Creator / Sven Hassel
Sven Hassel (real name Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen, 19 April 1917 – 21 September 2012) was a Danish author of fourteen World War II
novels based around the experiences (both tragic and comedic) of 2 Section
— a unit of the 27th Penal Panzer Regiment, made up of court-martialed soldiers and former inmates of concentration camps and prisons, conscripted as expendable Cannon Fodder
for the Nazi cause.
The novels are ostensibly told from the point-of-view of the author, though some chapters are in third-person and cover other characters. Sven Hassel claims to have based them on his service in the Wehrmacht, during which he served on every front except North Africa. A journalist however claimed Hassel spent the war entirely in Denmark as a member of a collaborationist police unit, and his stories are based on conversations with ex-Dutch SS soldiers thrown into prison with him afterwards. Certainly his novels are not taken seriously by historians, containing many inconsistencies and exaggerations. Nevertheless with their unstinting mix of action, horror and Black Comedy
they have proved quite popular, being translated into eighteen languages.
Although the members of 2 Section vary from novel to novel, the main characters tend to be:
- 'The Old Un' or ‘Old Man’ (Feldwebelnote Willie Beier) — Former carpenter and dedicated family man. He is the leader of 2 Section and respected by both officers and men, though the antics of his section frequently drive him to frustration.
- Obergefreiter Joseph Porta — A cheeky Berliner with a tendency to engage in rambling tales of doubtful truth. An expert scrounger, tank driver and cook; he can talk his way around anyone and has a knack for getting along with the locals regardless of language and cultural barriers. Often engaged in black market activities, either in opposition or collusion with his rival, Chief Mechanic Wolf.
- 'Tiny' or ‘Little John’ (Obergefreiter Wolfgang Creutzfeldt) — A huge strong brute who enjoys rape and killing with his bare hands, yet is childlike and stupid. Can fly into rage with dangerous yet comedic results.
- "The Legionnaire" or "The Desert Rambler" (Corporal Alfred Kalb) — Ex-member of the French Foreign Legion, for which he was imprisoned and later castrated by a camp commandant. He is a cold, cynical veteran with great skill in the use of his throwing knife.
- 'Barcelona' Blom — A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought for both sides. Carries a dried-up orange in his pocket as a reminder of Spain.
- Julius Heide — A fanatical Nazi from a deprived background, obsessed with regulations and determined to advance through the ranks. Despised by the others, yet very much a member of their circle.
- Gregor Martin — Former batman of an unnamed General Ripper, of whose antics he speaks quite fondly in long, reminiscent anecdotes.
- Sven Hassel — A Dane of German descent, he joined the German army before the war as there was no work in his native country. Sentenced to a concentration camp for desertion, he is then 'pardoned' and sent to a penal regiment. With the exception of The Legion of the Damned Hassel tends to take the background in his novels, seldom portraying himself as remarkable or heroic.
The novels contain the following tropes:
- Adaptation Distillation: A large number of modern illustrators would depict the characters in the coolest uniforms of the Reich, from the immaculate-black uniforms of the Panzertruppen to the dotted camouflage uniforms of the post-1943 Waffen-SS. Even as the author strives himself to convince how ragged they were (justified, as a penal unit got the scraps of everything).
- Anyone Can Die: Particularly in the first book, Legion of the Damned.
- All Devouring Black Hole Loan Sharks: Porta is an "80% man" (e.g. he loans money at 80% interest). Failure to pay up is unwise.
- Artistic License – Military: Most people with a bit of historical knowledge quickly point out hundreds of absurdities in matters of tactics and weaponry throughout the books. Some of these errors may be down to "Blind Idiot" Translation (see below).
- Universal Ammunition: In OGPU Prison, a guy set up to assassinate a mob boss loads his captured Nagant revolver with ammo for a P-38 pistol and blows the gun and his fingers away at the first shot. None of the WWII German handgun rounds could even enter the chambers of a Nagant, no matter how hard one pushes.
- As the Good Book Says...: A Running Gag is Tiny trying to quote from his school bible studies and making a complete mess of it.
- Battle Cry: The Legionaire’s “Viva la mort!” (Long live death!)
