Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Book review - Sven Hassel revisited

The Danish author Sven Hassel is something of a divisive figure. Some love him and his books, some hate them. There are many reasons for this - I won't document all the controversies and conspiracy theories about him here, Google them if you're interested - but at the core there is the unsettling concept - for a non-German - of reading a series of books that tell the story of World War 2 German soldiers.

Why would anyone want to read about the experiences of Nazi soldiers? Well, from a strictly historical viewpoint hearing the 'other side of the story' is a very important and valid academic pursuit and it may even gives some interesting context to the casual readers understanding of the events and why the allies went to war. But a semi-fiction action adventure series? That's not very moral is it?

One can get very snooty about Sven Hassel's books, I remember reading them as a teenager and deriving a sort of immature frisson of pleasure at reading something I felt was a little 'forbidden', as the idea of Nazi soldiers being the 'heroes' of a story was quite contrary to the British mindset and it's conventional cultural programming of how 'we' should see 'the war'.

The books - at this level - were gritty and brutal and somewhat 'comic' (as in comic book) and were - for me - an evolution of my early teenage love of war comics like the Victor and the Commando series. Strangely Hassel's books came to my attention because they were sitting on my father's bookshelf, though I didn't stop to consider the ramifications of this at the time. They attracted my interest by means of the comic-book cover art and - to my detriment - the fact that the author's title was typeset with the double-S of 'HaSSel' in the infamous Nazi lightning runes of the 'SS' (thus further making the reading of this book seem something that was rebellious, which is a like a flame to a moth when one is an awkward teenager).

[Note: In Hassel's defence this typographic liberty was not his idea - 'his unit' was not an 'SS' unit and this sensationalist piece of graphics has - thankfully - been removed in subsequent reprints of his works in the UK. The picture above shows the newer cover design.]

It is only now - nearly forty years later - that I was tempted to revisit the Hassel books - as I am currently modelling some WW2 German items and wanted some 'scene setting' information - and ask the obvious nagging question - why were these books on my father's bookshelf?

Reading 'Legion of the Damned' as a rational and informed adult - as I hardly think male teenagers can be considered 'rational' - is an altogether different experience from that which I thought I remembered. The books are still, I think, a bit silly and 'pulp' but I was surprised to read large and well written tirads by the author against the Nazi war machine and war itself! I can only imagine that as a youth I skimmed over these bit to get to the 'action' thus these passages made no lasting impression on me.

The real Sven Hassel as a willing and enthusiastic recruit in the regular
German army. Or is it? There is some debate, not only about who he really
was but what his role was in the war and how much of his books are fiction.

Surprisingly some of the sections in this - the first book in the series - are at times intelligently put together, touching, heart-rendering, anti-war and do - despite oneself - illicit a feeling of sympathy for the characters in 'Sven's troop'. Indeed, even if one tries hard to be dispassionate and subjective, as I was during this reread, one can a hardly help but to become fond of the larger than life comrades of the main character and begin to invest emotionally in their plight.

My father was an avid and intelligent reader and - I know - was greatly affected in his views about war by Erich Maria Remarque's masterpiece 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Many of his generation, it seems, held Hassel's works as being of this anti-war genre and Hassel was extremely popular in the UK in the late 1950s and 1960s.

But they were Nazis!?
And here's the rub, the inescapable catch to the whole experience of reading Sven Hassel is that you are reading about Nazi soldiers. They may not have been 'SS' - the military wing of the Nazi Party - but they were soldiers of the Nazi State, trying to separate the two as if two Germanys existed between 1933 to 1945 is in my opinion ridiculous and more than a little ingenuous.

Well, that said, Hassel does attempt to deflects the moral outrage one might harbour by setting his story in the Penal Battalion of the German Army and also goes to great pains to convince his reader that these men were just as much victims of the Nazi system as 'political prisoners' or those others who were unjustly punished by the Nazi Party for perceived infractions to their stilted justice system.

Above: Two scenes from the 1987 movie based on Hassel's books. Ironically the
movie - which is terrible by the way - is full of just as many technical inaccuracies
as his books! Here a Soviet SU-100 stands in for a German tank destroyer!

In fact this proposition along with the elements of antiwar sentiment in the books is the reason that Sven Hassel's books (or at least this first book) have raised the reputation of his writing - by some - to the point where he is considered to be one of the great anti-war authors of his time. I have even read reviews which seek to elevate his book to the same level as that other great German anti-war classic 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.

