Obituary: Sven Hassel / Danish novelist wrote about Nazi soldiers' lives

April 19, 1917 - Sept. 21, 2012

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Sven Hassel, a Danish-born writer whose pulp novels depicting soldiers' lives in the German army during World War II -- drawn, he said, from his own combat experiences -- sold millions of copies worldwide, died Sept. 21 in Barcelona, Spain. He was 95.

His death was announced by family members on his official website.

Mr. Hassel's 14 novels portrayed German trench soldiers in a misfits' brigade of convicts and deserters -- a Third Reich version of the Dirty Dozen -- who, like soldiers in all wars, eat badly, sleep little, live with death and struggle to retain their humanity.

Mr. Hassel's soldiers also detest Hitler, occasionally kill their own superior officers, and engage in steamy sex with consenting local women. For the most part, though, they follow orders and kill enemy soldiers, mainly Russians, on the Eastern front.

Mr. Hassel's publishers say the books were translated from Danish into 15 languages and have sold about 53 million copies worldwide since the first, "The Legion of the Damned," was published in 1953. His novels were pulp fiction staples in the 1960s and '70s to a male cohort that may have its equivalent today in those who sustain a billion-dollar industry in war-themed video games.

Mr. Hassel's novel "Wheels of Terror" was made into a 1987 feature film, "The Misfit Brigade," starring Oliver Reed.

Mr. Hassel contended that all his books were based on personal experience: starting in 1937, when he joined the German armed forces at age 20 because there were no jobs in Denmark, and ending in 1945, when Russian soldiers took him prisoner.

During his Wehrmacht service, he said, he deserted, was recaptured and then assigned to penal brigade in a Panzer division, like the one he describes in his books.

War buffs complained about inaccuracies in Mr. Hassel's military and weapons terminology. Some questioned battlefield scenarios in which his soldiers fought Russians in the morning and Free French in the afternoon, when such encounters would have meant a 1,000-mile march during lunch.

A Danish journalist claimed to have evidence that Mr. Hassel had spent the war in Copenhagen working for Nazi occupation forces. But Mr. Hassel said he had served on every front of the war and had the battle scars and two Iron Cross medals to prove it.

"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," he said.

After the war, he was determined to write books, he said, "hoping that I could contribute to never letting history repeat itself, and to show the horrors that war entails."

He was born Sven Pedersen in Fredensborg, Denmark, on April 19, 1917, and grew up in a working-class family. He joined the Danish merchant navy at 14 and served a mandatory stretch in the Danish military before joining the German army. He adopted his mother's maiden name, Hassel, when he began writing.

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