Histocamp 2019: Questions of the legostudies

Author: Benjamin Franz 


The collected ideas, insights and difficulties of the legostudies from the Histocamp 2019.


I never would have dreamed of it. Just a few years ago, what I experienced at the Histocamp would have been unthinkable. Since the beginning of my studies, I have developed an increasingly critical view of what I do every day. What I write on the Internet, how I behave and live and also where and what I actually do with my LEGO bricks. So during my studies I had the idea to take a closer look at this medium LEGO. 


After I had some difficulties discussing this seemingly infantile topic with adults, I noticed that there has been a lot of interest in it lately. And so it happened that I spontaneously held a session on legostudies at Histocamp 2019 - a barcamp where people from different directions came together to talk about history - with a solid number of 30 people in one room.


You can't imagine this as a lecture. Quite the opposite, I only mentioned a few key points and expressed my thoughts and then waited for input from the others. Unfortunately, the meeting was only 45 minutes long. It could have been twice as long, we could not have addressed everything. I therefore see it as my task to write down the thoughts that we have collected in this session so that others can also participate. After all, this is exactly what I want. My blog should be only a part of the whole. I am always happy about people who are interested in the same and start their own!


It's very helpful that while we were in our sessions we also posted a lot on twitter to interact with the other who were not in the same session. So we can use these tweets again as a reference point for the topics people were interested in. Our hashtag was: #legohistory



What we have talked about


We mainly put the focus on 5 major points. At first we talked about how you can find a lot of colonial structures especially in the old LEGO Adventures series. After that we concentrated on gender as not just a historically significant category in TLG's sets. Afterwards we looked at the phenomenon that some also portray the Holocaust with these tiny bricks. Thematically, we continued with the fact that in the late 2000s an entire community developed that deals with the Second World War in LEGO format. We also talked about 3rd party providers and their responsibilities. Last but not least, we spoke about the topic I already covered in my blog, how can it be that LEGO bricks in their combination can be regarded as historically authentic?


As you can see, we looked at a whole range of topics and only scratched the surface. So let's take a little deeper look on our topics.




"Jungle Surprise" from 1999, pic: Bricklink

If you think that all LEGO sets are free of colonial structures and therefore free of racism, I have to disappoint you.


The game logic that TLG uses for theme series such as the Adventure series is characterised by mostly subtle but often also very clear colonial structures. In my opinion this series is highly influenced by the movie series Indiana Jones. [1] Let's take the set we see on the left as an example.


Here we see a white colonialist. Notably to say that she is a woman. Her name is Miss Gail Storm and she is equipped with a tropical helmet, a backpack and a rifle. These alone are signs of a typical colonial image. But much more important is their plot. She just steals (or as we Europeans called it for a long time "discovered") a golden plate, which she considers valuable in her European view. This "treasure" is stolen from its rightful owners, most likely the survivors of a South American indigenious tribe.


The place where the action takes place is also important. Our presumably British woman is in a jungle, which confronts her as hostile and is marked with dangers. This is represented by the black spider and the red snake. If necessary, the colonialist has to shoot her way out with a rifle in an area where she wouldn't know her way around without a map. 


When natives appear as figures, as in the pirate series, they usually only act as supporting roles for the white protagonists or as enemies of the colonialists, who are stylized as heroes. The natives can be recognized by various cultural codes.  These would be, for example, facial features, certain torso prints and, of course, their actions.


The fight against god statues also represents an implicit devaluation of non-Christian religions. Here, however, we have to ask ourself the question: is LEGO Christian? In contrast to its competitor playmobil, TLG has never released a nativity set itself, nor has it ever published a priest, or even real persons like Martin Luther. The only thing that TLG brought out as at least originally Christian motive are sets with the Christmas theme. However, in such a commercialized version that we can assume that it is liberated from religion - with the exception of the religion of capitalism.


