Author: Benjamin Franz
Thea gives us an insight into her experiences as a female LEGO World War II performer and shows us why we deal with history by using LEGO.
War is male. It's men who fought and still fight against men. Women play only a minor role there. One way or another, this is how we get that taught widely. But is it true?
None of us will be able to deny that during the Second World War men at the front made up the bulk of the fighting personnel. But that does not mean that women did not fight or were not part of the war. On the contrary. The Second World War was more than a string of battles fought by men.
Unfortunately popculture is telling the story that way over and over again. This is a pity, because this is how we disregard large aspects of the war. Just take the home front, the auxiliary personnel (also at the front), Anti-aircraft helpers, female front soldiers in the Red Army, forced labourers, female camp inmates and murder victims. They all belong to the many stories of the Second World War and without them no one can give an adequate account of the whole.
It is bad enough that the history of the Second World War is often explained to us as a conflict of men alone, but there is also a problem of disregard for women who are interested in that time. Each of us will know at least one male military historian or a history project led by a man. But who knows female projects or female military historians?
Does that mean there isn't one? Not at all! They' re just surprisingly under-represented. That's exactly why I'm introducing Thea Birch @theabirchphotos to you today with a little interview. The interview serves us as a basis for going deeper into the biq question of why we portray World War II with LEGO and what impact male narratives have on it.
Excerpt from "Rescued by the Allies" (Thea Birch).
Thea Birch, LEGO lover & photographer
Thea is describing herself:
Interview with Thea
- Hey Thea! How did you come to the legoww2 universe?
Totally by accident. Because I usually post all of my photography related images onto my Instagram account, @theabirchphotos, I posted the images onto my feed and discovered that my posts were getting more attention than usual. Through this I started clicking through some of the accounts with LEGO and war related usernames.
- Can you tell us what was your first thought when you found out that there are actually people out there presenting the Second World War with LEGO bricks?
Well back in 2011/2012, I had a YouTube channel in which I did the same sort of thing, I made scenes related to war using LEGO. I was very into playing the likes of “Call of Duty: World at War” and “The Saboteur”, both of which are WWII related games and I wanted to make scenes with LEGO based on those. Back then I was a pre-teen and didn’t know a thing about photography – unlike now as I’m doing a University degree in the subject.
- Why do you exactly use LEGO minifigures for your presentations?
I have loved LEGO since I was a child. My collection spans as far back as 2004 with some old Star Wars sets. It is a comfort to work with LEGO minifigures.
- And why have you chosen World War 2 as your main topic?
It is a part of history I am very interested in learning about. Being able to incorporate learning about the war whilst carrying out my research for my Uni work was great. It was also a good excuse to spend hours a day looking at war images, researching war photographers and of course exploring the LEGOWW2 community. On that note, my favourite war photographers are Robert Capa, Don McCullin, and August Sander for his portraits of the Nazi party members or soldiers.
More works from Thea: Depictions of Germans looking on a mass of SS-Propaganda posters (left) and arresting a resistance fighter in the Wehrmacht by the Waffen-SS. These scenes are part of Thea's university story project.
- In your pictures you pay most of your attention to your minifigs. Can you tell us how you stage them and on what images you base the presentation?
The ideas are just anything I come up with. It does take some time to develop an idea as I am not putting 110% into thinking about it until I have built a foundational idea. I focus on the minifigures rather than the scenery because I cannot access the majority of my LEGO collection and bricks as they are at my parent’s house. I just do not have the space now to have everything with me. As a photographer, I’ve learned extensively how to convey emotion in an image, and luckily with LEGO I think that can be achieved quite well.
- What I think you do exceptionally well is the atmosphere in your photos. The background of your sceneries plays a decisive role here. Can you tell us how you create it?
Currently I’m just using my home printer and printing out default templates of backgrounds and ground designs. I’ve done LEGO photography outside before but I’m more comfortable having complete control of the light by using a small studio setup.
- What is your impression of the legoww2 community on Instagram?
I am not very engaged with the community at the moment. I love responding to comments on my images, and I look at a lot of posts daily. I think the community is full of very talented people, the images I have seen are incredible and give me a run for my money. You can really tell which accounts put so much attention and detail into every single post.
- You may have noticed that the subject in which you act is dominated by men. How do you think this affects community representations and have you ever had challenges that you had to face because of it?
Personally I haven’t faced any challenges. I believe the subject of war is just something men are generally more interested in. I think that if there are other women/girls out there that want to step into the community, just do what I did and create a post.
- In the community you can find it in almost every profile: the label "non-political". What is your opinion? Do you think it is really possible to present historical representations with LEGO in a non-political way?
This is a tough topic because I am not sure myself.. I think realistically by non-political people mean non-supportive of the things they are making a depiction of. I have not noticed myself any accounts that seem to be supportive of the Nazis in WWII. I have noticed though that there is a considerable amount more images (including my own) that mainly show the Germans from WWII rather than the allies. For me, this is just because I have better ideas regarding images including them, as opposed to the Allied forces. I also have much more minifigure Germans than I do any other army so that plays a big role in my own creations.
