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When Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, news of the event spread quickly by word of mouth.
Newsies took to the street, as fast as their newspapers could get ink to paper, shouting out headlines about the archduke's assassination, an event generally considered to have sparked World War I.
Word of Ferdinand's murder spread more quickly than earlier generations could imagine. But the pace seems quaintly slow compared with today's instantaneous digital communication.
One hundred years later, a project out of Kansas University will recreate the event on Twitter, a medium that has in recent years communicated news of revolutions around the world as they were happening.
With the hash tag "KU_WWI," the exercise is less about imagining what it would be like to follow the assassination in real time as it is about giving voice to the historical characters in a bizarre drama. A drama that, somewhat randomly, threw the world into war as European countries were pulled into a regional conflict through formal and informal alliances.
"Instead of just a historical re-enactment, it's a humanities-driven exploration," said Adrienne Landry, outreach coordinator for KU's Center for Russia, East European and Eurasian Studies, or CREES, which started the project. "We want people to be creative."
Landry added they were inspired by the Twitter re-enactment of Quantrill's raid during the 150th anniversary last year.
Sam Moore, the project leader and a recent KU grad who majored in history, has compiled a list of the characters involved, whose points of view will take shape in tweets this June on the anniversary of the assassination.
That list, of course, includes the archduke, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and his wife, the Duchess Sophie Chotek, both of whom were killed by Bosnian assassins. It also includes the five assassins, whose plot — with a series of cop outs and misfires — did not quite go quite as planned. Also on the Twitter stage will be officials of Sarajevo, Bosnia, Austria-Hungary and Western heads of state.
Moore and Landry said they decided not to script the re-enactment in real time. For one, it was about 3 a.m. in Lawrence at the time of the assassination, making it difficult for even die-hard history fans to get to their computers. More than that, though, the organizers want to explore the event and the people involved in as much detail as possible.
In the crowd-sourcing tradition of social media, the organizers are looking to the public to help shape the master script of the re-enactment. They held a "call for tweeters" earlier in April that drew interested folks from around town to compose tweets for the various characters. Another session will be held April 30 in the Kansas Union's Alderson Auditorium.
Organizers are also getting KU academic departments involved by having language experts at the university translate the tweets into the native languages of the characters, which will be tweeted along with the English versions.
World War in the age of Twitter
Nathan Wood, a KU associate professor history and director of the undergraduate history program, has consulted on the project. Wood said he hopes those involved and watching the re-enactment on Twitter come away with an appreciation for how random history can be.
"If they can see the messiness of that day, if they can see how many individual choices or flukes or random events had terrific ramifications, then I would be satisfied," Wood said.
Noting the missteps and miscommunication, not just of that day but among world leaders in the build-up to war, Wood said social media might have allowed an informed public to prevent world war after the archduke's assassination. Then again, maybe not.
"We would be foolish to think that new technology automatically makes us better communicators," Wood said.
More information about the project can be found at www.european.ku.edu/wwi-twitter-project.