Stacey Snider and Professor Thomas Russell, Media Arts
“[They said] we were called by the Furer and by God to help defend our home.”
So they were told, but of the 90,000 Slovene men, young and old, forced from their provincial homes and into German uniforms at the beginning of WWII, few were convinced. Swayed instead by commanders with rifles, threats to life and family, and stories of torture, hanging, even beheading, nearly one fifth the population of the tiny European country chose hell over death and became part of Hitler’s expansive and short-lived military force between 1942 and 1945.
Thousands died anyway on the front lines of Russia, Romania, and France. Some defected. Some escaped. Labor camps in several countries housed the scattered brotherhood of confounded farmers and students, most of whom didn’t even know enough German to understand the orders of their commanding officers. The few who returned home were not much more fortunate, as they were met with a traitor’s welcome and a new national suspicion of their loyalty. Not until the last few years—over half a century after the end of the war—have the wounded and disabled been recognized or the survivors organized to begin telling their stories.
The purpose of my research in Slovenia was to collect and preserve these stories on videotape for eventual use in a documentary film. The youngest of the men who lived them are now in their seventies, and as the entire topic was either dismissed or distorted under communism (the political force at work in Yugoslavia until Slovenia became independent in 1991), there is every probability that the stories will die with the men before they can be told in their entirety. I went to Slovenia with a video camera, a notebook full of names and addresses, and a very young, American conception of war, which proved painfully na•ve, and to which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to return.
With the help of a wonderful historian and expert on the subject of Slovenia’s participation in the German army, I was introduced to six men, veterans of WWII who each agreed to a taped interview. The contents of these interviews, a half hour to an hour in length and all in Slovene, are too rich and varied to fit into such a brief report. Two were captured by American soldiers. One deserted to the French. One escaped to the Russians. Two were only seventeen when they were conscripted. One became an English soldier, then citizen. One returned home to his mother without a scratch. One returned home to fifteen years of prison on charges of espionage. One was wounded in the hip and walks with a cane to this day. Three have written books. Two have organized veterans societies in their cities and regions. One remembers the names of the Czech girls he met and the songs they sang. One found God in the trenches and calls his survival a miracle.
This project is far from finished. In the first place, I have yet to translate and transcribe all the interviews for use in an American documentary. I also have several books given to me by the men I interviews which I am in the process of reading: books about the general history, autobiographical collections, even a compilation of songs and poems written by Slovene men during their service. One of the greatest hindrances to my work is the fact that nearly all the information is in Slovene and, although I speak the language, I seem to spend equal parts of my time in the text and in the dictionary. Fortunately, I have plenty of acquaintances—both students here and scholars there—who are willing to help if I need them. My immediate plan is pick from all these sources pertinent information and put together a documentary screenplay. I plan to complete the script before January, and then work with a faculty member to see about the possibility of actually shooting it.
I am satisfied with the work I’ve done, and am excited about the possibility of continuing with this subject and producing something valuable. I am afraid, however, that I will never feel the sense of completion that comes with a solved equation or a published paper. The fact is there are more stories out there. I could go back and spend a year searching, and still not find everyone or learn everything. The story of these Slovene-German soldiers was carved roughly out of religion, tradition and fear, disfigured in the fire of cruelty, and finally buried under decades of organized denial. The men I came to know and the experiences they shared with me are representative; behind their fading eyes exists a whole generation, confused, indignant, determined, courageous by default, tacitly bound to one another, both a little more cynical and a little more sensitive, strong in a way I don’t understand, and wise in a way I will never be.