He was Denmark’s most successful 20th century novelist, but who was the real Sven Hassel?

Mystery continues to surround the life of this country’s most successful contemporary writer

Most adolescent boys growing up in the 1970s and 80s will have encountered the violent and sexually graphic books of Sven Hassel. Even today, despite being out of print, dog-eared copies of his Second World War novels still turn up in unexpected places, whisking middle-aged men back to those joyous days of discovery.

In Britain, he is particularly popular. An estimated 15 million of the 53 million copies he sold – a figure that might even place him above Hans Christian Andersen as the bestselling Danish novelist and easily three times more than Jussi Adler-Olsen. His books have been translated into 18 languages and published in more than 50 countries.

However, despite the success of his work, relatively little is known about the writer. In fact, his reclusive habits have given rise to a series of controversies that only serve to add to the author’s mystique.

Born a Borge
According to his official web biography, Hassel was born Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen in 1917 in the Zealand town of Fredensborg to a traditional working-class family. After serving in the merchant navy, he joined the German army as a volunteer in 1936 at the height of the great 1930s Depression.

“Germany happened to be closer than England,” he was quoted as saying in a rare 1990s interview. “I went to a Wehrmacht recruiting office to enlist, but it wasn’t as easy as I had thought. Only German citizens could serve. After six months of trying to join up, the Seventh Cavalry Regiment finally accepted me on the condition that I became a naturalised German.’

Served with the Germans
Hassel subsequently served with the second Panzer Division in Eisenach, and later with the 11th and 27th Panzer Regiments. According to his website, he fought on all fronts except north Africa, spending much of his time in Russia. By the end of the war, Hassel had reached the rank of lieutenant and had been awarded the prestigious Iron Cross.

The biography goes on to mention that Hassel began work on his first book, ‘Legion of the Damned’, while he was interred as a POW after the war. The book, which was published in Denmark in 1953, describes the adventures of a deserter from the German army, and its success encouraged him to continue on a writing career. In 1964, Hassel moved to Barcelona eschewing any promotional activities and rarely speaking to the press.

Like Homer … doh! Seriously!
Writing in a direct, simple style that fans say is comparable with Hemingway, Homer or Solzhenitzin, Hassel’s novels usually feature the same characters led by main protagonist Joseph Porta, a chef, musician, anti-authoritarian and cold-blooded killer. Although Porta and the fellow members of his ‘penal panzer regiment’ have little time for Nazism, none have any compunction about brutally despatching soldiers from either side. These killings are described in exacting detail in Hassel’s writing.

As his fans point out, Hassel accurately and poignantly depicted the absurdity of war as well as the brutality of the Nazi regime. However, it is precisely these graphic scenes that have prevented his work from being taken seriously by critics, and many still dismiss his work as pulp, throwaway fiction.

Haaest du ein nemesis?
One of Hassel’s most vehement detractors is writer Erik Haaest, whose website lays into Hassel with unusual ferocity. According to Haaest, the author spent much of the war back home in occupied Denmark, gaining his war knowledge from his post-war experiences in prison, where he mixed with Danish SS veterans. Haaest goes on to claim that Hassel employed a ghostwriter to write his first novel and, when it became a major literary success, allowed his wife to write the rest of his books.

Although few of Hassel’s fans take Haaest’s accusations seriously, the internet has spawned numerous newsgroups and discussion forums that expand on the Hassel legend, supposedly ‘exposing’ Hassel’s controversial wartime past. The allegations range from his involvement in a bicycle-thieving ring to others far too libelous to be printed in this newspaper.

Whatever the truth, his fans are convinced that Hassel will go down in history as one of the Second World War’s great chroniclers. But because he continued to lead such a reclusive lifestyle up until his death in 2012, his myth and mystique will undoubtedly grow, which some say could have been precisely the wily old author’s intention.

Three of Hassel’s best-known books are ‘The Legion of the Damned’, ‘Wheels of Terror’, and ‘Monte Casino’.




  • Three new countries recognise Palestine as an independent state – Denmark holds back

    Three new countries recognise Palestine as an independent state – Denmark holds back

    Norway, Spain and Ireland have announced that they will formally recognise Palestine as a state. A furious Israel has recalled its envoys from Dublin, Oslo and Madrid for emergency consultations. Denmark says it will only recognise Palestine under a two-state solution.

  • Digitization is the secret ingredient in Chinese restaurateur’s growth adventure

    Digitization is the secret ingredient in Chinese restaurateur’s growth adventure

    Publisher Jesper Skeel and Korean BBQ restaurant chain owner Zen discuss the ups and downs of independent entrepreneurship and how to crack the Copenhagen market, from both an international and Danish perspective.

  • Pro-Palestinian demonstrations divide Copenhagen society

    Pro-Palestinian demonstrations divide Copenhagen society

    As popular protests of the Israeli offensive in Gaza erupt around the world and in the media, from university campuses to the streets of major cities, discord is escalating between demonstrators, the general public, authorities and politicians.

  • Huge fire at Novo Nordisk – building “cannot be saved”

    Huge fire at Novo Nordisk – building “cannot be saved”

    A fire broke out at a Novo Nordisk site in Bagsværd on Wednesday morning. There have been no casualties, but the fire is “extensive and spreading”, and Novo’s administrative building “cannot be saved” say emergency services.

  • Denmark leads 15 member states in call to outsource EU migration policy

    Denmark leads 15 member states in call to outsource EU migration policy

    Just one day after the EU finally landed its New Pact on Migration and Asylum following four years of tough negotiations, a group of 15 member states, led by Denmark, issued a joint call for greater efforts to outsource migration policy and  prevent migrants from arriving at EU borders in the first place.

  • How to lead Danes IV – Cultural Bypassing

    How to lead Danes IV – Cultural Bypassing

    Many of us Danes, despite being well-educated and well-travelled, often lack experience in navigating cultural differences at work. This can lead to ‘cultural bypassing’, where we believe we are at a level of enlightenment where we no longer are burdened by the risk of making cross-cultural mistakes. As their manager, you can help your Danish colleagues by acknowledging cultural differences in the workplace.