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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

From Dürer To Darth

In a previous post I displayed an image from 1916 of the first pattern of the now iconic German Stahlhelm, the classic German helmet. But perhaps its history should be traced back to medieval times? I am equally fascinated by how the design survived 1945. So, lets examine the Stahlhelm from Albrecht Dürer to Darth Vader…

Detail from Albrecht Dürer´s painting "The Knight, death and the devil".

WWI model German Stahlhelm with futuristic camouflage pattern, worn by Swedish volunteer Konrad Hallgren. Detail from a photo in Swedes at War.

"When John Mollo needed to create a rough mock-up for Darth Vader [...] he grabbed a German helmet from the military room". The photo depicts not the mock-up but the end result. PHOTO: Andres Rueda Lopez

Somewhere in the back of my head was a memory of having read about how the basic Stahlhelm shape had medieval origins. Then the other day I was reading a German officer´s memoir that has yet not been translated into English, but ought to be: Zwei Brüder im Hitlerkrieg by Karl Wand. The English title would be Two Brothers in Hitler´s War.

Karl Wand served in the German Army in Greece and then on the Eastern Front. In France he served as an officer in Sicherungs-Regiment 1, stationed in Paris. Under the Valkyrie (Walküre) orders this regiment was to arrest the members of Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and Gestapo in Paris. This they did on the evening of July 20th 1944, without any great problems.

Regarding the Stahlhelm design Wand writes: "The origins of this type of helmets can be seen in Albrecht Dürer´s painting The Knight, death and the devil".

Because of its knightly origins, Karl Wand wanted to make a ceremony out of the first time he put on the helmet, as an infantry recruit in 1938. Wand: "a kind of crowning".

Thus it seems clear to me that German soldiers before WWII at least believed that their helmet had medieval origins.

But is there more direct proof that Friedrich Schwerd, the designer of the first Stahlhelm, actually was inspired by medieval sallet helmets, in German Schaller.

This article says this about Schwerd being inspired: "He knew his military history, citing the German sallet (Schallernhelm) as his model".

So, is it a fact then, that the Stahlhelm is a 20th century Schaller? I would like very much to hear from readers of this blog about this. Please use the comments function of the blog. But before you write, let me say that I do have the book World War One German Army by Stephen Bull. It does not state that the Schallernhelm was the model. It does say (p. 81) that "The resultant contour was, as Schwerd himself observed, something like the Schallernhelm of the Middle Ages [...]". In my opinion this quote does not fully match the previous one. So, more quotes and sources are very welcome.

Regarding how Stahlhelms were actually made there is this German WWII news reel I think you will want to see if you have not already seen it:

Unlike the Third Reich the Stahlhelm survived. In East Germany (GDR/DDR) by the introduction of the Wehrmacht´s last helmet prototype, the Thale B-II. This design was used, just slightly modified, by the East German Armed Forces until the demise of the Berlin Wall, and with it East Germany itself. But perhaps there are still some in service in the Third World - as several were handed out there as military aid. Has anyone seen it in recent years in Africa or Asia I wonder?

In the west the design was not used within the West German Army, but instead within the Bundesgrenzschutz, the Federal Border Force. The manufacturer of these postwar helmets had been producing M1940 helmets for the Wehrmacht. The name of the company, Quist, makes one wonder if not the founding family had Swedish roots. The Swedish word kvist/quist means small branch or twig. Here is a web page about the company, but it says nothing about the family itself. Does someone know more?

During the final years of East Germany the basic Stahlhelm design was adopted by the US Armed Forces. The result was the PASGT.

Finally there is the Stahlhelm in outer space... Surely, the helmet of Darth Vader can be considered as some sort of cosmic Stahlhelm? Well, it seems as if it was not that Teutonic to start with. This is what Mary Henderson wrote about the Vader helmet in her beautiful book Star Wars: The Magic of Myth on page 189: "Lucas told McQuarrie that he wanted [...] a large helmet like that of the Japanese samurai". Furthermore: "Vader´s mask and helmet evoke the armor of the Japanese feudal period: the kabuto, or helmet, had many different designs, but most featured a bowl-like crown that flared out at the back of the neck, often in overlapping metal plates. Vader´s one-piece helmet follows the same basic shape".

