According to himself, Hassel was born as Sven Pedersen at Frederiksborg, Denmark in April 19 1917. He later adopted his mother’s maiden name Hassel. At the age of 14 he joined a merchant navy as a cabin boy and worked in ship until his military service in 1936. Denmark had its share of the Recession and in 1937 now unemployed Hassel moved to Germany and managed join a cavalry regiment when he agreed to change nationality. In 1939 he served as a tank driver during the German invasion of Poland.
Year later he tried to escape and went AWOL. He was captured and sentenced to a penal regiment. In its ranks he served in many fronts, especially in Russia, was wounded seven times and reached the rank of lieutenant. He surrendered to Russian troops in Berlin in 1945 and spent following years in various POW camps. During this time he began to write. He was released in 1949.
He was in his way to join French Foreign Legion when he met Dorthe Jensen who he ended up marrying in 1951 and went to work in a car factory. His wife encouraged him to write and the Legion of the Damned was published in 1953.
In 1957 Sven Hassel got a Caucasian Fever – a wartime malady – and was paralyzed for almost two years. After recovery, he began to write more books. 1964 he moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he lives as of this writing.
In his books, Hassel describes the war through a first-person narrator with the same name. The books describe the exploits of a German penal army regiment composed of expendable soldiers - sentenced criminals, court-martialed soldiers and political undesirables. In addition to Sven they include Legionnaire (ex-member of French Foreign Legion), Tiny (who is not), barracks fixer Porta, older sergeant Old One and Barcelona, veteran of Spanish Civil War on both sides. They serve in most German fronts from Northern Finland to Russian Front (more than once) and during Normandy Invasion.
Hassel’s view of war is brutal. Soldiers fight to survive and Geneva Convention is a dead letter in all sides. People are killed by chance or with very little reason. Occasional pleasant events and peaceful meetings are brutally cut short. Uppity Prussian officers constantly threaten with court martials and shoot their own men for little provocation. Occasionally the soldiers kill their own officers to get rid of them.
Some publishers seem to claim that the books are Hassel’s memoirs and a Danish journalist Erik Haaest has spent years to “expose” him. Hassel mainly states that the characters are based on real people and events are related to historical events.
Sven Hassel Books (English names)