwards, I will reflect on the frivolous reputation attached to each of them. This article is not meant to be completely comprehensive in scope and argument, but rather serves as a for more in-depth, close readings of the types of narratives I mention.

There’s an app for that

It is a common joke that there is now an app for everything and about everything, and this naturally includes apps around the subject of WWII. When searching Google Play for “world war 2”, a vast array of games appears, many of which are shooters and air strike games. These games fit easily into the larger genre of (WWII) war games, of which Call of Duty and Battlefield are prime examples. Many people are familiar with the controversies around violent games, which are both accused of making players more violent in real life and misrepresenting war in their depiction of it, by making it suited for entertainment.

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The second type of app that shows up in a search is informative apps about WWII, focusing either on the war in general or on specific subjects, like weapons or aircraft. In many cases, WWII is just one topic in a list of many different subjects for quizzes or wiki-style informative apps, made by one company or creator. This is also the case for apps with daily inspirational quotes, which jarringly include multiple apps featuring Anne Frank’s inspirational quote of the day.

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An app that generates motivational quotes by Anne Frank. The description below says (in clumsy Dutch), “Set an alarm and wake up with the daily happiness of the biggest life motivator – Anne Frank!)

Location, location, location!

Here I’d like to pay special attention to augmented reality apps about WWII. These are location-based apps that function as ‘guided tours’ in specific settings. A good example is The Bomb Sight Project, which has made maps of London during the Blitz, the German bombing campaigns, available online, both in website-format and as a location-based app. Each red dot on a map shows where bombs fell between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941, and clicking on it gives you information about the specific bombing. A user can walk through London with the app on their phone and point it in any direction they want. The screen shows you the street (using your own camera), and on top of that (as an augmentation), it displays the locations where bombs fell and shows images from that period. This is a perfect example of how data research can be turned into an app that utilizes the technology of your phone. Although strictly informative and without an added layer of narrative, this app gives users the opportunity “to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period”, as the Bomb Sight website says. As a result, this can become a very private and emotional experience, as the app combines individual stories with the magnitude of the nearly 30,000 bombs dropped on Greater London within a single year.

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A screenshot from The Bomb Sight Project

In the Netherlands, several augmented reality apps about WWII exist. Examples are Nieuwegein in WOII, Slag om de Grebbeberg (“Battle of the Grebbeberg”), and Anne’s Amsterdam. Each of them invites you to walk or cycle a certain route along historic locations of WWII, while using the app to see additional information at each landmark. These apps show how physical and digital spaces can overlap, and how the aura of the exact location can be combined with years of research and data collection about specific events during WWII. Even without a fictional story line to make the information more accessible, the information from a database can become a nonfictional narrative. By withholding and supplying different pieces of information based on the location of the user, these apps create a certain order of information. Even if an app like The Bomb Sight Project doesn’t connect the different entries by itself, the ordering of information turns it into a narrative, with an author behind it

War stories

So far, I have mostly mentioned games or informational apps without literary aspirations. However, there are also digital literary works about WWII that aim to create a literary or artistic experience. This ‘electronic literature’ takes advantage of digital technologies in many different ways. For example, it can take the form of a multimedia-narrative that includes images and video; a hypertextual* novel in which the reader can make decisions about which way the narrative will move next; or an algorithmic story with textual elements that change with every reading. Notable works of electronic literature about war specifically are Victory Garden (1991, Stuart Moulthrop) and PRY (2014, Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro) about the Gulf War, and Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project [link 2(2014, Roderick Coover, Scott Rettberg, Daria Tsoupikova, Arthur Nishimoto) about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vast body of Second World War literature suggests it might also be a popular topic in electronic literature. However, electronic literature about WWII seems to be a marginal compared to a larger number of works of electronic literature about other specific wars and war in general. I will now list a few examples.

The Computer Wore Heels (2014) by LeAnn Erickson is a multimedia app book meant for children. It is a story about the role of female American mathematicians in WWII. It consists of a linear narrative enhanced with images, videos, and sounds, to provide both a fictional story and an archival document. The digital medium of the novel is used as an opportunity to show the underrepresented history of women working as ‘computers’ during WWII. The story is an adaptation of the film documentary Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII, also made by Erickson.

image computer wore heels
A screenshot from The Computer Wore Heels.

Opération Teddy Bear (1996) by Edouard Lussan is a digital cartoon specifically meant for educational purposes. The author refers to it as a “une base de données documentaire”, emphasising the non-fictional nature of the work. At the same time, the work is interactive and requires actions from readers to let the stories continue, creating a game-like and suspense-driven storyline.

An early work of electronic literature, written around the time people started having computers in their homes, is Voies de Fait (1989) by Jean-Marie Dutey. This is an interactive work of poetry about the bombings during WWII. By clicking buttons, the user can choose which line will appear next. The poem’s interactivity leads the reader to believe they have some control over the poem, while in fact they are being misled. There are many repetitions and impossibilities, and the aim and result of the interactivity is to “create a link between the victims who could not escape and the reader who is lost amidst these lines.”

Although they aim to transfer information about WWII, all of these works use a fictional narrative and digital technologies to create a literary experience. While the first two examples both focus on modes of reading – wanting to continue reading – the last example focuses on experiences of the war itself – the impossibility of escape.

*hypertext is text displayed on a computer screen or other devices with references to other texts (hyperlinks) that the reader can immediately access.

Imagine being there

Finally, recent developments in virtual reality technologies have also led to the recreation of famous site of war, such as the concentration camps of Auschwitz. Various museums, such as the memorial centre at Kamp Westerbork in the Netherlands, have used this technology to allow visitors to put on a VR-headset and ‘walk around’ in Auschwitz. In these cases, virtual reality is used for educational purposes. The works themselves are spatial and try to recreate the reality, but they do not create a narrative.