But TLG is by far not the only company that presents colonial images in its toys. Our entire society is permeated by colonial structures, so it's no surprise that you can also find them here. The concept of "adventure games" is unfortunately infiltrated by colonial structures again and again. [2]


The skin colors of the characters also play a role. For a long time, LEGO used yellow exclusively for all its characters (with the exception of skeletons, ghosts, cyborgs, etc.). All her living human characters were yellow until LEGO took care of the license sets. Sets for the NBA and Star Wars added different skin colors in 2003. With the set 101231 Cloud City yellow characters were mixed with Lando Calrissian, a dark-skinned figure. As a result, we would have to conclude that yellow was the color of white people. To solve this dilemma, TLG will have switched to more natural skin colors in license sets. See this tweet for a further discussion.


Fun Fact: For some reason completely inaccessible to me, the head of Snape from the Harry Potter series was milky white and was supposed to glow in the dark.



An excerpt from a russian LEGO System catalogue from 1999. To see: The Adventures series, pic: archive.org

I will definitely focus on it on my blog later.




I marked the relation of the figs, pic: Bricklink

I've observed that female minifigures in historical LEGO themes usually only play side-roles. 


They take on a role that should support the male protagonist. In this logic, female characters do not have their own deepened role personality or even character development. This is especially evident in the medieval setting. This becomes clear with the 70931 Sekeleton Tower from the LEGO Castle Fantasy Era.


In this set we find the classic narrative of a prince or in this case a tough knight that is going to rescue the princess from the evil guys (in this case skeletons, wizards and dragons). The knight is represented here by his courage and his strength as particularly male. At least these are cultural codes that we know from the attribution to masculinity. In the end they are just small plastic bricks sitting on top of each other.


In contrast, the princess is staged as weak and in need of rescue - all of the cultural codes we know for a dominant narrative of femininity. The narrative that the man would have to protect or save the woman from other powers is probably even as old as civilization.


Excerpt from the Instruction, p. 61. Proving my point

However, the fact that we often simply project our modern ideas of gender into the past can be seen above all in the fact that the latest research results refute a lot of them. Of course, it is hardly surprising that current views obscure the view of the past. History always takes place in the present.


Thus we find the figures in the respective roles again. There is no need for a discussion about historical authenticity, which is repeatedly used to justify traditional role models of men and women. I mean, there is a dragon in this model. Then why shouldn't there also be female knights who save male princes? Whereby the latter would be historically much more authentic. In the past, female roles were so much more complex than we usually get presented in pop culture today.


In the new medieval-inspired fantasy world with Nexo Knights we also find female figures who are allowed to be knights. The wind has changed at TLG.


Representation of different role models for female and male figures is important, but let's not forget that it's also about the relationships the figures have and not just about their quantifiability. The question of roles, actions, communication and relationships to other figures must be central. Norbert Elias' figurative analysis might be worthwhile here to be able to analyze the networks. 


Last but not least, we should come back to the question of how we actually recognize gender (sex can't be, because the LEGO figures have no or hardly any sexual characteristics). Again, we encounter cultural codes that make us believe that a character has a male or female gender. In addition, we must of course ask ourselves whether there are also genderless representations of figures or even representations of other sexes and how can we recognize them?




Marina rises the question, if historical accuracy isn't important why shouldn't there be female heroes as well?



Holocaust Remembrance Culture

Libera's depiction of a typical concentration camp

At first, it may seem daunting that someone should represent symbols or even events of the Holocaust made of LEGO bricks, but in the end it is only consistent. 


This becomes understandable when you look at the concept of After-images. James Edward Young describes in his work the way a generation has dealt with the Holocaust that the Nazi crimes themselves did not experience. He sees forms such as the art series David Levinthals or the graphic Novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman as a processing of this generation with the images of these events as they know and have experienced them from the media and from family stories. [3]

So it is hardly surprising that the popular LEGO brick medium was also used to process the experiences of these generations. Individual depictions made out of LEGO bricks directly related to NS crimes, mostly the Holocaust, are known. But can the LEGO brick therefore be called a medium of the culture of commemoration? There are still too few representations on this subject. The few representations that exist are also often very scorned. Let's take a look at the best known of these and find out why.


