by Harold Ratzburg
Last spring, at the Military Vehicle Rally in Aberdeen Maryland, I was wandering through the vendor stands to see what goodies I could find. Aberdeen is basically a vehicle show but other vendors connected to the military hobby also come to sell.
I came to a table of a vendor who was strictly a vehicle parts guy, but in the middle of his table was one of those plastic heads that you see and on it was a beautiful M-1943, Einheitsfeldmütze (ie, Field Cap) of the German Schutzstaffel----SS----troops of Nazi Germany.
The SS was a vicious Nazi outfit, which started out to be Hitler's very own bodyguard and ended up as a large enough unit to have full fledged combat divisions. They were also the troops that controlled and guarded the concentration and extermination camps that the Nazis created. Since it was such an elite and nasty branch of the German military forces, anything connected to the notorious SS is very collectible.
The cap looked to be in excellent condition with the correct BEVO insignia on the front and left side. It had the makers name stamped on the inside, dated 1944, and size 57. Its age seemed evident by the corrosion on the copper or metal air ventilation grommets on each side
The vendor told me that he had bought it at a garage sale and didn't really know the value of it, and asked me to make an offer on it. I really hate getting into a deal without a price tag to start with, but I did make an offer (low ball of course) and finally walked away with my purchase and what I figured was a really good deal.
OK, so there I was----a picker like you see on the American Pickers TV show on Monday nights----so now it is up to me to research and establish a resale value for my purchase.
I showed it around to friends who also collect and every darned one of them saw the cap as an original. The collectors I talked to were not the beginner collectors of Nazi stuff but at least three of them were advanced collectors. One of them is a well-known author of a book on how to detect fakes and repros of German military memorabilia, and all of them allowed as how they felt the cap was original.
Then of course, I hit the reference books on the subject.
The first book, "Head Gear of Hitlers Germany" by Smith and Saris, with Otto Spronk, has an exact picture of my cap and close ups of the insignia on it, and if that isn't the same cap, by golly, I will eat it----as the saying goes. One small exception is that my cap has a vent hole at the top on each side. Other books show similar caps as well, though not exact like the "Head Gear" book does.
So I thought I would check out the cap maker's name that was stamped inside my cap. Using Google, I found that the maker, a man named Otto Schlientz, Uniformmützen maker of Straubing, Germany, was listed as being one of 40 or 50 recognized manufacturers of the cloth visored field caps for the German military.
The cap is in excellent condition which in collecting can be good or bad. If a cap is moth eaten and sweated up through hard use, I suppose the tendency is to think----OK, this cap has been there and survived and collected its very own DNA sweat samples, therefore it has got to be the real thing.
On the other hand, my brother-in-law, who was in Germany at the end of the war, tells me of garage rooms stacked to the ceiling with German uniforms, helmets and equipment that was confiscated from the German military when prisoners were taken and the piles were stacked there for American GIs to help themselves to souvenirs to send home. He helped himself to two helmets, two visor less field caps, a bayonet and other odds and ends.
I figure that caps in new condition could also have been stacked there or in similar piles all over Germany, and caps in new condition would have been the first to be picked up by a scrounging GI.
It is also a given, that if you were a military cap maker in Germany when the fighting stopped, you had a problem deciding what you could manufacture that would keep bread on the table in very desperate times. Your inventory of supplies to make military caps may have been all that you had, and if you noticed that the swaggering and rich and well-fed US GIs were collecting old Nazi stuff to send home, then maybe you could produce more of the stuff to provide some income. It did happen I am sure.
It is also true, that when you look through the militaria catalogs today, you find that just about everything from the Third Reich,--- flags, uniforms, weapons, daggers, etc, etc, etc,--- is being reproduced and offered for sale.
But, dang it, my cap just looks so real and old and of the correct period, that I can't believe it is a repro. (after all, the difference in price between a repro, at $50.00, and an original, at $1000.00, is a very tidy sum) So, I figured, I will go to a militaria show and ask the "Experts" there who deal in the Nazi stuff!!!!!!!!
Right off, the first Expert there says it's a repro. When I ask him how he knows, he says that the color of the lining is wrong and it is definitely a reproduction. The color of the lining is wrong!? Germans were using any kind of material they could get their hands on that even came close. They even used material imported from Italy.
The next vendor says it is wrong because the SS never had the manufacturers name stamped in the inside and the stitching and tread color was not correct. He didn't even attempt to prove any of what he said.
But, the Expert that really corked me off, tells me from a distance of six feet, without even looking close at the cap, "That's a repro!!!!" When I asked him how he knew, he tells me, "Listen, I have been dealing in Nazi stuff for over fifty years now and I can tell at a glance if it is real or repro." YEAH-RIGHT!!!!!!!!! What a bunch of BS!!!!!!
When you think about it however, can you really expect a straight answer from a dealer at a show? They don't know if you are there to maybe sell it, and they would certainly rather buy it from you at the price of a repro worth fifty bucks than pay you for a cap that might be worth a thousand.
As long as I am picking on Experts at the shows, let me tell you about what happened to a friend (a really sharp lady in the German militaria field) at a big show in Monroeville PA where the really big guys in the hobby come together.
She was walking down an aisle and noticed a plaque on a table that was engraved with an inscription of the SS Unit that was the personal bodyguard of Adolf Hitler----the Leibstandarte. She made a comment to her companion walking with her that the engraving was certainly intended to increase the value of the plaque but that it certainly was not correct. The dealer at the table, who was a very highly respected vendor of very expensive Nazi militaria overheard the comments and got quite incensed over them, and kind of followed them down the aisle, berating her as to what did she know about Nazi artifacts compared to himself, the dealer, who had been in the business for years?
What the issue was, was a little detail in the spelling of the engraving of the word Leibstandarte which was spelled 'LIEbstandarte' instead of the correct 'LEIbstandarte'. In the German language, lieb is a word associated with love and sweetness, which the Leibstandarte tried very hard NOT to follow. They were a very nasty group of people under Hitler's command, in fact they started their rise to power as Hitler's very own personal body guard unit.
The prefix leib however, is associated with “life” and Leibstandarte is the rough German equivalent of the elite Roman Praetorian or Life Guards – a very select group of big, able men who took the obligation to the guard the life of the Emperor. Hitler’s Leibstandarte or Life Guard was even equipped with flags and poles that bear a close resemblance to those of ancient Roman guard units.
After the dealer shot off his mouth for a while, my friend very quietly pointed out the obvious problem with the spelling on the plaque, and she also pointed out that Germans are some of the most precise people in the world and most certainly would never make an error like that on an important SS Nazi item. In those circles, such an error could have meant a direct transfer to the Russian Front.
What it all goes to show is that even this “expert” didn't know everything he thought he did but that didn't stop him from making a fool of himself with my friend. He simply turned and walked away----no apology came from him.
And, the question remains, who had the engraving done on the plaque and who was responsible for the incorrect spelling. I wonder if the dealer took the thing off his table as an 'original' and lowered the price to the cost of a repro. I'm sure that not one in a hundred would notice the error in spelling, so I'll bet it is still there on the dealers table as 'original' or maybe hanging on some collectors wall as his prize piece.
Such is life in the collecting field of Nazi memorabilia.