Archive for March 28th, 2010



[Picture of Sven Hassel]I have not thought about Sven Hassel for years — probably since the early to mid 1970s if I’m honest. Yet he popped up in a conversation I was having recently with a client at lunch.

He’d also read Sven Hassel books way back then.

We were talking about language, and I said the only reason I knew how to swear in Russian was because of a book I’d read when I was a boy — and he asked if it was Sven Hassel.  I was amazed; who’s ever heard of Sven Hassel?

It made me think though, that Sven’s books were pretty significant in my development.  Let me try to explain.

Sven wrote his books in the first person. A narrative style. They were about the Second World War, but they were from the German / Losing side. Now that’s a twist.

Just how much of a twist can only be understood once you realise that for anyone growing up in the 1960s, there was a lot of TV shows and films about WWII — often John Wayne stuff.  Hollywood or at least very American-centric.  It used to drive my father nuts:

“You’d think they’d won the war all by themselves!” he would roar at the screen.

There were TV shows like “The World at War” running every week, and boys read “Commando” comics and had “Action man” soldier figures. We watched “Hogan’s Heroes“,  “The Great Escape“, “Where Eagles Dare“, “Colditz“, “Dad’s Army” and later “‘Allo, ‘Allo“. Every November, we bought poppies from men outside The British Legion.

When I think about it now, the war was only 15 or so years before I was born, so it was all still fresh, and of course, the Americans were still at it with Vietnam — which meant we were still getting war films and TV shows, such as “M*A*S*H“. Vietnam was what linked WW2 with the cold war to my mind.

On top of all that is the fact that I grew up in an extremely Jewish neighbourhood. Can you imagine? Goodness me, I knew so many people who refused to buy BASF cassette tapes because BASF made the Zyklon-B gas that killed millions of Jews in the NAZI extermination camps.

The ONLY thing in memory that was not from the Allied perspective was Sven Hassel.  And you know, when I think about it, I have no idea how his stuff was allowed to be translated into English, published and printed in paperbacks for schoolboys to buy with pocket-money from local newsagent shops (such as John Menzies).

Not only were the characters fighting against the Allies (Britain, Russian, USA, France etc), but they were criminals!  They were in a penal regiment — and it was pretty violent too.

I was a lad, so I understood the gang, the team mentality.  I loved “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Dirty Dozen“, so I understood and liked Sven’s crew — Tiny or Little John (a giant of a man), The Little Legionnaire — who always said things like  “Allah be Praised”.  He was ex-Foreign legion, a small but lethal wee man.  Porta was one of those amazing people who could always make money, always had a connection, knew people, could get things even though they were rationed or scarce. There was also a wise old fellow, “The Old Man“.

All through my life I have seen these characters; they are actually archetypes.  That is the truth in Sven Hassel, he describes real groups of men very well indeed.  The books hit the spot in that respect — these chaps were true and real, and the characters they encountered — as well as the situations and how they reacted to them — were believable, and tragically plausible.

[Picture of the book cover for Sven hassel's legion of the  damned]I think I read about ten of these books during the summer holidays, one after the other,  starting with Legion of the Damned.  It balanced out the war for me; from them I understood that war was bad, that these were guys just like the Brits on the telly or the Yanks in the movies. They were forced into killing other people who were just like them.

The things I can recall about them too was that it was the first time I had come across war stories about tanks, the first time I had encountered big long German words, such as Obergruppenfuehrer, and the first time I had read anything so graphically violent.

Sven Hassel was the Quentin Tarantino of his day.

I think that as a result of Sven Hassel books, I have forgiven the German people.  I also think I gained an insight into my father’s war; Sven’s stuff seemed much more authentic than the Hollywood stuff.  I learned that humour is necessary, and very close to tragedy, that people are levelled out in wartime — when wealth and cleverness mean nothing. And that when you might be dead tomorrow, you live more in the moment. I learned of the bonds between men that make the difference, and I learned that society’s laws, cultural differences, nationality, religion, morality and even army regulations are luxuries, and that sometimes pack society rules apply.

Oh, and I learned to swear in Russian.