By this I mean the concentration camp representations of 1996 by the Polish artist Libera Zbigniew. They are also the only ones that historical scholarship has examined at least to some extent. [4] The illustrations consist of 7 small kits that resemble the architecture of an extermination camp. You can see a crematorium, a gas chamber, watch towers, concentration camp prisoners, and camp personnel. The actions show torture of the prisoners on the packages. The artist intentionally wants to shock, and he succeeds in doing so by designing the sets in the same way as their counterparts, which look like the ones TLG themself offer for sale. It doesn't surprise that TLG was not so amused by that depiction and initiated legal steps.


That there is a fundamental desire to portray the Holocaust using the LEGO medium is also evident in John Denno's school report where he depicted well-known symbols and events of the Holocaust with LEGO bricks. From my point of view, this is no coincidence. People turn to media they know and trust when they have to represent something. The Holocaust can only be shown in LEGO format because it is a social issue. Almost 75 years after the last Nazi mass murders, the subject remains. The Holocaust is not the past. It is the bitter present. The effects can still be felt today. And so they can also be explored in the medium of LEGO bricks. Research on the Holocaust has long included research on how we deal with events in the present day. It is also time to actively investigate how the LEGO medium is used. 



LEGO WW2 and the Community

BRICKMANIA stand at BB19, pic: S. Gerner

The Holocaust and other NS mass crimes are inseparable from the Second World War. Without the conquests of the Wehrmacht, such mass persecution and murder of the victims of Nazi crimes would never have been possible. In pop culture, however, the Second World War is often treated separately from the Holocaust.


And therefore there is something that calls itself the LEGO World War 2 Community. Today they consist of influences of different dimensions. 


Nowadays you can find several big suppliers on this market who deliver so-called 3rd party elements. These are historical weapons or caps or even printed figures in WW2 style. The biggest player among these is probably Brickmania and Brickarms, which not only have managed to establish themselves but also to expand strongly. Beside these also smaller providers have opened up. To only name a few: Citizen Brick, United Bricks, The Minifig Co, Valiant Bricks etc. 


Originally it developed in the late 2000s and thus represents an after-effect of the strong pop cultural involvement with the Second World War, especially in the USA at the turn of the millennium. This can be seen very clearly in films like "Saving Private Ryan" and video games like the early Call of Duty series.


The influence TLG itself has had on the development of this community should not be underestimated. In 2008 TLG brought LEGO Indiana Jones sets to the market. This license theme became topical again, as the new Indiana Jones movie was released. In addition to sets from this theme, which is chronologically dedicated to the Cold War, TLG also brought sets to the older movies, all of which were set in the late 1930s. So were the first and only German soldiers of the Wehrmacht (DAK) available in an official LEGO set.


This presence of these military figures favoured the development of a WW2 community, because it was the first time that there were nearly convincing LEGO figures (but also military vehicles) that could take on the roles of the soldier of World War II. This becomes clear when you look at the models and figures of that time. I still remember my own. I converted the Afrikakorps Germans to GIs. A lot of people did. Silly, isn't it?


But what we are witnessing here again is the portray with familiar media of a generation that did not experience the war. Films, video games and also LEGO models are part of the memory of the war and show how we deal with it today. 


And this is where the study of the medium must begin. First of all it has to be understood that there is a legitimate interest in portraying these events and then, in the next step, it has to be analyzed how the events are represented. The depictions are often characterized by nationalistic images as well as historical - from a historical-scientific point of view - untenable myths about a "clean Wehrmacht" (saubere Wehrmacht) or Waffen-SS soldiers as "soldiers like others" (Soldaten wie andere auch). But why should the LEGO universe in particular be any different than much of the pop culture as a whole?


