Sven Hassel: True or false

01:00 Fri 29th Mar 2002 |

Q. Well

A. That's a tough one. It really depends on which of the two versions of his life - both of which stretch credibility - you believe.

Version one - that most appropriate to the books - runs: Sven escapes unemployment in Denmark before the war, emigrates to Germany (because it's not as far as England), joins the German army, deserts, gets caught, ends up in terrifying SS-penal battalion on the Russian Front (and France, Poland, Italy, the Balkans and every other theatre of the war) and survives to write a mighty tribute to his fallen comrades. Massive literary success follows. The first novel published under the name of Sven Hassel was The Legion Of The Damned in 1957, which lays the basis for much of the above. It is a shocking but quite human story and many believe this book to be at least based in fact, even if the rest of his oeuvre may be little more than a cash-in.

Version two has been put about by a Danish journalist named Erik Haaest, who seems to have a visceral dislike of our man. According to Haaest Hassel spent the war at home in occupied Denmark, indulging in a penchant for dressing in Gestapo uniforms and pretending to be Himmler and other high-ranking Nazis. He also stole bicycles from the citizens of Copenhagen and donated them to the grateful Nazis. He spent a couple of years in prison after the war and met loads of Danish SS veterans (it is well known that the Germans accepted large numbers of recruits from practically every country in Europe, and there were even Irish and British SS units) from whom he picked up very detailed accounts of the war in Russia. He then got a ghost writer to pen Legion of the Damned and, when that took off, got his wife to write the rest of the books when she wasn't busy running her porn business.

Fact is, trying to find out the truth about Sven Hassel really is impossible.

A. Is he still alive

A. He is and living in Barcelona. The story goes that he's working on a new book, though that has been the case for some years by all accounts.

Q. And what about 'The book no German publisher dared to print'

A. You're old enough to remember that That was the puff on the cover of the English-language edition of Wheels of Terror. And it's true, literally, though it was published in German by an Austrian publisher under the title Die Galgen-Vogel (The Gallows Birds). Incidentally it was originally published in the UK as Paladin and Panzer, Wheels of Terror being the US version, so if you have a copy of Paladin you could make yourself a few quid as it's pretty rare.

Q. Are his books still in print

A. Not in English, but they turn up all over the place in carboots and second-hand shops. Sven now apparently has the rights back to all his books (and is looking for English-language publishers) as well as the much-derided 1988 film of Wheels of Terror (aka The Misfit Brigade) directed by Gordon Hessler and starring Bruce Davison, David Patrick Kelly, D.W. Moffett, Jay O. Sanders and Slavko Stimac as Sven. Heard of any of them No Oliver Reed, oh yes, turned up as 'The General' - possibly not one of his greatest cinematographic moments.

Q. But surely it's all comic-book nonsense

A. In the 1960s and 70s it was taken pretty seriously by many - and not just in the playground. The books sold in their millions in loads of languages (interestingly, a number of the English-language editions were translated from French rather than the Danish original) and garnered such glowing accolades as: 'Sven Hassel has proved to be the classic war-book author of the Second World War.' (Tribune Libre, France); 'He is the Danish Hemingway.' (Diario de Barcelona, Spain); 'In an almost magic way Sven Hassel unites the powerful style of Ernest Hemingway with Remarque's unique way of writing. The unknown soldier of the Second World War has got his monument.' (Morgenvisen, Norway).

Truth is, though many of the covers look like out-takes from war comics (though some earlier ones, particularly the Corgi edition of Liquidate Paris, are great), they books themselves aren't half as bad as you'd imagine, and many of the stories are entertaining, funny and have a genuinely idiosyncratic slant on the lot of cannon-fodder. Some of the characters, notably Porta and Tiny (aka Little John), are particularly memorable.

But Hemingway No.

Q. And that list of titles in full

A. The Legion of the Damned, Wheels of Terror, Comrades of War, Assignment Gestapo, Monte Casino (aka The Beast Regiment), Liquidate Paris, March Battalion, SS-General, Reign of Hell, Blitzfreeze, The Bloody Road to Death, Court Martial, OGPU Prison, The Commissar

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By Simon Smith

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