- Bears Are Good News: Rasputin in The Bloody Road to Death, a Russian bear that can drink beer and throw hand grenades. His death causes a Heroic B.S.O.D. on Porta's part. Rather ironically based on the Real Life Wojtek, who served for the other side in the war (Free Poles, Nazis' sworn deadly enemies).
- Berserk Button: Do not sneer at the French Foreign Legion, or General de Gaulle, in front of the Little Legionnaire. While you're at it, making cracks about his castrated state is highly unwise. Tiny also has a tendency to flip out from time to time.
- Black Vikings: Stabsgefreiter Albert Mumbuto, a German Negro who's a member of 2 Section in O.G.P.U Prison and The Commissar. While this can seem implausible to modern audiences it has to be remembered that from the late 1880s up to 1918 Imperial Germany had African colonies (Kamerun, Namibia, Tanganyka) and some Africans which served under the German flag emigrated to their "Vaterland" after WWI. Some married and had children, who happened to live and come to age under the Third Reich; there are historical accounts of some of these men reporting for draft duty and usually being rejected or posted to out-of-sight positions. Given Hassel's notorious inaccuracy is still hardly probable, but not completely unfeasible.
- Black and Gray Morality
- "Blind Idiot" Translation: The people translating the novels from Dutch, French or German etc are often unfamiliar with the military, leading to such howlers as grenades being fired from tank guns (German WWII terminology: Panzergranate = anti-tank shell) or "Tiny fired a burst from his revolver" (revolver = pistol = machine-pistol = submachine gun).
- Bloodless Carnage: Averted as plenty of characters die in gory, unheroic ways.
- Boxed Crook: The whole point of the penal regiments, which were Truth in Television in the Nazi and Soviet armies.
- Coffin Contraband: In Liquidate Paris, Two Section do this to smuggle a black-market pig across a guarded bridge in German-occupied Paris, in a scene that appears to have been plagiarized from The Trip Across Paris.
- Cool Pet: Porta has a habit of adopting animals as unit mascots — ranging from Stalin the cat to Ulrich, a 'friendly' black panther who gives everyone heart attacks.
- Cunning Linguist: Porta's magical ability to communicate with anyone they come across has saved their skins on several occasions, especially when they unexpectedly encounter enemy soldiers while Trapped Behind Enemy Lines. In a subversion of the trope Porta's Russian is actually atrocious, but as the Soviet army had a large number of minorities who spoke little or no Russian this doesn't seem unusual.
- Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Notable examples include "...where Moses got his beer" (sent to Hell), "I'll pull your arsehole up over your ears", "I'll have you shaved with the big razor" (sentenced to decapitation), or the crowning one:
"He's going round telling the world you're nothing but a cleaned-out rabbit's head, stuffed with sauerkraut, and if you're lucky enough to get back from the front he's going to see to it you get deported to a cowshit-stinking hole in South Bavaria where the entire population consists of village idiots!"
- The same person after surviving a murder attempt demands the man responsible be brought to him in 25 separate pieces, which he'll then feed through a mincer and sell as dog food, off the ration.
- Depraved Dentist: Porta and Tiny both collect gold teeth from dead soldiers.
- Diesel Punk: Sometimes the story abandons the mask of World War II realism and delves into Diesel Noir / Diesel Weird War, from the Lovecraftian character of the Colonel who played cards each evening with Devil and Death (Reign Of Hell), through the dashing raid into the heart of the Soviet Union to steal a few tonnes of gold (The Commissar).
- Dirty Communists: A lot of the action takes place in the USSR during Josef Stalin's reign, and the Soviets are portrayed as being just as evil as the Nazis themselves.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Portrayed as sadists more interested in breaking men than turning them into good soldiers.
- Drives Like Crazy: Porta, whether driving a tank or the most powerful general in the army (fortunately General Burgdorf is more amused than alarmed).
- Epigraph: Each chapter begins with short prose, sometimes involving the main characters but usually an unrelated story or historical ancedote about the brutality of the Nazi or Soviet regimes.
- Ensign Newbie: Any time a young, inexperienced lieutenant is mentioned, you know he might as well be wearing a Red Shirt.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Several times the heroes find out about things that other Germans, or the Soviets, have done that repulse even these hardened killers. When they get a chance to show their disapproval in concrete form, it gets...messy.