I describe LEGO bricks as a secondary medium. This means that it already needs other pop cultural representations to produce its own representations of a theme. Simply explained: A filmmaker will hardly be inspired by a LEGO model. But a LEGO model maker will be inspired by a movie of a filmmaker.


Conversely, however, this also means that an exploration of the LEGO WW2 community and its representations is a serious contribution to the exploration of how we view the Second World War in today's transnational society. A question that should concern every modern historian.




Excerpt from BB18 in Munich at the WW2 area. The community has much developed since its beginning, pic: S. Gerner.



Philosophy of history

Excerpt from Schwalfenberg's "Roman Forum"

The LEGO brick medium confronts us with challenges that historians do not face all too often. We can ask ourselves essential questions like "what is authenticity?" or, thinking much further, what is history at all?


When can a LEGO theme series be considered historical? With theme series such as Castles, the Wild West, Pirates, etc. this always seems very obvious, but is the LEGO Creator series and its modular buildings also historical? Is an reference to historical architecture and public known images alone like we see it in the 102601 Downton Diner something historical? Is the deliberate play with nostalgia historical? What do we regard as historical and what not?


These are exactly the questions we can ask in the legostudies. Questions that pass over into what the role of a historian in society actually is. If the concept of history does not simply describe the exploration of the past, but rather is the study of the past in the present, can we still expect a universal explanation of the profession of a historian? Dealing with legostudies also means fundamentally questioning one's own role and work in society. 


There are of course many more questions, for example how do I distinguish between a model and an image of this model on the Internet? To what extent does the perception change based on the representation by further effects through image processing or by adding other objects, stones, fruit etc.?


Also the question about the scale of the models is exciting. Does it change my perception of a model, even my perception of a historical event or aspect, if I don't see a model in mini-figure scale but in micro-scale? How does this affect us? To what extent are scales even necessary to achieve certain effects when looking at a model?



It's just the start..


..but there is already so much to talk about! However, this is also the nice thing about it. In principle, it is a new field in which questions from others are adapted and at the same time a whole host of completely new questions arise. I don't want to lean too far out of the window but the legostudies can tell us a lot about our daily handling of social questions. Especially in relation to historical questions. And for exactly this reason, I can only recommend everyone to take a closer look at this new subject.


It's an important insight that the research of legostudies is an interdisciplinary media analysis. It does not refuse any philosophical or sociological questions. This may cause problems for some historians at first. Only with the means of historical scholarship, however, we will not go far here.


Thanks once again to all the participants of the Histocamp 2019 and special thanks to everyone who attempted my session and helped me to explore and improve the legostudies and their questions. This project lives from your participation. And meanwhile it lives happily.



Addition: Collecting questions


I've decided to collect more questions that have risen:

  • How can the medium be used as a didactic tool in working with students?
  • To what extent are there differences compared to Playmobil?
  • How can LEGO bricks models/dioramas be used effectively in historical exhibitions?
  • What are the sources of the legostudies and how can they be used and critically classified?




[1] A great video essayist made a video on Youtube showing that the Indiana Jones movies are full of colonialism.

[2] Another  great video essayist called the Pop Culture Detective is right now working on a video about colonialism in board games. See this tweet

[3] James E. Young: At memory's edge. After-images of the holocaust in contemporary art and architecture, New Haven [u. a.] 2000.

[4] Ulf Buschmann: Spielzeug und Modellbau in zeitgenössischer Kunst zum Holocaust, in: Inge Stephan/Alexandra Tacke (ed..): Nachbilder des Holocaust, Wien [u. a]. 2007, p. 284-298. // Tom Holert: Das Unausstellbare en miniature. Modellbau, Museografie und der Holocaust, in: Alexander Gall/Helmuth Trischler: Szenerien und Illusion. Geschichte, Varianten und Potenziale von Museumsdioramen, Bd. 2, Göttingen 2016, p. 428-450.