Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column By Eleanor Flegg
Owning a large collection of German World War II militaria can lead to great misunderstandings. In a side-splitting episode of the sitcom, Father Ted, (Are You Right There Father Ted), Dermot Morgan's Ted inherits a sizeable collection of Third Reich memorabilia from his friend, Father Seamus Fitzpatrick. In the episode, Ted claims repeatedly that he's "not a racist" but, when Mrs Doyle displays the collection in the living room, it's difficult to defend this position.
Third Reich militaria is highly collectible but it's associated with an ideology so abhorrent that many people don't want to go near it. Although historians feel that it's important that this period of history is recorded with the same care and attention as any other, there's a dark side to this area of collecting. Neo-Nazis like to buy historical objects that link them to the Third Reich. Consequently, there are a lot of fakes about and many of them are of very poor quality indeed.
Most dealers who specialise in genuine German militaria make it very clear that they (a) don't espouse Nazi ideology and (b) don't want to offend anyone. Some dealers even ask you to click a disclaimer promising that you won't be offended at anything they have on sale before you enter their website!
Because of this association, collectors of Third Reich militaria tend to be discreet. As Father Ted discovered to his cost, a collection of swastika-emblazoned objects can be a hard one to explain to the dinner party guests.
In real life, most collectors of German World War II militaria are serious history buffs. The typical collector is male, may have played with Action Man as a child, and probably enjoyed the HBO series, Band of Brothers (2001). The truth of the matter they'll explain (in private), is that the Germans had all the best stuff. They may have lost the war, but in terms of design, they left the Allies standing. Most American soldiers, for example, were issued the standard M1 combat helmet in generic green. It's iconic and collectible but, let's face it, not that interesting.
The German armed forces (known collectively as the Wehrmacht) had far more variety. Each branch had helmets in different colours and with different decals.
There are more than 30 German World War II helmets in the forthcoming Eclectic Collector Auction at Whyte's, which takes place on September 17. They range from a Third Reich Feuerschutzpolizei (fire police) helmet, which comes with a firefighter's hand axe (€200 to €300) to a Deutsche Afrika Korps pith helmet and goggles (€250 to €350). There's also a Gebirgsjager (mountain division) field cap with an Edelweiss badge and ski goggles in their original tin (€250 to €350, pictured right); and a cosy looking Luftwaffe sheepskin field cap (€400 to €600) complete with hand-embroidered Luftwaffe eagle and cockade.
There's even a red fez with eagle and swastika and death's head badges (€200 to €300).
This was part of the dress uniform of a Waffen-SS military detachment of Muslims from Bosnia, Croatia, and Herzegovina in occupied Yugoslavia. The sale also includes a combat version of the fez, with a dark green tassel (€200 to €300).
Remarkably, all the head gear, along with an extensive array of other 20th century German militaria, came from a single Irish collection, amassed over the past 25 years. There is absolutely no evidence that any war veterans were included in the collection. The collector "just ran out of space", says Stuart Purcell of Whyte's.
The collector's modus operandi was to collect the best preserved example of every imaginable item of a German soldier's kit. It includes two pairs of hobnailed boots and an evocative selection of personal kit items. One lot comprises two packs of playing cards, a tyre band for a helmet, two packs of razor blades, a box of soap, a peppermint tin, a pack of cigarettes, three packs of small bandages, a butter dish, a Bakelite match holder, a tent peg, a pair of prescription glasses and a Bakelite lighter (€200 to €300). There is even an (unused) roll of Wehrmacht-issue toilet paper with an Edelweiss brand (€80 to €120). Some of the objects tell the story of the progression of the war. A field mess kit issued to a Wehrmacht officer in 1941 includes a beautifully crafted stainless steel set of knife, fork, spoon and can/bottle opener stamped with the eagle and swastika. A second kit, dating from 1943, was made to a similar design but from cheap nickel plate.
The common soldier's version was made in aluminium. It looks like it would bend if you stuck it in a spud.
In terms of design, the attention to detail is phenomenal and each object is fit for a specific purpose. The water bottle of a standard issue kit, with felt cover and leather strap, has a much larger cup than the one designed for the Deutsche Afrika Korps (desert soldiers were trained to drink sparingly).
A set of Heer (army) landmine identification flags have red metal poles with yellow death's head pennants and come in a neat grey canvas bag with a webbing shoulder strap (€120 to €180).
A few of the objects in the sale are associated with the in-your-face pageantry at which the Nazi's excelled. There's a 1939-1945 Kriegsmarine War Ensign (€400 to €600) and a Third Reich, State Service flag (€250 to €350), signed by the American soldiers who captured it. But the collection is not focused on display. It's more about the everyday experience of the ordinary soldier.