The Old Un was white in the face: "Let us promise each other that those of us, or the one of us, who escapes alive from this will write a book about this stinking mess in which we are taking part. It must be a book that will be one in the eye for the whole filthy military gang, no matter whether German, Russian, American or what, so that people can understand how imbecile and rotten this sabre-rattling idiocy is."
Remember when I read war fiction by a British Army officer who fought in the First World War and by Royal Navy officers who served in the Atlantic during the Second World War? Well today we are going to the other side of the hill and reading war fiction by a Dane who joined the Wehrmacht and spent years serving with the fighting forces of the diabolical Axis powers! My edition of Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel (birth name Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen) was printed in Great Britain by the Orion Publishing Group, apparently relatively recently, a translation from the Danish by Maurice Michael. I got my copy at the Old Worthington Library's book sale. (Worthington is this charming town with cute shops and an elaborate weekend farmer's market just north of Columbus.) The novel first was published in 1957.
There is quite a bit of controversy about what exactly "Hassel" did during the war--maybe he fought on the Eastern Front and maybe he was a uniformed collaborator in occupied Denmark who learned about the Eastern front from real Danish Waffen SS combat veterans. I don't feel like examining all that very closely--Wikipedia will clue you into to some of that if you are interested. I am going to read Legion of the Damned first and foremost in hopes of finding an exciting adventure story, and secondly with hopes of getting some kind of insight into what it was like to fight in World War II in Eastern Europe, as well as first-hand impressions of National Socialism, Soviet Socialism, and German and Russian racism, anti-Semitism and imperialism from somebody who wore an Axis uniform during the 1939-1945 cataclysm.
Like Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Legion of the Damned is a first person narrative that purports to be the memoirs of a protagonist with the same name as the novel's author. The first scene is set at a court martial. Caught trying to desert from the "11th Regiment of Hussars" (the names of units in the book appear to be fictional; according to Wikipedia the German Army's 11th Regiment of Hussars was disbanded in 1918), Hassel is sentenced to the "SS and Wehrmacht's Penal Concentration Camp, Lengries," where sadistic SS men torment, torture, and murder the prisoners for fun. Transferred to "Fagen Concentration camp near Bremen," the narrator is put to work in a quarry, and then defusing the unexploded British bombs that litter the surrounding German countryside. (Wikipedia is telling me the RAF dropped over 12,000 tons of bombs on Bremen over the course of WWII--get to work, Hassel!) When Hassel gets sick he is subjected to horrible medical experiments.
All this concentration camp stuff only takes like 20 pages, then Hassel is inducted into a penal battalion and we get 20 pages of anecdotes about how brutal the training is--much harder than the training of the regular troops. Finally our narrator is assigned to the "27th Tank Battalion (Penal)" and meets the four friends with whom he will serve through many nightmarish hardships. All four of these guys, like Hassel, are penal soldiers who are opposed to Hitler ("an untalented little bourgeois") and National Socialism ("a cause that we abominated"); they are also just the kind of broad and exaggerated characters we see in war movies all the time:
The Old Un, the tank commander, who is never afraid and is "almost like a father" to the rest of the tank crew,
Porta, the tank's driver, a sophisticated Berliner and a communist, an expert comedian, musician, sniper, and story teller who also excels at cheating at cards and seducing women,
Pluto, the gunner, a "mountain of muscle" who ended up in the penal battalion as punishment for his career as a thief,
and Titch, the loader, a short man who worked in the perfume industry before getting in a brawl or something and falling into the clutches of the law and ending up in the penal battalion.
Our narrator operates the tank's radio ("wireless" is the word used in this British publication) early in his career as a tank crewman but for dramatic reasons sometimes mans the main gun or flamethrower. As the penal battalion suffers casualties Porta and Hassel rise in rank and are given command of their own tanks.These five cut ups do the kinds of things you see in service comedies and irreverent anti-war fiction all the time: stealing food, getting drunk, playing cards, adopting a child or animal as a mascot and giving it an ironic name ("Stalin," a cat, in this case,) humiliating the squares who take regulations seriously, murdering an abusive officer (a "bourgeois swine"), getting mixed up with the local women and getting in trouble with the military police. Most of this stuff felt tired and was boring.
(Writer Hassel is not averse to reusing ideas; late in the novel narrator Hassel gets a second girlfriend who gets killed in an Allied air raid, and our heroes murder a fanatical chaplain in much the same way they murdered that abusive officer.)
Our protagonists leave the Balkans for North Africa, but their troop ship is sunk by Allied aircraft, and after they are rescued from the sea by an Italian destroyer they are sent to the Russian Front via train. When the train stops next to a German concentration camp in occupied Poland the soldiers of the penal battalion link their belts to produce a makeshift rope and liberate three women from the the other side of the fence and somehow contrive to get them on a train going to occupied France.
Finally, on page 115 of this 249 page book, comes what I was waiting for: a combined arms attack on the Red Army in late 1941! The Old Un's tank is right in the thick of things, battling Soviet armor and infantry. After eight weeks of success, however, bad weather and supply shortages halt the German advance and the penal battalion has to blow up its own tanks and retreat, Hassel and friends fighting a rearguard action as infantry. By page 123 Hassel is a prisoner of the Soviet Union!
As a prisoner in Russia, Hassel is beaten and sees scores of people--men and women, natives and invaders--tortured and executed by the communists, but he warns the reader not to let this color his attitude about Stalin or socialism. While he draws direct parallels between his treatment in the USSR and Nazi Germany ("...a GPU officer received us with well-directed blows of his fist, exactly the same fare as the SS had given me in Lengries"), he rejects "...the easy view that Nazism and the People's Democracy were one and the same thing, and that Stalin and Hitler were of the same kidney." Hassel bases this assessment on a study of representations of the dictator's faces(!): "One look at their portraits will show that that is nonsense....Hitler and Stalin were as far from being alike as two men can be."
