I’ve always had a soft spot for German war fiction. I read and re-read All Quiet on the Western Front in my teen years. Later the bloody stylistics of Sam Peckinpah led me to Willi Heinrich’s Cross of Iron. A peruse through the remote stacks of the University of Florida library turned up Hans Helmut Kirst’s Gunner Asch series. Then whilst rooting through the heaps of paperback treasures in Chamblin’s Bookmine, I found the Holy Grail of MPI rounds, the sacred wellspring of panzer exhaust, the sepulchre of GROFAZ’s excommunicate Knights Templar, Wheels of Terror by Sven Hassel.
Sven Hassel was Remarque with a bullet fetish. He was Heinrich with a sense of humor. He was Kirst on crack. Hassel did for the war novel what Sergio Corbucci did for the western.
The novels recount the exploits of Porta, Tiny, the Old ‘Un, Gergor, Hiede, the Legionnaire, Barcelona, and the narrator, Sven. All are assigned to a penal panzer regiment. Condemned for various political and criminal offenses, they are considered totally expendable. When not slaughtering Red Army troops by the dozen, Porta is relating daft stories or organizing cook-ups of liberated Russian foodstuffs. Tiny is a semi-brainless thug from the Reeperbahn, and perhaps the bravest soldier on the Eastern Front.
Being a penal outfit, they are anti-authority to a man. Or almost, Hiede is a fanatical Nazi, who constantly bemoans the disloyalty of the others. Usually they are busy giving fits to long-suffering Oberst Hinka (a decent fellow under his crusty Prussian exterior), and occasionally liquidating officers who get too obnoxious.
Disdain for Nazism doesn’t translate into sympathy for Communism. The gang’s favorite targets are OGPU commissars, the mirror-image twins of the Gestapo. There is a certain amount of post-war score settling too, as General von Paulus & Ilya Ehrenburg come in for some bashing. But even an SS general can earn respect if he knows how to fight and keep his men alive when there is no hope.
Formally the narration is by Sven, A young man of Danish-German origin who has made the grave error of enlisting in the Wehrmacht. But Sven is mostly almost invisible, except for the occasional trenchant comment such as, “it takes nerves of steel to stand in front of advancing T-34 tanks firing a machine gun from the hip. Mine were only of mediocre quality so I was cowering in a shell hole.”
There is a divide in the books. The first novel, Legion of the Damned, is the most serious, offering an overview of Sven’s life from his court martial for desertion to the end of the war. The later books are deranged romps through the nihilistic bloodletting of the Ostfront. And they are fiction, unless you think penal troops were supplied with Tiger tanks or a pair of legs came running out a shell blast or that Porta took time out from the war to reestablish his control of Berlin’s red-light district. Just enjoy Sven Hassel’s little tours of Hell
*GROFAZ: Gosster Feldheer Aller Zeitung, Hitler.
* Bonus: Sven Hassel meets Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit Tank Killer!