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An iconic helmet from the 20th century

The Stahlhelm

German soldiers covering their helmets with mud as camouflage in Russia (Photo: NARA)
German soldiers covering their helmets with mud as camouflage in Russia (Photo: NARA)

In this article, we are going to look at the history of one of the most iconic pieces of military equipment from the 20th century, the German Stahlhelm (“steel helmet”). Although it was developed in World War I, it became a symbol associated inseparably with the Third Reich. The belligerents of WWI noticed that the newly developed weapons were able to cause a previously unknown degree of carnage among troops, including also head wounds. Against this background and after improvised helmets like the “Gaede” helmet used in the Vosges Mountains, the Germans decided to replace the similarly iconic Pickelhaube spiked helmet that was made of boiled leather and had been in use from the 19th century.

The new helmet was designed primarily by two scientists, engineer Professor Friedrich Schwerd and military physician Professor August Bier. They studied the recent head wounds, and potential protective helmet designs of the past centuries and that of the warring parties of WWI. The design was quite innovative for the era and offered far more protection to the wearer than the helmets used by the opposing British (“Brodie” helmet) and French (“Adrian” helmet) forces, both of which left the neck and ears exposed. The new helmet provided much better protection to its wearer against shrapnel and decreased the number of head injuries by 70%. 30,000 pieces of the first model were issued to the troops during the battle of Verdun in 1916 but the overall distribution to the whole army was very slow.

German statesman, Otto von Bismarck, in his Pickelhaube helmet in 1880 (Photo: public domain)

The different late variants of the helmet were named after the year they were introduced; thus the first model was designated M1916 since it was introduced in 1916. “M” stood for Modell in German. The M1916 had horn-like lugs which had a dual purpose. Firstly, they served as ventilator holes, secondly an additional armor plate could be attached to them. The latter was called the Stirnschild (“Forehead shield”) and was mostly used by snipers and stormtroopers but it was not very popular due to its weight. The wide skirt of the M1916 helmet had altered the acoustics of the headgear causing an echo and making it difficult to hear properly in it. In order to address this problem, a special version of the M1918 had ear cut-outs. This model was mainly used by cavalry and artillery units. Altogether, around 8 million helmets were produced in WWI by Germany. The Austro-Hungarian army ordered nearly 500,000 pieces and they acquired also the license to manufacture. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire ordered smaller quantities.

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A German soldier in a Stahlhelm and a British soldier in a Brodie helmet sharing a cigarette in 1918 (Photo: IWM)
A German soldier in a Stahlhelm and a British soldier in a Brodie helmet sharing a cigarette in 1918 (Photo: IWM)

Interestingly, when the Americans started to work on their own helmets during WWI (Read our earlier article), zoologist and armor expert Bashford Dean developed a remarkable experimental version, Model No. 5. Despite its good quality and favorable feedback from field testing in 1918, it was rejected by the Army due to the model’s close resemblance to the Stahlhelm.

The American Model No.5 helmet developed by Bashford Dean (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The American Model No.5 helmet developed by Bashford Dean (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

After the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles obliged Germany to destroy most of its military equipment. As a result, tens of thousands of helmets were destroyed. A post-WWI veteran’s paramilitary organization was named also after the helmet (Der Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten - “The Steel Helmet, Federation of Frontline Soldiers”) which existed until 1935 when it was merged into the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary organization of the Nazis.
 
When the Nazis seized power in 1933, they re-introduced conscription and started to rebuild their armed forces which resulted in the creation of several new military branches. A need arose to develop a new helmet meeting the needs of modern warfare. This how the M1935 came into being, which resulted in a much lighter, safer and more comfortable helmet. The size of the visor and the skirt was reduced to provide better visibility, and the ventilator lugs were removed keeping only small holes for ventilation. A new leather liner was introduced also. As the war progressed, the M1935 had several variants. These models normally featured improvements, modifications of the liner, the chinstrap, the materials of the helmet or new production techniques that made the manufacture of the helmet cheaper, faster or more effective. This was often affected by the increasing wartime production problems and the lack of raw materials (for instance, the use of pig leather instead of the better-quality goat or sheep leather in the liner, etc.).