At times the incongruity between Hassel's descriptions of life in communist Russia and his defenses of the Soviet regime made me wonder if there was a chance he was being sarcastic, or was satirizing Western Soviet apologists. After spending page after page describing how murderous, corrupt, class-ridden ("He [a minor character, a committed Bolshevik] was well-off, had a good salary and enjoyed all the privileges of the upper-class Soviet citizen, including being able to shop in the big party stores..."), and unpopular the communist party is, and how inefficient the sectors of the Soviet economy he witnessed are, he feebly suggests that things in other parts of the USSR were probably going just fine and what he saw shouldn't lead to suspicions about socialism in general or the USSR in particular.
While a few chapters are effective, Legion of the Damned doesn't really work as a story. The novel is episodic and flat, just a series of bloody incidents with very little plot, no climax, and little tension. The characters aren't interesting enough for us to care when they get killed or lose family members to the war, and they do not evolve; Hassel is against the war and hates the Nazis and sympathizes with the Soviets at the start of the book and feels the same way at the end, and everybody agrees with him. (In a conventional narrative characters accomplish some goal or learn something about the world or themselves, but not in this one.) The book rings the same notes again and again, depicting one gruesome death after another, one act of German or Soviet government cruelty, callousness or duplicity after another. The style is bland (though that very well could just be a deficiency of the translation) and the jokes are banal and vulgar--two examples:
Before he [Porta] fell asleep he broke wind and said: "Take a sniff, dear children. There're vitamins in the air."
Porta blew his nose in his fingers and spat at the wall, hitting a notice announcing that spitting was forbidden.So, the book is not particularly entertaining. But did I learn anything? I have to say, not really. I was hoping to learn all about combat tactics and the maintenance and use of equipment and weapons, and to hear characters from different demographics (social classes, religions, regions) talk about why the NSDAP appealed or failed to appeal to them, and maybe even hear Slavic characters talking about how Marxism and the Communist Party appealed or failed to appeal to them. The combat scenes are vague and impressionistic; for example, Hassel and his buddies operate and lose numerous armored vehicles, but we are only told the model name of one, a Panther. One tank they crew is armed with both a 105mm gun and a flamethrower, and I doubt such a vehicle really saw service in the German Army in WWII--at least I'm not finding anything like that in my copy of Chamberlain and Doyle's Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two. (Woah, this book is worth 5 or 10 times what I paid for it in 2001.)
The sympathetic characters and narrator do talk about politics a bit, but they all speak with the same voice, a sort of conspiratorial leftism that detests the Nazis and hopes for world revolution; the author makes no effort to investigate the thinking of Nazis or to understand Nazism's appeal, and all the Nazi characters are despicable sadists, like movie villains.
In a chapter about Romania Hassel lays out his view of the war's causes. Romania's leaders, Hassel asserts, allied with Germany not out of fear of the USSR but so that the German military would augment the Romanian police force and protect "oil wells, mines...and infinitely other monopolies" from being nationalized. Hassel claims that the entire war was caused by the "indecently rich" to prevent just such "nationalisation": "The point of it was that we were to pull certain chestnuts out of the fire." In a later chapter The Old Un suggests that Hitler was merely the puppet of other (unspecified) forces:
"Hitler and his dregs will be slaughtered, of course, and the sooner the better, but what are they but filthy puppets? And it's not making a revolution if you just smash the puppets and let the director run off with the takings."Hassel has contempt for ideas of democracy and individual freedom, and thinks that to create a world of peace and plenty will require mass compulsion and an abandonment of traditional ideas of liberty:
I will willingly submit to even the strictest compulsion, if that be necessary, in order that we may live our lives in peace....there has to be an assertion of will; somebody has to see that all get enough to eat...and it will call for considerable toil...the need to subordinate oneself to the requirements of the general weal...that people forget self...."Legion of the Damned contains almost nothing about German anti-Semitism and racism or the Nazi regime's plans to exterminate the Jews and expel and enslave the Slavs. The novel is full of victims of the Nazi regime but the foremost of these victims are German soldiers; it feels like one of Hassel's sub rosa aims is to distance the servicemen of the German armed forces from the Hitler regime and its evil and catastrophic policies, to portray them as victims instead of perpetrators, even though the armed forces were the instrument of those policies. (This is the book in which German soldiers liberate women from concentration camp instead of imprisoning them in them.)
Legion of the Damned didn't really hold my interest; in fact, I found myself putting off reading it to instead play a seven-year-old PC version of Games Workshop's "Blood Bowl." So, gotta give this one a down vote. Too bad. People interested in anti-war literature which tries to shock you with depictions of atrocity and gore, and people interested in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union of the Stalin era may find Legion of the Damned a worthwhile read, but I believe it fails as a novel, and that people already interested in its topics will learn little from it.
I actually own a rusty old German helmet in the style of those worn during the World Wars, though I have no idea how authentic it might be. A kid living next door to my maternal grandmother, with whom my brother and I would play Games Workshop games in the late '80s and early '90s, brought it over once, having found it in his basement, where it had accidentally been spotted with silver spray paint. He never took this artifact back home, and when my grandmother died and my parents cleared out her house I ended up with it. I sometimes wonder if Gefreiter Franki or Franzki, or whatever it is that the inscription signifies, was a real soldier and if he survived the war to lead a normal life or if he died in some dreadful circumstances in a battle or some kind of internment.
[Update 8/29/2016: Text of paragraph about North Africa and Poland amended at suggestion of commenter SK.]