Interview with Sven Hassel
Interview conducted by Jan Hervig, Publisher, Nova, June 2010
Translated from Norwegian to English by MHA Co.
The Danish author, Sven Hassel, is regarded as a literary and cult phenomenon. He is much loved by his many – very many – readers worldwide. Hassel’s work is still sold by the hundred thousands worldwide and with prospects of venturing into China in the near future. Hassel immortalized the genre by selling 53 million copies, published in 50 different countries in 25 different languages and there will probably never be anyone else who can compete with those figures in that same genre. Anybody who grew up reading Hassel’s books will never forget his incredible stories about the colorful, arrogant, and reckless gang of soldiers in a penal battalion in the Wehrmacht. The books were first released in Norway in the 60’s, and have since been reprinted several times. The series is now being re-released by Nova Publishing, with images from the war from the author’s personal archives. Hassel currently resides in Barcelona, and at 93 years of age, he consented to being interviewed for a Norwegian audience.
What made a Danish youth of 19 years of age sign-up for service in the German army in the late 1930’s?
It was the impoverished conditions in Denmark at the time, and the increasing unemployment, that made me want to be recruited in the Wehrmacht. I was born and raised in the small town of Fredensborg in North Zealand, and so the journey to the continent and Germany was not far at all. The only thing I wanted was to find a way to survive, the depression at the time was palpable and there was no future where I grew up. Politics and ideology was the furthest thing from my mind. In retrospect, Germany was obviously not the right country to move to, but then again, you must remember that those times were chaotic and at that point there was still no war.
It did not turn out to be easy to sign up for the German service as a foreigner. German citizenship was a prerequisite for recruitment, which took Hassel six months to obtain. That was just one of several problems to come… After only a year in the German army, he was arrested and charged with desertion.
That must have been the most serious thing to be accused of in Nazi Germany, especially now that you were a German citizen?
Yes, the usual punishment for such crimes was death. To my surprise, I was not sentenced to the statutory strict punishment, because I was a foreigner and because the prosecutor strongly emphasized that women had led me astray. But 15 years of jail was no mild punishment. The Lengries concentration camp would mark me forever. Nothing was permitted and violations were punished with starvation, brutal beatings, and death. Their sadist ingenuity had no limits. We saw people suffer and die in a thousand different ways. The imagination of each of these sadists surpassed one-another in brutality and atrocities. We worked until we dropped from exhaustion and were set to remove duds as no Army specialists wanted to come anywhere near them. It made many men lose their sanity. And the gallows were always readily available; ropes with nooses hanging and swinging. That image of a rope with a noose would forever haunt me.
It was in the concentration camp of Lengries, in northern Bavaria, where Hassel first came upon the idea of telling the truth about his experiences, that is, if he were to ever survive the hell his life had now become. He would later talk about the consequences of this disciplinary system of brutality and what it did to those a part of it. He would also talk about the war he experienced.
Yes, this was a promise I made myself and my fellow companions, hoping that I could contribute to never letting history repeat itself, and to show the horrors that war entails. It was also a catharsis for me: a way to process the burden of having experienced the brutality and stupidity at close range. Knowing that one day I would tell the world about this, what I had experienced and of what I heard others tell -raw and compelling anecdotes from soldiers, spoken with a dark humor used for survival only- made me more aware of what was happening. Many years later, this was what gave my books content and form.
Hassel was released from Lengries, to his great surprise, and was transferred to a penal battalion, which did not exactly mean freedom, but he had survived the camp. Little did he know that what awaited him was a cunning and diabolical corpse-discipline that he describes in a detailed, intimate, and honest form in 14 books.
We were trained to become the world’s best soldiers through the use of Prussian methods that surpassed any evil and terror you can imagine. We were under the command of commissioned officers that acted as a group of howling devils, and as always had an excuse to give us penalty drills. And dinner was the same every day, watered-down cabbage soup, sometimes (on a lucky day) with a spoonful of sauerkraut in it.