In the VR-work The Last Goodbye (2017), Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter walks around the Majdanek concentration camp, talking to the camera about his experiences. This VR-work now works on headsets such as Vivo, allowing users to walk with Gutter and hear his story. One of the creators explains: “We wanted to, you know, go outside typical documentary and allow people to go into the camp, to really feel like they were there.” He added that this would “create a deeper sense of empathy”. The medium is specifically chosen to create this particular experience. Apart from small changes, such as the removal of the museum sign, the virtual recreation is meant to look as similar as possible to when Gutter visited it with the camera crew.

Beyond Manzanar (2001) by Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand is a work of electronic literature that does aim to create a fictional narrative. Its subject is Manzanar, one of the American concentration camps for Japanese-Americans that were built on the US west coast during the war. The VR-project uses life-sized images projected in a closed, darkened room. The user can navigate the projected space with a joystick. Rather than creating an environment that looks very real, the authors have chosen more intense, photorealistic surroundings that also shift multiple times during the experience. Images of the camp can be explored, but are alternated with Japanese and Persian paradise gardens, images of the American dream, and media images of hatred toward refugees. Your actions also influence the surroundings: following an open path, for example, will created barbed wire to block your chosen path, and entering “a dark barrack you may find yourself in a pavilion overlooking a paradise garden – that disappears when you try to enter it, as if you suddenly awake from a dream”.

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Manzanar concentration camp, photographed by Ansel Adams (1943). Source: US Library of Congress.

Many VR works about WWII have been criticized for trivializing the history and memory depicted. When reflecting on these important assertions, it is useful to consider that how fit a medium is depends not only on its functionalities, but also on the connotations that specific media have. People’s immediate reactions to VR about WWII often express shock that someone would even think to make it, especially if they take place inside concentration camps. We might ask ourselves if this has to do with the functionalities of VR or rather with our limited experiences with VR at this point in time. Compare it to books about heavy subjects, which we have all read. Thousands have been written about WWII, presenting a now-familiar range of ways in which the subject can be handled. Even though we all know some books that rely on oversimplified and romanticized historic narratives for entertainment, in general, we trust that is it possible to write about heavy subjects without sensationalizing them. In contrast, many people were introduced to VR with works in which people could ride rollercoasters, leading to many funny viral videos of people being scared or falling down. It is understandable that people would find it unlikely that this medium can adequately represent WWII.

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What we seem to be scared of is the effect the technology will have on the viewer. Will it overshadow the information or narrative, and only show how cool it is that technology can do this? Will the technology be difficult to use and thus distract the user from the subject? These are valid concerns, although they reflect more on the creators and users of particular stories than on the technology itself. The choice of narrative depends on the author, as does the extent to which the subject is handled respectfully. Whenever authors of apps deflect questions about narrative and focus on the ‘wow’-effect of technology, I become very suspicious, because they assume that people will be so enthralled by the technology that little care is put into the narrative, which puts it at risk of being disrespectful. In other cases, however, authors put a lot of research and thought into creating meaningful works of representation, which then become more powerful because of the utilized technologies.

Here nor there

In this article I have given a short overview of digital representations of WWII. These digital media give information and tell stories in vastly different ways. The impossibility of representation of WWII is an issue that comes up with every new medium that engages with it. Many works of representation seem to start with the premise that this new medium will give a ‘real’ experience – something that can never be achieved, because it is still a representation. This distance is both a problem and a requirement. It is a problem because the event was real, and it is disrespectful to change real history. It is a requirement, because representation should not claim that it is real or ‘unmediated’. Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, authors of digital narratives take different approaches to deal with the distance between the subject and the narrative.

It is important to realize that we tend to focus on form, when the context in which different media are consumed is equally important. Each of the narratives I have discussed deals in some manner with the contrast between the material grid and the digital layer. Many apps and electronic literature can be consumed in nearly any location, during your bus ride or while waiting in line, and can be switched off the moment something happens that requires attention: the arriving bus, a passing acquaintance, etc. This creates a disjunction between the user’s location and context and the subject matter, which can influence how we think about WWII. Apps can be good tools to learn about history at any time, but may appear to make the experience more trivial, chopping it up into bite-sized elements. Location-based apps have a different context as they require the user to be in a specific location with historic relevance to create a meaningful experience. And at this point in time, virtual reality requires specific technology not owned by many people at home. The user usually seeks out the immersive experience intentionally, setting aside time and headspace to engage with the narrative’s special surroundings. In VR, an environment is recreated for an immersive experience, while the user understands they are not actually in the depicted place.

Some works aim to be faithful to the memory and history by drawing on historic documents or by tracing the surroundings in detail, such as The Last Goodbye. Others acknowledge the discrepancy by creating surreal elements that aim to thematize the experience rather than the material reality, of which Beyond Manzanar is an example. We find new and interesting ways to tell stories with the invention and development of each new medium. It can allow us to bring academic information to the general public, as The Bomb Sight Project does; to tell stories from perspectives that have not been given attention before, like The Computer Wore Heels does; and to create an experience where the use of the medium resonates with the story line, as with Voies de Fait. This is, in some ways, uncharted territory, and can therefore seem disrespectful – and sometimes it is. To be able to read, write, and evaluate these stories, especially when they deal with a loaded topic like WWII, we need to learn to notice and consider how each uses specific digital tools in each specific text and context. This media literacy will help us to value the wealth of current and future works about this topic, which is already so ingrained in our collective memory.


If you loved this article and are interested in doing a closer reading of how the above-mentioned media deal with WWII, for example the locative apps, please contact me!

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