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An M1935 model with the national tricolor shield decal (Photo: www.german-ww2-helmet.com)
An M1935 model with the national tricolor shield decal (Photo: www.german-ww2-helmet.com)

A special variant of the M1935 was developed for the newly formed paratrooper (“Fallschirmjäger”) units. Hermann Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe ordered the establishment of the paratrooper training school in 1936 and subsequently the development of a helmet specialized for paratroopers. The visor and the skirt had been removed to avoid getting caught in the parachute or in the vegetation during jumps. It featured a special liner and a chinstrap with a four-point retention system to provide more protection for the soldiers (the latter has been reintroduced in modern combat helmets like the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet – MICH). Still, some paratroopers preferred wearing the normal Stahlhelm since their special helmet tended to get warm in hot weather and, in their experience, their helmet did not provide as good protection in actual combat as the normal helmet did.

German paratroopers wearing their unique helmet in Italy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The paint of WWI and other early designs tended to be shiny, making the soldiers easier to spot by the enemy. Many of them were refurbished with rough textured paint or by adding sand to the paint to give it a matt finish. From 1935, the colors of the different army branches were standardized, accordingly the army and the navy used an apple green or field grey, the air force used a blue-grey finish. Individual units used different insignia on the sides of their helmets. WWII started with double decals. On the left, the service insignia was applied. The army used a silver eagle grabbing the swastika on a black shield-shaped background. The navy used a golden eagle with the same layout as the army. The air force used a white eagle with spread wings clutching a swastika without a background. On the right side of the helmet, the German national colors (black, white and red) were applied. Before the Nazi takeover, the Reichsheer used hand-painted garrison insignia. Based on the lessons learned from the Polish campaign in September 1939, the national shield decal was removed to enhance the concealment of the helmet (the white color in the tricolor made the soldiers easy to spot). Still, some older models with their original paint finish and insignia remained in service throughout the war.

There were numerous official and improvised camouflage techniques. Depending on the availability of paint, tools (brush, spray gun, etc.) and other items (foliage, etc.), these were always applied on the battlefield or in supply depots by the units or individual soldiers. Some used multi-colored paint, others covered their helmets with mud. Foliage or sackcloth was attached to the headgears with ‘chicken wire’, by the soldiers’ bread bag or rubber straps. Official helmet camouflage nets or helmet covers (later versions were double-sided for the winter) were issued also.

A group of German paratroopers using different kinds of camouflage on their helmets (net, cover, foliage with a strap) in Normandy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A group of German paratroopers using different kinds of camouflage on their helmets (net, cover, foliage with a strap) in Normandy (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

After WWII, West and East Germany introduced new helmets according mostly to their political affiliation during the Cold War. West Germany used a copy of the U.S. M1 helmet. It was replaced by the M92 Gefechtshelm ("Combat helmet") in 1992. Independently from the army, the Bundesgrenzschutz (“Federal Border Guard”) continued to use the original design in the M53 model. East Germany’s post-WWII helmet was designated M56 which in fact was developed in 1942 but was rejected by the army back then. The East German army wanted to differentiate their helmet from the other socialist countries which were all using the well-known Soviet SSh-40 model. This was an ideal situation for them since it more or less complied with the Soviet design, and at the same time was different from the original Stahlhelm, while it still had a unique German design. The M56 remained in service until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

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Border guards wearing Stahlhelm standing guard at the chancellery in the West German capital of Bonn (Photo: wwiiafterwwii.wordpress.com)

In the interwar period and after WWII, many countries issued different variants of the German helmet. Some can recognize a similarity between the design of the WWII Stahlhelm and the American Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) helmet often nicknamed “Fritz Helmet”. There are still some nations and professions (firefighters, etc.) that use Stahlhelm-inspired helmets (for instance, Bolivia and Chile uses it for ceremonial purposes). In addition to expensive original helmets and cheaper replicas, one can also buy Stahlhelm-shaped biker helmets.

Chilean soldiers wearing Stahlhelm at a military parade in 2017 (Photo: Xinhua/Jorge Villegas)
Chilean soldiers wearing Stahlhelm at a military parade in 2017 (Photo: Xinhua/Jorge Villegas)

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Since it features in almost countless movies, we will just mention one movie-related example that had several twists. Ironically, the Stahlhelm had inspired movie props which eventually ended up inspiring real-life equipment. A good example of this is Darth Vader’s iconic helmet in the Star Wars movies, since his helmet was inspired by the Stahlhelm. On top of this, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established a special paramilitary guard unit called the Fedayeen Saddam ("Saddam's Men of Sacrifice") in 1995. Since his son and the commander of the unit, Uday, was a Star Wars fan, the members of this organization ended up using Darth Vader-inspired, ballistically useless helmets.

A Fedayeen helmet on display at the West Point Museum (Photo: Facebook)
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