Throughout the Cold War it was typically said that the army of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), or East Germany, was probably the best trained and best equipped of the Warsaw Pact powers—including those of those of the Soviet Union! The country was also ironically held as the most reliable yet least trusted by their Soviet masters, thanks to the bitter reminders of the Second World War.
While Soviet equipment was used by the various Warsaw Pact powers in the years that followed the end of World War II by the 1950s the various Communist nations began to have their own identity. This was also most true of East Germany.
The history of the East German helmets actually goes back to the Second World War, when as early as 1942 the German army was looking at ways of simplifying its production methods, and in producing superior weapons. The world’s first assault rifle, the MP-44 or StG-44, is proof that you could have it both ways!
At the same time this held true of helmets, as the Model 1935 German “stahlhelm” still remains a well designed helmet that more than got the job done. However, it was expensive and complex to produce and it was far from perfect.
During the war there were several designs that were tested to replace the iconic German World War II helmet. Among these was one known as the “Thale B/II,” which was one of three patterns that was produced at the Reich’s Chemical and Technical Institute. Rumors persist that Adolf Hitler didn’t like the helmet and it went nowhere.
According to noted author and helmet historian Ludwig Baer in his book History of the German Steel Helmet: 1916-1945, “in the autumn of 1944 they (the helmets) were presented to the Fuhrer's Headquarters. In spite of favorable results of these helmets and their economization of both materials and labor time, the introduction of the helmet was rejected, evidently because the existing helmet was to remain the symbol of the ‘Greater German Freedom Struggle.’”
Whether any of the prototypes were used in combat is unknown, and it is unknown if any even exist today. While some such helmets do surface on eBay and from other sources, with the sellers claiming these are the elusive “Model B/II,” any of these should be viewed with some skepticism. However, the Thale B/II was to have life after Hitler in post-war East Germany.
The VOPO Helmet
By the time East Germany was declared an independent state in 1949 the Soviets had already created an armed branch of the People’s Police, or Volkspolizei (VOPO). This actually served as the forerunners of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee). Interestingly the East German military forces retained a distinctly Wehrmacht style uniform, but at first wore a Soviet SSh-40, making for a rather eclectic, and almost anachronistic soldier. It is believed that both actual Soviet-made SSh-40 and Czech M-53 helmets were issued to the VOPO, and these featured a unique East German decal on the front. This model, with the decal, is highly sought after by collectors and is considered somewhat rare. As a result these helmets are of course being faked.
As the East Germans began to establish a unique identity of its own, this included a modernized version of the uniform and helmet. The first true East German helmet was the Model 1954, which in appearance is somewhat similar to the German M-35 but is considerably squarer in shape. These helmets were never used by the NVA, but were in fact only used by the border police and VOPO forces.
While not a true “East German Army” helmet, these are also fairly rare and desirable among collectors. Because of the complexity in producing steel helmets there have not been copies made… yet!
The helmet is all the more rare because it was soon replaced by the Model 1956, which is today the most recognizable helmet from the DDR. It is in fact based on the Model B/II, and thus features a more rounded/sloped shape than the World War II era Model 1935 helmet.
This sloped design provided improved ballistic properties but also made for a handsome outline. The first model of the helmet featured the late-war Model 1944 liner system, which was designed to replace the M-31 liner that had been used with the German Model 35 and subsequent wartime helmets. The very first batch of helmets also used a single M-31 style chinstrap, but this was replaced by the Y-straps that were seen with each subsequent model. There are several variations of the M-56, and the most common is the final version with the six leather tongues and foam padding. This particular example is officially known as the Model 56/70—as it has the 1970 era liner upgrade.
The East German Paratrooper Helmet
There is one other steel helmet that was used by the East German military and that was the paratrooper—however its origins are somewhat complicated—if not exactly complex—and in fact the helmets are ironically of Polish origin.
The Polish Wz.63 paratrooper was widely produced for use in countries throughout the Warsaw Pact, and became the de facto standard for several countries including East Germany. What is notable about this particular pattern is that it is similar to a similar Polish Army motorcycle dispatch rider helmet, which was also in use from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was developed as a paratrooper model in early 1962 and introduced a year later as the Wz.63. It featured an oval shell with two vent holes on each side, and a padded rim that ran completely around the helmet. The tongued liner system appears to be an evolution of the German M31 liner system, which could be part of the basis of confusion that these were originally of German origin.
While the Wz. 63 was in fact produced in East Germany, it isn’t known in how great of numbers or whether East German models were ever supplied to other Warsaw Pact nations. It is widely held that the East German models may be darker in green than those of Polish origin, but it is a fact that is only confused because while some helmets are marked as being made in East Germany, there is a theory that those stamps may have been added after the Berlin Wall came down.
Throughout the 1990s tens of thousands of helmets were bought as surplus and made available in catalogs such as the now defunct Sovietski Collection, where the helmets were offered as “East German Paratrooper Helmets.” Whether this was an honest mistake, given that examples may have likely come from the former East Germany and many with stamps that proclaimed an East German origin, or was just a way of building on the cache is not clear.
Finally, it should be noted that throughout the Cold War Communism promised to be the great equalizer and the various Warsaw Pact countries produced similar equipment without violating trademark. In some cases items were simply produced to create uniformity among their forces—a goal that is also ever present in Communism—and one that can make it difficult for collectors today.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.