- A Father to His Men: Oberst Hinka (commanding officer of 27th Panzer), Lt Ohlsen, and of course The Old Un.
- Freudian Excuse: When we find out about Julius Heide's home life and background, or Tiny gets a letter from home hoping he'll die soon so that his mother can collect on the government insurance on him, it's hard not to feel sorry for them, even though one is a Jerk Ass and the other is often a bully.
- Friendly Sniper: Porta's a crack shot and loves a chance to show off.
- The "Fun" in "Funeral": The funeral of Gregor’s general is described as being "more like a battle course with all the trimmings!” The highlight was the coffin being dropped whilst carried up a muddy hill in the rain, and running down a load of Nazi bigwigs. The pallbearers are all sent to the Russian Front for this cock-up.
- General Failure / General Ripper: Most high-ranking officers are portrayed as either Nazi fanatics who consistently underestimate their "subhuman" opponents, or corrupt cynics willing to advance themselves at the cost of thousands of lives.
- Germanic Efficiency: Inverted. The Nazi war machine is portrayed as incompetent and inefficient, though 2 Section seem to manage quite a few One Sided Battle moments.
- Glory Hound: Several of the COs whom the 27th get fit this trope. Others like Hauptmanns’ Meier and von Pader are more The Neidermeyer type, along with Hauptfeldwebel Hoffman.
- Got Volunteered: This happens several times, once taking the soldiers all the way to Moscow on a commando mission.
- If You Die, I Call Your Stuff: In the Old Un's unit the possessions of a dead colleague always belong to his fellow soldiers, with wills being drawn up over particularly valued items. Sometimes a soldier near death will have his pistol removed, as it would only be stolen by a medical orderly, but as the soldier is often aware of this happening it only hastens his demise. In a (somewhat) more humorous example, Heide collapses after a fight and Tiny eagerly goes to salvage his gold teeth, but is so disappointed when Heide turns out to be still alive that he has to hand over everything in his pockets to avoid being beaten up.
- Insert Grenade Here: The protagonists seldom have a panzerfaust or anti-tank gun when they need one. There are frequent references to tying bundles of hand grenades or Molotov cocktails together for this purpose.
- The standard German "potato-masher" hand grenade was in fact designed for this. Six grenade heads could be fitted to a complete seventh to make a single "supergrenade" - and there was an established drill for this purpose.
- I Should Write a Book About This: In the first novel Legion of the Damned, Sven keeps saying he's going to write a book about everything they've gone through. His colleagues, having long since crossed the Despair Event Horizon, say that no-one will bother to read it.
- Kangaroo Court / Hanging Judge: 'Special courts' in the field give hasty decisions condemning civilians of being partisans and German soldiers of being deserters, often just for being in the wrong place without proper papers. Also seen on The Home Front where those accused of 'cowardice' or 'defeatism' are judged by tribunals whose sentence has been decided in advance.
- Karma Houdini: Heide, despite his fanatical Nazism, ended up a general in the East German army.
- Legion of Lost Souls: As members of a penal unit, the main characters get handed the dirtiest, most dangerous, most thankless tasks the army can find for them to do.
- The Medic: Subverted in OGPU Prison. A medical orderly robs the wounded, demands a huge bribe for getting Sven onto a hospital train and brutally kicks a crawling amputee out of his path. On an earlier occasion another orderly is shown abandoning a truckful of wounded and making off with a submachine gun and a Red Cross bandolier on each arm (knowing that at least some Russian soldiers won't shoot at him). Though 2 Section wishes the orderly a well-deserved death, Porta cynically comments: "That kind lives through any war."
- Mildly Military: Many of the soldiers are very indifferent to things like military courtesy. This does not mean that they are not very good at fighting, which is why their superiors often turn a blind eye.
- Military Maverick / Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The penal soldiers often fit this trope in various ways, as do some of the people they meet.
- Mood Whiplash: Drunken parties are often interrupted by the enemy attacking and the celebrants suddenly dying in brutal ways.
- The Movie: Wheels Of Terror (AKA The Misfit Brigade) starring Keith Szarabajka as the Old Man, was made in 1988 with American actors. Has some good scenes, but not regarded by fans as having the quality of Cross of Iron or Stalingrad (1993).
