SOLIGEN’S LEGACY TO THE MILITARIA COLLECTOR - BY DANIEL LEE

I’ll leave the existence of King Arthur up to the experts, but I can tell you if a real King Arthur had existed, then he would have had a very high quality sword (probably named “Excaliber”) that had been manufactured in one of the traditional sword centers of Europe: Toledo Spain, Thiers France, Solingen Germany or Sheffield England. Indeed, no serious crusader during the Middle Ages would consider riding off on a quest without a sword produced in one of these four places.

Of the four, Solingen’s edged weapons were considered to be the finest quality. From the time of the Middle Ages, one of their products, in the right hands, could be the decisive factor in an otherwise equal fight.

This reputation was not due to accident. The craftsmen of Solingen have specialized in the design and production of fine blades for well over 500 years. This “City of Blades”, as it is known, was blessed with abundant iron ore, charcoal, and water power. Beginning in the mid 1400’s, mastersmiths organized and formed rigid guilds to protect their monopoly and manufacturing techniques. Only legitimate sons were admitted as apprentices in order to control quality and quantity of product.

Up until the 1930’s production was primarily what is referred to as a “cottage industry”. Beginning around the 1500’s firms were formed using established trademarks which identified the manufacturer and enhanced the value of the product. Several of the older firms are in business today and still use their original trademarks. Some examples we may be familiar with include J.A. Henckels (trademark is the “twins”), Puma-Werk (trademark is a “puma’s head”), and Robert Klass (trademark is “kissing cranes”).

Long before Solingen became associated with production of fine items such as kitchen knives, scissors, and pocket knives, it had been noted for military weapons of the finest quality. Indeed, production of these other items did not begin until the sword became obsolete as a weapon of war due to the advent of gunpowder.

After the disastrous defeat of 1806 and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the Prussian military began to reassert itself in the mid 1800’s. King Frederick William IV made every effort to popularize his army. One method he apparently used was hiring the best fashion designers available, since uniform variations, ceremonial edged weapons, and even spiked helmets were all introduced during this period. Styles and names were not only influenced by German culture (primarily Prussian) but also surrounding nations such as France.

During the period of 1815-1848 two distinctive hilt designs began to develop for swords worn by German army officers. Collectors refer to these patters as “lion’s head” and “dove’s head”. The “lion’s head” design was strictly of Prussian origin. However the “dove’s head” was based upon the British light calvary pattern of 1796. Both styles were worn continuously by German army officers through 1945. In most cases they were a privately purchased item.

As governments and their military machines continued to develop more efficient methods of destroying the enemy (i.e., killing a higher number of soldiers from a further away distance), swords began to reflect their diminished roles. Over time swords became increasingly decorative as use was directed towards ceremonial and dress purposes. Blades became narrower and straighter with a single fuller (blood groove) as overall weight lessened and grips appeared covered with decorative, but less durable, materials such as cellulold.

Although army officers were only authorized to wear one of the two styles previously mentioned, firms were given great leeway and allowed to patent their individual designs. This resulted in every maker having several choices available to offer the potential purchaser. Some larger firms had over a dozen of each style, all appropriately named to entice the customer. One firm, Eickhorn, not established until 1865, grew rapidly and became the largest single producer of military edged dress weapons by the time of the Third Reich. During this period, Eickhorn was recognized as the industry leader, not only in quality and quantity, but more importantly, design. Their distinctive trademark, a squirrel, had first been utilized in 1610 by one of Solingen’s early swordsmith, Pieter Lobach.

The “City of Blades” enjoyed new prestige with the advent of the Third German Reich. Indeed, the importance of Solingen’s role is often overlooked.

Adolf Hitler quickly copied the tactics of King Frederick William IV. Once again, talented designers were to work on new uniform variations and dress edged weapons designed for Hitler's “Thousand Year Reich”. High peak visor hats replaced the earlier “spiked helmets”. Dress daggers were introduced to organizations that had never carried swords and in others, became optional to the customary dress sword.

Beginning with the “SA” or “Stormtroopers” dress daggers in 1933, specially designed ceremonial edged weapons were eventually authorized for all governmental and political personnel. By the end of production in 1942, twenty-five different organizations had one or more designated types.

Unwittingly, Hitler accomplished two things by these actions; First of all, this new demand for dress edged weapons revived Solingen’s fortunes, which along with all of Germany, had suffered great economic hardships after WWI. Secondly, with the defeat of his Third Reich in May 1945, these artifacts became wonderful war trophies brought home by the victorious allied soldiers. Today these knives are avidly sought by collectors not only for the history and workmanship as has been described, but also for their beauty and rarity.

There are many collectors of Third Reich memorabilia. Few, if any, collect for political reasons. Most collectors are amateur historians who have studied the history of Europe, with an emphasis on WW2. Others became interested because they had relatives or acquaintances who had fought and defeated the “Nazis”. Often these veterans not only had war stories but also relics which were shown with pride to an envious audience. The victorious soldiers brought home wonderful war souvenirs. Allied soldiers certainly availed themselves of the opportunity to obtain relics of this “lost cause”.

Out of all the items produced by the Third Reich (i.e., guns, medals, insignia, flags, uniforms, headgear, etc.), one item has always stood out from the rest as the most desired: the dress daggers produced in Solingen from 1933 to 1942. It is interesting to note those Germans who were authorized to wear them were often photographed in a manner to prominently show the dress dagger.

As soon as the war ended, the Germans began assembling daggers from left-over parts (produced prior to 1942) to sell to the occupying allies. One runs across only few pieces from this time (1945-1953). There is little true collector demand for these pieces, although they are not reproductions or fakes.

However, beginning in the 1960’s, collector demand reached a point where the remaining parts and the “parts” daggers began to appear offered for sale. This produced great stress among collectors of the original pre-1945 pieces. Although values did not fall, they stabilized and did not grow again for a period of several years. Collectors finally realized they could usually easily tell a difference in the originals from the “parts” daggers. Books documenting these differences started to be published during this period and wise collectors still study them closely. Dagger prices have climbed each year since, although there will always be persons who are willing to reproduce daggers, or alter them, attempting to fool the unsuspecting collector. Thankfully, in every case the cautious collector who is willing to do a little research or has good contacts can avoid disappointment.

Many excellent reference books have published on this exciting hobby since the late 1950’s. Some are long out of print and are collectible in their own right. Others continue to be published as demand for information on these fascinating items grow and historians study this period.