Feature

Sven Hassel, 1917–2012

The novelist who humanized German soldiers

Sven Hassel’s pulp novels achieved something remarkable: They made readers root for the German soldiers of World War II. Loosely based on his own combat experiences, the Danish writer’s 14 books were written from the perspective of the disillusioned soldiers serving in a Nazi penal brigade—a Third Reich version of The Dirty Dozen. These grunts despise Hitler, kill their superior officers, and bed scores of willing local women. But mostly they gun down battalions of enemy soldiers, mainly Russians, on the Eastern Front. Hassel’s graphic mix of sex and violence won over teenage boys everywhere, and his novels sold more than 53 million copies worldwide.

Hassel’s own life story reads like a work of pulp fiction. Born in Fredensborg, Denmark, he left school at 14 to join the merchant navy and served a mandatory year in the Danish military in 1936. Struggling to find work after being demobilized, the 20-year-old Hassel traveled to neighboring Germany, “which was by then in the grip of Nazi rule, to join the army,” said The Times (U.K.). He enlisted in an armored cavalry division and drove a tank during the 1939 invasion of Poland. He grew sick of war and attempted to desert, only to be “recaptured and then assigned to a penal brigade in a Panzer division, like the one he describes in his books,” said The New York Times. A Danish journalist disputed that account, claiming that Hassel actually spent the war in Copenhagen working for the Nazi authorities. But the author insisted that he served on almost every front during the war, and had the battle scars—plus two Iron Cross medals—to prove it. 

Even before he was released from an allied prisoner of war camp in 1949, Hassel began work on his first novel, Legion of the Damned, which was published in English in 1957, said The Guardian (U.K.). Although his books were filled with action, he said he never wanted to glorify combat. “I write to warn the youth of today against war,” he said. “I am writing the story of the small soldiers, the men who neither plan nor cause wars but have to fight them.”

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