- Nice Hat: Porta's top hat and Tiny's grey bowler.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Porta is a master at this. And while Tiny is stupid, he uses the technique quite successfully during his one-man war with Hauptmann von Pader in The Bloody Road to Death.
- Obligatory War-Crime Scene: At some times, the heroes come across things that even they find repulsive.
- An aversion of this trope actually, because everyone commits atrocities in these novels (even on the Western front), rather than one obligatory war crime scene to avert accusations the creator is “glorifying war”.
- A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Food, sex and booze is naturally an obsession to soldiers deprived of all three, and the unit shamelessly indulge themselves in wasteful bacchanalias whenever they have the opportunity.
- Playing Possum: This tactic is used so often that veteran soldiers never pass an enemy corpse without putting a bullet in it.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Hassel clearly states that the soldiers he serves with have commited rape, although (no doubt because the author realises it would be crossing the Moral Event Horizon for most readers) we never actually see it committed by the main characters. Instead the Old Un averts Tiny's attempts to molest any woman they come across.
- Rasputinian Death: Whenever Porta et al decide to murder someone as a result of their black market activities, there invariably follows an entire chapter of bungled attempts which end in the victim either dying by accident or just going insane.
- Retcon: In Comrades Of War, 'Barcelona' Blom is said (after his death) to be a fraud who invented the whole Spanish story and learnt Spanish by himself. However in Liquidate Paris, Blom encounters a former communist he knew from the Spanish Civil War hiding out as a Gestapo agent.
- Right-Hand Attack Dog: Wolf's pair of wolfhounds which he uses for protection, and to eat those who annoy him.
- Royal "We": Gregor Martin always describes his unnamed General Ripper this way (e.g. "my general and our monocle") right up to the moment the general commits suicide ("And then we shot ourselves!") after which he's described normally.
- Screw the War, We're Partying!: Sometimes the soldiers manage to get their hands on huge supplies of food and booze. The result is usually A Party, Also Known as an Orgy.
- Shot at Dawn: 2 Section carries out several executions, including one in which they're forced to shoot the only general they've come to respect.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: SS General, Court Martial and Assignment Gestapo, in which dedicated officers end up being executed — usually after long periods of mistreatment in prison — for refusing to throw away their soldiers' lives in a meaningless Last Stand.
- The Spartan Way: In ‘'Monte Cassino’' 27th Panzer is commanded by Major Mike Braun, a German-American ex-US Marine.
He turned to Hauptfeldwebel Hoffman. "Two hours special drill in the river. Anyone who kills a comrade gets three weeks leave. Every tenth cartridge and every twentieth grenade will be live. I want to see at least one broken arm. Otherwise, four hours extra drill."
Then began one of Mike's usual exercises. We hated him because of them, but they made us hard and inhuman. If you are to be a good soldier, you have to be able to hate. You have to kill a man as if he were a louse.
- Suicide Mission: Since Sven and his crew are part of a disciplinary battalion sent on the most dangerous of missions, this trope gets a lot of use.
- Talkative Loon: Porta loves to entertain his friends and confuse officers with tall stories that ramble on for ages. He also has an annoying habit of babbling on about the best way to prepare meals when his companions are starving.
- Those Wacky Nazis: The horror and stupidity of the Nazi regime is shown in full force.
- Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: Happens often — either because they're sent on a
suicide commando mission, overrun by the enemy during a 'strategic withdrawal', or just get lost.
- Unfriendly Fire: The movie actually ends with 2 Section gunning down their superiors, and it's the fate of several Neidermeyer in the novels.
- War Is Hell: This is taken Up to Eleven; the Geneva Conventions and laws of warfare are treated as dead letters by both sides, and torture and murder of prisoners happens repeatedly.
- William Telling: In Monte Cassino, Porta takes up shooting at the Americans with a bow and arrow, and adopts the name Red Flame (for his red hair) after killing eight officers in two days. An Alaskan sergeant takes offense and challenges Porta to shoot a forage cap that he places on top of his helmet. If he misses, he and the other Native Americans in the unit will hunt Porta down and castrate him. Porta makes the shot successfully and is acclaimed by both sides, until their commanding officer turns up and angrily orders everyone to get back to fighting the war.
- Zerg Rush: Soviets. Also Germans.