Translated Interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE about History's Bricks and the legostudies.
Hard to believe but true, the media are already interested in our project. Why shouldn't they? What could be more unique than analyzing LEGO representations? At the request of the SPIEGEL, I have been interviewed by Danny Kringiel of the Contemporary History Department einestages. Since we did this in German, I offer an English translation for you here.
The interview in German: Meilensteinchen der Weltgeschichte
Disclaimer: This translation has been made with DeepL I cannot guarantee the linguistic correctness. However, everything should be understandable as in the German version.
Translation of the Interview
einestages: Mr Franz, let me guess - your favourite toy as a child was not Playmobil?
Franz: Wrong! I did have Lego, especially to Star Wars and Harry Potter, but much more Playmobil. I also wrote that in my application to university.
einestages: You applied with the fact that you played a lot with Playmobil?
Franz: For the study of history, yes. I explained to them that even as a child I was fascinated by the Playmobil Romans, the Egyptians, and also medieval sets. Lego couldn't keep up with that, because they offered less historically fascinating worlds. This preference only changed when I was twelve and discovered their Star Wars stuff, Lego started to be much better.
einestages: Since January 2019 you have been rebuilding world history in Lego and analyzing historical representations with Lego bricks in workshops and in your blog. When did you come up with the idea of capturing moments of world history with Lego instead of Jedi battles?
Franz: At some point I went from my "Star Wars" preference to other topics. That has a lot to do with the fact that around the turn of the millennium, the Second World War was again a stronger theme in pop culture - in films like "Saving Private Ryan" or computer games like "Call of Duty". A few years later, this hype was even reflected in the Lego program, even though they didn't offer dedicated World War II kits: But in sets for "Indiana Jones" Red Army soldiers or German DAK soldiers appeared.
einestages: When children play World War II with bricks - it can make you feel queasy, can't it?
Franz: Sure, especially from our German perspective. The big wave of militaria enthusiasm in the Lego community came mainly from the USA and Great Britain. There, they have a completely different relationship to military history, strongly influenced by the pathos of media productions.
einestages: Now you have discovered your interest in military history through media productions and are recreating scenes from the time of the Nazi regime with Lego. What would you say to parents who say: "You don't play war!"?
Franz: You cannot write history without war. Conflicts are part of it. Whether Lego as a company should devote itself more to depicting real wars is a completely different question - I would not advise it. Lego sets often offer clear protagonists and antagonists. It is not possible to depict historical conflicts according to this simple pattern. I think it's a pity that Lego doesn't produce more material also on peaceful historical topics. I would love to see a series on everyday history from different centuries.
einestages: Why doesn't Lego already offer something like that?
Franz: Of course they don't see it as their most important task to convey history. They have to sell. Besides, it is certainly difficult to always combine such themes with a gameplay logic. Children should be able to play with it, with clear heroes and opponents. This has already led to some historically questionable sets.
Franz: For example, they depicted colonialism in the series "Lego Adventurers": You saw white, European figures wearing top hats and pith helmets experiencing adventures in far-off countries. Which meant that they took their gold and cultural treasures by force of arms. Or that they fought against foreign idolatrous statues, an implicit devaluation of non-Christian religions. The natives of these distant countries were merely staffage for the adventures of the white protagonists.
einestages: After all, Lego usually keeps historical military conflicts out of the program, with rare exceptions like the "Indiana Jones" series. However, there are third-party manufacturers in the community, such as Brickmania, who earn their money with historically correct replicas of fighter planes, tanks or soldiers' uniforms. Do you see this as more than just toys for militarists?
Franz: I see it ambivalently. I got to know the Brickmania team at the Lego exhibition "Bricking Bavaria" in September as very pleasant, open-minded people. They are Americans, their understanding of history has much more to do with military history than ours. You first have to accept that. From a German point of view, some products of Lego third party manufacturers are problematic - representations of SS soldiers and swastika bandages, historical figures like Hitler and Himmler. In the custom Lego sets, these figures are not embedded in a critical context. Even computer games like the recently published "Wolfenstein: Youngblood" depict National Socialism in a fictional setting, but also provide a critical context. With a Lego set, it is up to each individual to decide what to do with it. These can be critical representations. A large part of the community, which presents its work on Instagram, for example, unfortunately tends to "action shots", very heroic depictions of soldiers. These are often SS figures, especially but not exclusive in American works.
einestages: Will US neo-Nazis and White Supremacists fulfill a childhood dream?
Franz: I don't have that impression. They tend to separate the crimes of the Nazi regime and the soldiers who fought in the Second World War. Thus the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht" (saubere Wehrmacht) and the Waffen-SS as "soldiers like others" (Soldaten wie andere auch) is preserved. Therefore, the soldiers are not perceived as perpetrators of NS crimes.
Excerpt from Bricking Bavaria 2019 in Fürth, pic: S. Gerner.
einestages: In your blog you will deal extensively with the presentation of history in Lego dioramas, including the authenticity of historical moments. How can the reproduction of history with plastic building bricks ever be authentic?
Franz: According to my definition, authenticity is a feeling for something familiar in this form, which corresponds to our expectations of the history we have learned. If something breaks with our expectations, it does not feel authentic - even if it is correct. If, for example, buildings from ancient Greece are colourfully depicted in a model, many people perceive this as not authentic. Because we have long learned in films, pictures and books that the buildings were all white. So we come up against the historically accurate fact that they were often colourfully painted.
einestages: What role does the material Lego play in this?
Franz: This abstract building material is easy to put together - and the viewer sees a Greek temple in this heap of plastic bricks. Because he has internalized the symbol of ancient temples so much. The recognition of gender in Lego models works in a similar way.
einestages: In what way?
Franz: Lego figures look almost the same. In the minimal differences, however, we quickly recognize which ones are supposed to be female and which male - based on learned cultural codes: One figure has long hair, the other short, one has lipstick, the other a beard.
einestages: When you build a temple or the Reichstag with Lego bricks, two references to the past are mixed up in the viewers' minds: of course to the historical moment depicted, but also to your own childhood when you played with Lego. Don't you find this nostalgic connection problematic, especially in military history?
Franz: Yes, I do. But it is also a reason why Lego works so well as a medium: Everyone associates something with it. That makes the representation of history much more connectable.
einestages: With Lego you have reconstructed events from the "Reichskristallnacht", the fall of the wall to the abandonment of children in Roman antiquity and analysed several models of others. Which one particularly impressed you?
Franz: I found the reconstruction of a historical photo of the Battle of Stalingrad very interesting - Soviet soldiers passing by house ruins shortly after the German surrender on February 2, 1943. To reproduce the atmosphere of the photo also with plastic bricks is amazingly successful.
einestages: You must listen to it often: "Leave the bricks alone, you're already grown up"?
Franz: No, that time is really over. The brick has long since become much bigger than the company behind it, it's no longer just a child's toy but a medium. And people find that exciting. Because we have only just begun to sound out what is possible with it.
I highly recommend you to have a look at the photo gallery of the original article. Many different historical models made from LEGO bricks are presented and also easily described. It's important to me to give the community the recognition it deserves, because a lot of it is just breathtaking and makes some science communication look outdated.