Soldiers ridiculing officers -a deadly act of provocation in itself- and throwing bold remarks about the Nazi leaders and the Fuhrer himself, are all reoccurring themes in the books. Porta, the Berliner, for instance, was often dangerously close to meeting his maker with his dry wit and improbable audacity. A sharp criticism of this era’s propaganda was a bold challenge of destiny.
Could this be just as dangerous as the war you fought?
Yes, the road to court martial was a short one, but this became a part of the language, it was like we lived out the trial, balanced on a very fine line, but it was a natural way to let off steam, although dangerous.
Porta, Old Man, Tiny, Legionnaire, Barcelona Blom and the many other comrades in the 27th Penal Armored Regiment…
Which of these individuals was Sven Hassel most fond of?
“Old Man”, or Willie Beier, his real name, was at least ten years older than the rest of us and was a carpenter from Berlin. Not once during the four terrible years we were together did I see him frightened or nervous. Old Man was like a father to us. I counted my blessings many times for ending up in that tank with Old Man.
Who else from the crew survived the war?
Julius Heide became a major in the East German army. I kept in touch with him, the Legionnaire, and Tiny for many years. The Legionnaire and Tiny both joined the French Foreign Legion, and eventually ended up in a home for retired legionnaires. But they all passed away a long time ago.
After the war, Sven Hassel did time in a Russian prison camp and thereafter a Danish prison because he had served as a soldier in the Wehrmacht.
What memories stick out the most, and what were his thoughts on the future?
What I remember the most was the hunger and the brutality enforced by the guards. After I was released from prison, I wanted enlist into the Foreign Legion. My life after the war ended was still military, and so the Foreign Legion seemed to be the only option. It was the love for my future wife, Dorthe, which made me change my mind.
When Sven Hassel began his career as a writer, he wrote under a pseudonym. “Legion of the Damned,” his first book, was rejected by 12 publishers before it was finally published in 1953. Ever since, this initial book in the series has been on the bookshelves and sold continuously for 57 years in Denmark.
It must not have been an easy road towards the success that you are acquainted with today?
It was necessary to write under a pseudonym after the war when one had been convicted of German military service, you could easily get fired from work because of this. The fact that I used a pen name has been used against me on numerous occasions, but many writers through history have chosen to do the same. It’s a common phenomenon and there is nothing suspicious about it.
Sven Hassel’s wife, Dorthe, not only acted as a driving force for him to write the books, but also as his editor.
Without any previous writing experience how did you work through the books together?
Yes, my wife worked as an editor and proofreader, and I would dictate my drafts to her, and she would then type them on a typewriter. My son, Michael, read through the typewritten pages, as well, every day after school and would give his input and comments. Then, I also read them out aloud to friends who played a critical role in commenting on the content. It took 2-3 years to write a book.
When Sven Hassel’s first book finally went on sale, Sven worked as a manager at Mercedes Benz in Copenhagen, but then became seriously ill in 1957 due to a tropical fever. It took all his strength and he was unable to work. Nonetheless, his wife persuaded him to write a new book. Meanwhile, there were no doctors in Denmark who recognized the disease and were therefore unable to help. Fortunately, they found a hospital in Hamburg that knew of and had experience with this type of tropical disease.
I had little money but received financial support from the city of Hamburg, for which I have forever been grateful. After two months, I was able to return back home to Denmark, ridden from the disease.
Sven Hassel and his family chose to settle down in Barcelona where he wrote more than half of his books.
Why Spain, when your books were banned by Franco at the time?
I chose to settle down in Spain because I had read Hemingway and Arturo Barea, I just absolutely loved the country and its people. The fact that the Franco Regime censored my books was a coincidence. I have lived in Barcelona for over 40 years and have never regretted it.
Sven Hassel has written 14 books. The 15th book would have ended the series, but it has been long time coming.
One can imagine that quite a few readers have, and still are, looking forward to the battle of Berlin and the penal battalion’s ultimate fate?
Yes, the last book was to describe the end of the war and the events in Berlin – and I had already chosen a title: “The Glorious Defeat,” but due to my age and health, I have unfortunately not been able to complete this book…yet!