As a 30-something woman born into a non-hunting, pacifist family, I never thought much about war and strong German militaria. My grandfather was the only member who served in a war but he passed away just a few months before I was born. I never knew him and have only learned about him through stories. I knew he served and my mother has his flag and medals on display above the fireplace mantel. I know little about his service, except that he placed telegraph lines through jungles and was often the first to do it within a hostile area. My only other connection to war history was attending war re-enactments. We had a family friend that acted in them. I remember the loud noises and the strange smoke smell that didn't really resemble fire smoke. Only now do I realize it was the smell of black powder and strong flintlock pistols.
To me, it was like a play but I didn't really connect it to reality. Probably because the wounded got up off the medical tables once the event was over. With so little personal connection to battles of the past, I didn't have any real understanding of them. I recall in high school history classes that I would get mad at the teacher when we discussed the horrific realities of war like the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For me, there was no reason for any of these terrible acts. Everything was black and white in my mind. War was bad, Germans were evil and weapons were for murder. I loved Japan, though, as a fan of anime. I didn't see the hypocrisy of it as Japan committed many heinous war crimes, such as the Nanking Massacre.
Everything Changed When I Met Him
With knowledge comes change and my outlook on war and history changed only after I met my significant other. He is a WWII enthusiast but will start talking about other battles and weaponry. Conversations will quickly turn into history lessons. For example, we might talk about Nick Fury from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who uses an electronic needle gun, and the next thing I know, he'll start talking about the history of real needle guns or rifles. One of the first things he ever showed me was a bayonet that he found at a salvage yard. He was looking for parts for a truck and came upon this treasure. It didn't look like much to me but his enthusiasm kept me listening as he talked about the history of bayonets.
When I met him, he already had several German militaria pieces that he had collected. My favorites are the photographs because they bring out a bit of reality - seeing faces of people who were actually in a time of war, of someone who stood behind the camera and captured that moment in history. My second favorite piece from his collection was a training poster on how to properly use a Browning machine gun. It isn't in English which takes away part of the appeal because I can't read it but it looked like a manual on how to put together IKEA furniture except it was on how to kill people, instead. That's what I thought, at first, until my boyfriend pointed out that the poster also teaches the user how to stay alive and how to keep others alive. It was from that poster that I learned more about the potato digger - the first gas-operated machine gun. Or how the M1917 fired up to 600 rounds and was vital during the Admiralty Islands campaign where the calvary took out thousands of Japanese soldiers in one night. So many lives lost yet so many saved.
Finding the Perfect Gift
Our first attempt at avGerman militaria purchase was during our first Christmas together. I wanted to get my WWII enthusiast something to add to his collection and so I headed straight for eBay, of course. I soon realized that I was in over my head as started scrolling down pages of WWII military antiques. What were some of these bits of metal anyway? Why would someone want a strap of fabric? Was the item even legit or a fake? Was the cost too high or way to low to be real? These questions flooded my mind but I was determined to get something. I really wanted to get him a pickelhaube because he has a steel helmet. The ones with the spikes on the top looked so much cooler but as soon as I started doing my research, I realized that finding one wasn't so easy. The majority looked like replicas and those that were probably real were upwards of a $1,000. It was a wake up call on how difficult it is to be a collector. It took a lot of knowledge that I did not have. Unfortunately, I had to set my sights lower on an item that I could afford and hopefully determine that it was the real deal. I ended up finding several tinnie pins that I was able to match up alongside photographs from a collector's website.
I also learned what they were for, such as the youth pins given for kids who took part in events. These pins were something he didn't have and it felt good to be able to give him the history lesson behind them instead of him giving me the lesson. In other words, the student became the teacher.
For years, my boyfriend always kept his collection tucked away out of sight. He always worried that if he displayed them someone might think he's a Nazi. I hated that these precious items were left in the dark so I came up with a safe way to display them. We have a coffee table that has a removable glass top. The table itself has an open display area. I lined the inside of the table with black cloth and then carefully placed all of his items (those that would fit) inside. I secured them by placing nails on the outside edges of the objects so they would hold them in place without actually putting any sharp objects through them or messing them up with glue. The glass table sits on top so everyone can see the collection. If a guest comes over that we don't know very well, I toss a tablecloth over it. While I still dislike war because of the death and pain, I have gained an appreciation for the people who've served in them - the soldiers, the inventors, and the every day people who were impacted by them. German militaria might be physical objects but they hold memories of actual people and those people deserved to be remembered. Is there anyone you remember? Tell me about them so I can remember, too.