- How did your project make you want to learn more about LEGO representations and or the Second World War?
I have always followed the LEGO photography scene but usually not the kind that follows such a topic like WWII. I have a good enough knowledge of WWII that has developed over the years but I had to do a lot of research into uniforms, divisions, locations and the timeline of the war so I found myself just digging deeper and deeper into the history, finding myself so engrossed in the information. Since beginning my project, I have watched several documentaries, movies and shows like “The Man in the High Castle” that depicts a world if the Axis powers won the war. I have read books on WWII to try and learn as much as I can to maybe gather something that would come in handy to know for my pictures.
- Thank you, Thea, for that little interview!
The interview was held in written form. The answers were adopted without any changes.
SS soldiers executing US soldiers. The shooting of prisoners of war is a sensitive issue that Thea has tackled. in her images. This is an excerpt of it.
LEGO as an expression of experience
Thea tells in her university project a story of a Wehrmacht soldier who sabotaged the advancement of his unit. He is beaten up and later while being heavily injured rescued by Alliied soldiers who conquered the place. It's an interesting story and at the same time something you don't get to see every day.
Although she uses a sharp separation of Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS in her pictures, which reinforces the old myth of the "clean Wehrmacht", she also shows us how people deal with history on a daily basis.
Thea shows that people particularly like to devote themselves to the media they are familiar with and particularly fond of. Thus, her interest in the history of the Second World War finds harmony in her LEGO hobby. Thea wants to reflect her deep research for her university project in her pictures.
She shows a strong desire to express herself through her photography and to process her experiences in this field. It's normal. When we deal with history, we do not just read texts, we process the information. By talking about it, by writing texts, by painting pictures, making videos and also by staging LEGO models.
On the other hand, you are limited by what the medium allows you to do. You can only make scenes plausible if you have the right minifigs for them. Thea addresses this when she refers to the fact that she has more images of German soldiers in her head and at the same time also more minifigs of them. A coincidence? No, that there is a clear concentration on the German side in the LEGO universe has been showing for a long time. This can only be understood if the Second World War is understood intermedially as a pop cultural phenomenon. We will come to that another time.
Women, history and LEGO
Thea is one of the few women who we know, who combines her LEGO hobby with her interest in World War II history.
Thea is convinced that war is a male issue. This is hardly surprising, as I already mentioned it at the beginning of the article. On average, girls know less about history than boys . You cannot simply attribute this to the fact that they are girls, it is a result of our culture.
For boys there are many more books and toys with historical references than for girls. Boys are also given special identification possibilities from the field of power. Boys are allowed to play as or with knights, legionaries, cowboys, plastic soldiers etc. They deal with attack and defence, i.e. violence and only rarely with peaceful behaviour. The toys do not serve as role models .
We see that in the LEGO universe too. Is that one of the reasons why our historical communication works almost exclusively through war? Quite possible. No one would deny that, especially in the LEGO world, historical topics almost always involve conflicts and their violent resolution.
In contrast, classic themes for girls are animal keepers, housewives or nurses. Traditional role models are promoted here above all. When it comes to historical topics, everyday life and cultural history are particularly interesting, as the Playmobil series on the Egyptians shows well in parts. That means girls end up playing more peaceful.
Thea doesn't put this here, because the minifigs don't give her much of a chance to do so, as well as the usual understanding of the Second World War. She adapts male narratives. Whereby, and this is said to be a characteristic of female military history, she places more emphasis on the suffering of individual soldiers than on the battles themselves.
So far no problems have gotten in her way because she is female, as you know it from other pop cultural areas such as gaming. However, topics such as toxic masculinity and the underrepresentation of female mocers are not alien to the LEGO hobby.
While I personally believe that gender barriers are largely broken down in the LEGO medium, I do believe that the way a model is represented depends on the gender of the creator.
So we find ourselves in a male-dominated hobby and therefore mainly male narratives flow into the depictions especially when it come to historical depictions? This can be recorded as a working hypothesis. But we are not yet ready to make any clear statements about it.
At least the feeling that women feel underrepresented in this hobby can be recorded elsewhere. So a few female afols founded the "The Women's Brick Initiative". They say that they "are dedicated to inspi[re] girls and women to build with LEGO". That's a nice concern. It also might enables the possibilty to expand narratives of historical themes and show the Second World War in LEGO bricks in many more different facets.
But it remains to be seen. Thea showed us that she is taking classic narratives in her style to put them into her LEGO minifigs depictions. We can pick that up here.
 Rohrbach, Rita (2009): Kinder & Vergangenheit, Gegenwart, Zukunft. Was Erwachsene wissen sollten. 1. Auflage. Seelze-Velber: Klett Kallmeyer (Wie Kinder lernen), p. 55.
 Ebd., p. 53.
Feel free to join our discussion. Your thoughts are welcome!