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Books in Review: Legacies in Steel – Personalized and Historical German Edged Weapons 1800-1990

Legacies in Steel- Personalized and Historical German Edged Weapons 1800-1990 is a pleasant journey through a  quality representation of some of Germany's finest blades.

Legacies in Steel – Personalized and Historical German Edged Weapons 1800-1990

By Hermann Hampe and Rick Douzet, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pa. 2019, Hardback, 624 pages, $200, Orders from www.casematepublishers.com

Legacy-of-Steel-Cover

This work is different from the ordinary run in several ways. One is its horizontal format, rarely seen in the collectibles genre. For some, this orientation may seem inconvenient, even awkward. That is, until they begin paging through the several hundred color photos. Then comes the epiphany and inevitable deep dive.

I mean no disrespect for the fine, workmanlike images found in, for example, Tom Wittmann’s “The Edged Weapons of…” book series. But these high-resolution, infinitely detailed photographs are of a different order. Meaning: painstaking object placement, studio lighting from subtle to dramatic, varying apertures and exposures for different effects. Some frames look almost three-dimensional.

In a word, the images are stunning. They are leagues beyond anything collectors need for identification purposes, and like the book’s qualities overall rise to the level of fine art. Certainly, the galleries’ visual appeal exceeds what’s usually encountered in dealer or auction catalogue.

Here again, that horizontal viewing mode was a sound choice. A good number of the total 100 or so bladed weapons are depicted in double-page spreads. Thus, an Imperial German officer’s dirk appears larger than in real-life, enabling the faintest details to emerge and be viewed in ways hard to see even in hand, at militaria shows or even in museum display cases.

Indeed, speaking of museums, many pieces are courtesy of Germany’s renowned military history museum in Rostock. For this project, curators granted the image-makers rare, non-public access. It was a generous move.

For its part the text, both the introduction and the extensive picture captions are intelligent -- reflecting appreciation for the swords and daggers themselves and respect for their owners.

Provenances are the book’s other signal virtue: the finely wrought background and history of the men who owned and carried these objects from the 18th to the 20th Century.

This personal aspect – difficult to achieve and requiring much thought and diligence -- is another departure from similar works, helping give the edged weapons life. Some of the earliest started as weapons of war, and look it! Others were dressy -- presentation or dedicated versions of standard models.

On the opposite pole are delicately adorned, rapier-like pieces worn for attendance at some royal court. Some iterations after the age of sword blades’ combat role ended carry décor recalling past military campaigns; again, for ceremonies, “walking out,” or perhaps formal occasions where homage to forebears’ courage was expected. Deservedly, a great deal of attention is paid weapons of the Imperial era – the high-water mark for lavish beauty, ornateness, remarkable detail and craftsmanship from careful casting, gilding, engraving and hand-finishing of parts.

Still other varieties, notably 1933-1945 armed forces (Wehrmacht) production, were all-new designs though with echoes of baroque, Byzantine or Viking eras. These include the 1st and 2nd Model Air Force (Luftwaffe) officers’ daggers, the regulation Army (Heer) dagger; the Luftwaffe sword, and that branch’s general officers’ model; the last definitely “court”-inspired. Paying closest fealty to earlier times is the Kriegsmarine Sabel, or Navy dress sword.

It continued virtually unchanged for generations until war’s end. (Neither, interestingly, did it brandish the twisted cross.) Rarely did Hitler Reich makers attain the earlier times’ quality -- examples are seen here -- but large numbers survived, making them a lot more widely available and far less costly. The variations of standard models, plus bayonets dress and service,
trench knives and accouterments are many, keeping enthusiasts on the hunt.

And after 1945? Surprisingly, while the postwar military services (Bundeswehr) adopted no ceremonial edged weapons, East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) created dress daggers for senior military and civil officers. Several from the pre-1990 era are depicted. And while of lesser quality than Third Reich and Imperial bladery , they are solid and impressive things, especially resting in their presentation cases.

In short, Hampe’s and Douzet’s work is a departure from earlier reference studies and is a major contribution to the historic arms literature. This is an expensive volume, but I suspect to the aficionado worth every penny. Beyond the words and pictures, each detail from selectively vanished covers and highest-grade paper to bindings and endpapers is remarkable. The images and production values makes “Legacies in Steel” a sort of Rolls Royce of militaria books.

I’ve reviewed many collectors’ references, most well researched and put together – typically yeoman efforts. But this is the most sumptuous I’ve reported on. It is destined, notes the publisher, to be a lasting record of these beautiful objects and a tribute to the “legacy and honor of each of the original owners.”

And so it deserves to be. Major kudos to the patient authors and their collaborators, the photographers, and to Britain’s Gateway publishers. This is a singular achievement. 

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