Convicted of deserting the German army, Sven Hassel is sent to a penal regiment on the Russian Front. He and his comrades are regarded as expendable, cannon fodder in the battle against the implacable Red Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, they fight their way across the frozen steppe....
This iconic anti-war novel is a testament to the atrocities suffered by the lone soldier in the fight for survival. Sven Hassel's unflinching narrative is based on his own experiences in the German Army. He began writing his first novel, Legion of the Damned, in a prisoner of war camp at the end of the Second World War. Read by Rupert Degas.
"An extraordinary book, which has captured the attention of all of Europe" (New York Times)"Legion of the Damned is an incredible picture of totalitarianism, of stupefying injustice... He is graphic, at times brilliantly so, but never brutal or bitter. He is, too, a first-rate storyteller" (Washington Post)
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Either a fraud or a fantasy
Everything. It was a brilliant performance. Unfortunately this is the second bad book I have chosen purely for the narrator. I wish they picked him for some better books.
We have all heard that the WWII Russian front was one of the nearest things there has ever been to hell on earth and reading an autobiographical account of it promised to be both enlightening and fascinating. At first it was. The hero seemed to give an honest account, full of humble reflections, of the extraordinary suffering and extraordinary heroics in which he had become embroiled. Unfortunately it was too extraordinary. The further I read, the more incredible became the exploits of bullet-dodging Sven, his friends and their uniform-wearing, vodka-drinking cat who was happy to live in a greatcoat pocket in a tank in the middle of roaring artillery.
A bit of research shows that it was certainly not an autobiographical account. It is possible that the author fought in the war and wrote a fictional account in which some (probably a minority) of the events were real. But there is evidence that he neither fought in the war nor even wrote the book himself, but paid someone else to write it based on second hand stories he had picked up.
So shouldn't we just read it as a novel and enjoy it, like All quiet on the Western front? That seems to be a popular view since this Danish book has enjoyed its greatest success among English readers. I would guess that the English enjoy reading about a Danish German soldier who not only loathes the Nazis but constantly slates nearly everything about the German military while killing an astronomical number of Russians.
That won't do. The book is not presented as fiction. It contains many comments about his thoughts as a writer looking back on real events which strongly suggest it is autobiographical. Many reviewers seem to have been taken in by this, as I was. Once you take away the autobiographical side of it, there isn't much left. To be one of about three survivors from a 6,000 regiment is impressive in real life. In fiction it is cheap. All Quiet on the Western Front is fiction but it is not exaggerated. We learn a great deal about the war from reading it. Legion of the Damned is so exaggerated we cannot extract any truth from it. It is simply a fantasy.
I give it two stars instead of one because the anti-war message was thought-provoking, though rather simplistic. He says all generals and their political associates are corrupt, soldiers in all armies should rebel and military spending should be switched to cars and houses. Of course he was talking about the Nazis 70 years ago who have nothing in common with today's generals and leaders. However, he makes one point we should not be smug about, that many powerful men benefit from the fighting in numerous ways and at times fall prey to destructive self interest. Anyone who believes the British are immune to this should read the introduction to Pakenham's history of the Boer war, titled "Milner's War". I get the same feeling sometimes when I listen to senior military on the Today Programme insisting that the £60 billion Britain paid for the Afghanistan war was money well spent.