...Now to that catch I mentioned. It all just doesn't wash with me.

We, in the West - at least of my generation and of my father's generation - are quite familiar with the post-war notion that 'all Germans were not Nazis' and that, in fact, many of the victims of Nazi tyranny were actually German citizens themselves. Large numbers of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were German, as were political dissidents, gypsies, homosexuals, (certain) intellectuals, (certain) artists, the mentally and physically infirm, the 'promiscuous' and so on and so on. And yet...

I am afraid that I cannot find it in my heart to accept the proposal that the majority of Germans were somehow duped into following the Nazis, after all - and again people forget this - the Nazi party and all of it's well documented and stated policies were democratically elected into power - and Sven (or his alter-ego in the book) admits that he was initially a volunteer in the regular German army and not conscripted or press-ganged, he actually went to great lengths to become a German soldier, even changing his Danish sounding name (Pedersen) to the more German sounding 'Hassel'.

I also do not believe the widely accepted myth that all the atrocities committed by the German military in World War 2 was the work of the 'SS' and nothing to do with the regular 'Heer' (German Army). There is now a large body of evidence that dispels this notion and I have myself evidence - by way of photos my father 'liberated' from a German POW - that clearly burst this bubble of delusion.

Above: I have in my possession some photos of the German Army that my
 dad 'liberated' in North Africa. We had always presumed that they we a
series of photos of the German's Blitzkreig across Poland but on the rear of
one of them was this penciled title 'Stryj' (or Stryi).

Sadly - I discovered that this series of pictures seems to show the operations
conducted by the Nazis against the Jewish population:

"The Germans occupied Stryy on July 2, 1941, and hundreds of Jews were
immediately killed. In November 1941, 1,200 Jews were shot in the Holobotow
forest. Several deportations to extermination camps took place beginning in
September, 1942. Between June and August of 1943 the Stryy ghetto and labor
camps near the town were liquidated. When the Soviet army occupied Stryy in
August, 1944 there were only a few Jewish survivors. No Jewish
community was re-established."

[Reference source:]

As can be clearly seen in several of the photographs the German soldiers
carrying out this operation wear the helmet insignia of the
regular army - 'Heer' - and not the 'SS'.
So when Sven Hassel tries so hard to delineate the activities of the 27th Panzer Division Penal Battalion as not being aligned with the Nazi war machine I simply cannot accept this I'm afraid.

I do not usually believe in 'collective guilt' but the phenomenon of Nazism was so abhorrent and so ideologically and morally corrupting that I feel one must metaphorically 'cut off the leg to save the life' of democracy and human rights and consign that generation of German people en masse to a shared sentence of 'guilty' as a statement of what sort of behaviour democratic people do not find acceptable. And in this I, regretfully, accept that there are those who will have been 'punished' unjustly. There were good Germans but the concept of a Nazi state must never again be a conceivable proposition.

So, to conclude, I cannot allow myself to enjoy Sven Hassel's books nor to recommend them. Not even for 'academic' purposes, for in truth - and this is a whole other issue - these fictionalised tales as so full of technical and chronological inaccuracies that there is little historical worth in them (there are large numbers of historical accounts and biographies which give the German view far more accurately and subjectively).

(Allegedly.) The real Porta (right) and Tiny, two of Hassel's comrades as
depicted in his series of books. Lovable rogues of a type found in almost
any army, but their 'roguishness' is tainted by the uniforms they wear.
'Legion of the Damned' is about a lovable and roguish group of human beings - the larger than life character of Porta is particularly hilarious at times - but I would far rather read about similar characters who were experiencing similarly unpalatable and heart-wrenching wartime careers but on the right side! In this I can wholeheartedly recommend Spike Milligan's war memoirs which show the complete gamut of emotional and moral implications of war.

In this, World War Two has the eminent luxury of it being on equitably clear which side was the right side.

Postscript: If you really must read a semi-fictional account of German soldiers during WW2 - and in particular their experiences on the Soviet Front - then you might look for Willi Heinrich's 'The Willing Flesh' (1950). This was the book on which Sam Peckinpah's excellent film 'Cross of Iron' (1977) was based.

1 comment:

  1. So what If they enlisted? Weren't you lied before about a 'greater job', or presidents lying to you of a greater future? Germany was In a state of decay, and Hitler did revive It, but at a very big cost.