Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Review of Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel (1953, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I first read the Legion of the Damned as a teenager, along with a number of others in the series. I remember it quite differently to the present reading, perhaps coloured by the other books. Legion was the first book and supposedly the most auto-biographical. Indeed, the main character is the author and it follows his experiences of the Second World War serving in the German army, predominately on the Russian front. Far from glorifying war, or trying to recast the German crusade in a positive light, Hassel details the brutality of war for those on the frontline, made bearable by the comradery of fellow soldiers, most of whom are destined to die, letters from home, and snatched love affairs. Indeed, it is an anti-war book, critiquing those in power and their lackeys, and the savagery of the regime and battle.

It starts with Hassel being convicted of desertion, his time in prison and labour camps before being transferred to a penal battalion deemed expendable. It then traces his traversal of Europe and various wartime activities until the near the end of the war. There are brief interludes of levity and humanity, but generally it is grim reading. There are also hints at involvement in the anti-Nazi movement, though these are sketched over. It’s not clear how much is fiction (which is how the book is sold), and how much is autobiographical; though it is clear that it is based on Hassel’s experiences. The telling is quite episodic with a weak narrative structure, some of the scenes are brief, and it does end quite abruptly, though it is trying to cover a number of years in a relatively brief book. Nonetheless, the tale does debunk the myth of the glory of war, giving a strong sense of the horror of a brutal regime and total war, and the weariness and emptiness of endless frontline service.

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