“Not typical news for Wyoming”: A Digital History Project for the COVID-19 Era

August 28, 2020

The global pandemic has placed considerable demands on faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. Among the most challenging issues are of a curricular and pedagogical nature. From lecturers with extensive instructional experience to those at the start of their careers, we all face steep limitations on what many of us love most about this profession — teaching.  

Please, therefore, count me as one of the many grateful academics who celebrates the German Studies Collaboratory (GSC). In rapid fashion, it has evolved into a space where I have found fresh inspiration, as well as new assignments, readings, and interactive classroom practices. Since my time as a graduate student, I have benefited considerably from pedagogical discussions with peers at German Studies Association meetings and during research summers in Berlin. Such reunions are especially important for those of us who serve as the only Germanist or modern Europeanist at an academic institution. Though COVID-19 has ushered in a temporary suspension of conferences and other chances to engage with our academic colleagues, the GSC has effectively created a platform where we can continue these essential collaborations. In this spirit, Dr. Elizabeth Drummond kindly invited me to share a digital history project that I previously assigned in my upper-division seminars “Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity” and “Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.” 

Two years ago, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) launched a new interactive study, entitled “History Unfolded: U.S. Newspapers and the Holocaust.” According to its website, “History Unfolded” seeks to “examine the motives, pressures, and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war, and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.” The project asks participants to search through newspapers in their own communities for information, reports, and opinions about 38 specific Holocaust-era topics and then submit these articles to a central database at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. This assignment thus provides students an opportunity to work closely with scholars at USHMM, as well as archivists, librarians, and public history professionals in their own hometowns. 

Perhaps of equal importance, “History Unfolded” enables participants to study history outside the walls of a traditional university classroom. While formal class discussions are indispensable, this project empowers students to take what they have learned in lecture and then dive deeper into specific topics that interest them personally. A majority of people, even those from the Mountain West, have probably never considered Wyoming in the context of the Holocaust. For my students in Laramie, “History Unfolded” reoriented their perspectives about this history by asking them to consider what contemporary citizens in Wyoming—from Cheyenne and Cody, to Jackson and Lusk—actually knew about Nazi Germany. One prevailing myth about the Holocaust is that most Americans did not know about the scale of Nazi violence until after the European war ended in May 1945. Though historians exposed this argument as false long ago, students at the University of Wyoming uncovered exactly what their local newspapers said about the war and how people reacted to such stories in the 1930s and 1940s. 

One student, for instance, discovered an article, entitled “Extermination of All Jews in Nazi Territory Cited as Hitler’s Aim” that The Casper Tribune-Herald published on 25 November 1942. While much of the world focused on the Battle of Stalingrad, The Casper Tribune-Herald presented Wyoming residents with a clear picture of Hitler’s genocidal war aims in Europe. Another student found a related article that the Laramie Daily Boomerang published on 03 June 1944. The piece, entitled “Nearly Two Million Jews Put to Death in Upper Silesia,” actually mentions Auschwitz-Birkenau and explains how “prisoners were led into cells and ordered to strip for bathing … then cyanide gas was said to have been released causing death in three to five minutes.” In chilling detail, residents in Wyoming read a full account of the mass-murder process almost a full year before the end of the war in Europe. The same student who discovered this story later commented that “though, in retrospect, this may seem like normal rhetoric of World War II, this certainly was not typical news for Wyoming and must have been shocking to those who read about the mass murder.”

“History Unfolded” is the perfect kind of assignment for digital classrooms. It not only contributes to an important initiative at USHMM, but also enables students to gain essential research skills in a safe and social-distanced manner. Few projects have afforded me more satisfaction as a teacher.

Adam A. Blackler, University of Wyoming