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Sunday, 10 March 2013

Sven Hassel 1917 to 2012 - Danish Pulp War Fiction Writer?


When John Wayne died, everyone was shocked. No one thought he would die. For people who read Sven Hassel; well they could be forgiven for thinking likewise. I could not believe Sven Hassel was dead, yet unlike the actor; the Danish writer's fame had a certain anonymity.

Being a Brit and growing up in the sixties, I had a diet of British heroic stands against National Socialist Germany. Our grandparents fought against them, our shops were full of weekly comics that told stories of brave Brit, Canadian, Ozzie or Kiwi soldiers gritting their teeth and confronting the faceless enemy of autonomous entities in jack boots. This faceless enemy seemed so inhuman and unfeeling to me. Then one day, around my friends house, I came across a grubby paperback called SS General by Sven Hassel. The picture was that of a high ranking officer in an open topped car while the steepes of Russia were in flames. I was allowed to have this book and started to read it. I was about twelve or thirteen years of age and got totally sucked in by this group of soldiers like Porta, Tiny, the Old Man and of course Sven watching them. I suddenly realised that the enemy was very human and they too, had a sense of humour and morality as they tried to survive their Hell on Earth in a world gone mad.

Sven Hassel 1917 - 2012

I was shocked to learn that Sven Hassel had passed away aged 95 in Spain on September of 2012. This was with regret because I read so many of his stories in my youth. I thought them graphically compelling. I went from horror to laughter because of Porta and Tiny plus many more of Sven Hassel's wonderful friends.

Sven Hassel as a young soldier

Sven Hassel was a Dane who is believed to have fought in a penal battalion of the German Army during World War II. There is some controversy surrounding such claims and there are people that dispute him being in the Panzer battalions. Some of these people claim he got his notion for stories from veterans who fought upon the Russian Front. Some think he was in a collaborating Danish Nazi police force. There are all sorts of things said and claimed and no one seems to really know for sure. 

Most believe that Sven Hassel joined the German Army in 1937 and tried to go AWOL after a time. He was caught and put into a penal battalion and saw action in many parts of Europe during World War II. He was captured in Berlin in 1945 and interned where he began writing of the war.

From a movie of his book
Wheels of Terror

He wrote a story called Legion of the Damned which won international recognition. After this he began to write more with the same characters in different theatres of the war. After release from internment, Sven Hassel was considering joining the French Foreign Legion, but he met a lady who became his wife and she encouraged him in his writing. They moved to Spain after Sven recovered from a long spell of ill health.

Perhaps he found a winning formula with his  friends from Legion of the Damned because they become much more developed in other stories and we all come to love the same collection of the roguish characters of his books, which were believed to be based on real friends he knew during the war. Again some dispute this, but writers do use people they know, to develop characters in fiction. In Legion of the Damned we go through the war with terrible outcomes for many of Sven's much loved characters. In the other stories; they are set at events between the time of beginning and end of Legion of the Damned.

Indeed, Sven has his friends fighting in so many theatres of war that they could not have gone to all places from Russia to Western Front to Italy. However, his pulp war stories are very good with horror and brutality of war plus fabulous humour of his friends. Sven Hassel is among these soldiers writing in first person singular. He is not the main character but just an observer in the background running about with them most of the time. He also interacts with them, so his stories come across as memoirs.

The formula of writing that Sven Hassel uses makes for excellent reading and one does become immersed with this group of misfit soldiers that try to survive the Hell of a world gone mad. You feel for them and like them despite the wicked and cruel things they must do to survive. They are often governed by ruthless officers and on occasion do not hesitate to eliminate them if they are out in the wilderness. They also make wonderful friends who have tragic demises. The stories are very good and if his friends are real, and I like to believe they are; then I hope they are all living the laughter times somewhere else.


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