Invisible Ink: No 109 - Sven Hassel

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The Independent Culture

When I was a child, my father guiltily read Sven Hassel's paperbacks, keeping them in his bedside table where the children wouldn't find them. Gruesomely illustrated with photographs of concentration camp inmates and tanks rolling over corpses, they seemed to represent the populist voice of war experience, but a question mark remains over Hassel's real identity.

Hassel maintains he was born Sven Pedersen in Denmark, taking his mother's maiden name and joining the merchant navy at 14. After this he became a naturalized German and served in the 2nd Panzer Division, later driving a tank into Poland during the invasion. He subsequently served with other tank divisions on every front except North Africa, was wounded several times, received the Iron Cross, surrendered to Soviet troops in Berlin and spent time in various POW camps before retiring to Barcelona to write 14 "novels" in which he appears in the first person as a character. The books are graphically violent and portray soldiers as brutalised survivors who regard the Geneva Convention as a joke, killing without compunction or often any good reason.

However, there's another side to the story. Hassel's critics have been disputing his claims for years, saying that his identity was falsified for another purpose; he never served in a Panzer Division at all but was in fact a Danish Nazi who patched together his books from stories told to him by Danish Waffen SS veterans after 1945, having spent most of the Second World War in occupied Denmark.

Unfortunately, his biggest critic, the writer Erik Haaest, was discredited after denying that there were ever concentration camps. Even worse, Haaest's version of Hassel's life, in which Hassel runs a porn empire and gets his wife to write his novels, is even harder to swallow. But there's no denying that the series was a publishing phenomenon around the globe, and is still a best-seller in Finland.

And what are the books like? Well, they're broadly anti-war exploits that rollick across Europe from the trenches to the brothels, with grotesque characters and lashings of graveyard humour. While the stupidity and horror of the Nazi regime is depicted in almost pornographic detail, the accounts are packed with Catch-22-style absurdities and fundamental research errors that have prevented historians from ever taking them seriously.

You would have thought it would be easy to fact-check Hassel, but that would be missing the point. He was the Ken Russell of war books.