However, there is one more source one should examine about Vader´s helmet: the most comprehensive book I know about the original "Star Wars": The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler. In this book, on page 34, the helmet starts out like this, according to artist Ralph McQuarrie´s own words: "He [George Lucas] liked the idea of Vader having a big hat, like a fisherman´s hat, a big long metal thing that came down". So, there was no Germanic origin? Well, at a later stage uniform expert John Mollo was to finalize the design and this is what Rinzler writes about this stage on page 112 of his book, in Mollo´s own words "For Darth Vader, we put on a black motorcycle suit, a Nazi helmet, a gas mask, and a monk´s cloak we found in the Middle Ages department".

Mary Henderson basically states the same thing on page 164 of her book: "When John Mollo needed to create a rough mock-up for Darth Vader from the costume stock on hand at a costume warehouse in England, he grabbed a German helmet from the "military room" [...]".

So, at least in the last stages the Stahlhelm did indeed play a role in the evolution of the Vader helmet.

On a side note the "Star Wars" universe includes many more items from the Wehrmacht, less inspired and more Third Reich original than Vader´s helmet. Vader´s stormtroopers use both MG 34 and MG 42 machine guns; Han Solo has a blaster that is based on the Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol of WWI vintage; some Jawas on the planet Tatooine (my favourite name for an alien planet) wear K98 Mauser rifle ammo packs.

So, to summarize: both Dürer and Darth are part of the Stahlhelm story - but perhaps not as much as I thought. Feedback most welcome!

Since writing this post I have written this even more cosmic sequel to it.


  1. Mr. Gyllenhaal, A good source of info on the German helmet is ELMETTI by the late PAULO MARZETTI. It has English/Italian text. You may also be interested in an entry in this book under IRAQ. It seems like Saddam Hussein liked the DARTH VADER HELMET because there was a special unit in the Iraqi Army that WORE one, and an example is shown. Oh, BTW the English "Tommy" helmet was also developed after a Medieval example. More about the origins of "modern" helmets can be found in "HELMETS AND BODY ARMOR IN MODERN WARFARE" by Bashford Dean. If you are interested in even more info, you can contact me at , I am a helmet collector and don't mind sharing information about them. Patrick Barrett

  2. Dear Patrick,

    Found it: http://nuke.combat-helmets.com/IraqiFedayeen/tabid/100/Default.aspx

    That is one ultra-amazing helmet!

    Many thanks for the book tip!

    Best regards,


  3. Looks like an English sallet helmet.

  4. I want to add some information. The German Stahlhelm of the type M35 (WWII standard military helmet an advancement of the former WWI M1916) is still in use of many German fire brigades.

    The Shape of the helmet is well etablished and as you know inherited and refined by the US military. The fire brigade M35-type helmet is called Standardhelm and is made of fireproof plastic. But some fire brigades replaced the Standardhelm to the french F1 fire brigade helmet, though it is 3 times more expensive than the Standardhelm.

    Although the Prussian Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) had some design elements which could led to the developement to the M1916. Thats just my opinion at the moment.

    But the German schaller was a helmet type which was developed to give better security against Crossbow bolts, arrows or even the first rifles at the end of the middle age. It was the last evolution of the knights armour. Because since the first handguns supressed the use of Bows and crossbows because it was much easier to handle.

    That ended the knighthood wich had its climax during the hundred years's war, if I recall it right.

    And by the way the German schaller was often worn in combination with the Gothic plate armor (Gotischer Feldharnisch).

    I'm German and liked the text in your blog. keep on with it. :)

    1. The German fire brigades used the M34 Leichtmetall Stahlhelm ;)

  5. It's actually still in use in Chile as part of the dress uniform. The Chilean army had German officers as advisers, so I guess they brought the helmets with them.


  6. This helmet has become my favorite helmet ever-since Derrick J. Wyatt's design of TFA Blitzwing and after learning about the original ideas behinds Darth Vader's helmet.

  7. "But perhaps there are still some in service in the Third World - as several were handed out there as military aid. Has anyone seen it in recent years in Africa or Asia I wonder?"

    The stahlhelm is worn today in Argentina and several other South American countries. In fact, the pickelhaube is also worn for parade in Argentina. Want to see Prussian Germany as it was? Go to YouTube and search for "Argentina army parade Prussian". They kept traditions that the Germans got rid of, perhaps to distance itself from the Nazi era, which is sad in a way, as those customs and traditions predate it.