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Collecting Sanke Cards

Sanke cards grew out of the early medium of postcards and are now an invaluable documentation of German flyers who, for a short time in aviation history, were at the top of their profession.    
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By David Lougheed

The August 3, 1902, New York Times announced the death in Vienna of Dr. Emanuel Hermann, declaring him the inventor of the postcard. Hermann had been the Austrian Minister of Commerce and in 1869 had taken the idea for an inexpensive postal card from an article in the New Free Press.

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Sanke card 545 of Hauptmann Kleine wearing his
Prussian pilot’s badge and Iron Cross, frozen in a
moment 90 years ago, holding an unlit cigarette in
anticipation of the photographer snapping his
picture so he can light it.

While sources indicate postcards were in use in France as early as 1777, Hermann appears to be the modern champion of the postcard. There was reluctance by authorities to accept the new method of sending messages as it was felt that the writer’s thoughts would be available for all to read. Hermann called the cards “the poor man’s telegram”.

When the postal service gave their blessings, the card’s popularity quickly grew, and other countries quickly adopted the new medium. The Franco-Prussian war in 1870 saw the first commercially published postcards which soldiers embraced as a simple alternative to letter writing.

Following the war, postcards were firmly entrenched with the public, with the cards produced in Germany at the forefront of popularity due to their superior color printing process. The colorful military uniforms of the time from all European countries lent themselves to the postcard image.

Britain first officially issued postcards in 1870, and the United States followed in 1873 with a pre-printed stamp. The lower postal rate for postcards made them extremely popular. For the fiscal year 1908 U.S. postal authority declared over 677 million postcards sent.

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Oberleutnant Max Immelmann, one of the earliest
German aces, killed June 1916. There are a
number of versions of Immelmann cards, with
several memorial issues as well. This version was
issued in 1915. The photo was taken by Emil Richter,
indicated by the flag in the lower corner with
“ERO”. Immelmann is credited with inventing the
aerial dogfighting reversal move which bears his name.

Artists in Germany were also depicting military subjects on their early cards. As soldiers were often the best customers, photographers would set up near army bases and create personalized cards with photos of the men who could then send them home to family and friends. Various German companies also offered portraits of the Kaiser, his family and famous generals in full military plumage. These cards became collectibles, with people putting them in specially created albums rather than mailing them. Distributors turned to other subjects such as ships, parades and military maneuvers and inevitably to the airplane and the pilots.

German photographer Willi Sanke was taking Official Picture Postcards of dirigibles and early airplanes at the Johannisthal Air Field prior to World War I. An early Sanke ad indicated about 200 views were available which included several of Count Zepplin’s airships.

When war came, the cards with the early airships, pilots and naval flyers gave way to the first aces. Sanke used eminent German photographers for his aviation series, including Nicola Perscheid, who also invented a large portrait photography lens. Charles Wooley’s reference book Sanke Cards: The World War German Aviators is the ultimate guide and the primary source for the Sanke collector and this article. The book depicts every known example of Sanke cards depicting German aces.


The British were reluctant to publicize their flying aces and to take advantage of the resulting public adulation, preferring the low key approach, emphasizing the idea of a total team effort rather than focusing on the individual. Despite these efforts, the names of the early aces Hawker and Ball and later McCudden and Mannock were known to the British public.

The German high command immediately recognized the propaganda windfall to be gained in public morale by promoting and aggrandizing their aces. Max Immelmann card 340 and Oswald Bolecke card 363, two of the first German Fokker aces, were immediately popular, forcing Sanke to create more cards of “Our Successful War Flyers”.

Some pilots kept a supply on hand to fill requests from the public for autographs. These cards today bring a premium price. When aces met a glorious death for the fatherland, Sanke re-issued several versions of memorial cards, draped in black borders or with verse. In Wooley’s book, each card gets a full page, with date of birth and death when known, the units in which each served, decorations won and victories attained.

Several aces have a number of versions and poses, but strangely Lothar Richthofen only had two cards. Possibly, the availability of the aces to be photographed contributed to the haphazard nature of the photos.

Studying the studio images the viewer is struck by the young faces. A young, slim Herman Göring had four views. Kurt Wolff, card 513, with his hand in his coat à la Napoleon, appears elf-like, his grin hiding the fact that he was one of Richthofen’s elite killers credited with 33 victories. The picture of Erich Loewenhardt in side profile on card 641 looks strikingly like a young Herbert “Zeppo” Marx.

There are three memorial views of Richthofen, which would postdate April 21, 1918. This would support the notion the production of cards continued into the last summer of the war and was not affected by shortages. There are several different versions of photos of Anthony Fokker, creator of some of the finest German fighter planes which bear his name.


Today, collectors are stymied by an erratic numbering system for these cards, which stops and starts with large blocks of numbers having yet to be identified, if they even existed. Non-sequential numbering is the bane of completist collectors, creating “adaptable buyers” through necessity. Collectors must find their own unique reasons for purchasing examples of these cards.

Some Internet sites dedicated to the collection of Sanke cards reveal collections as eclectic as the collector. Some only collect Blue Max winners, some only collect cards of aces with at least 20 victories. This is the great thing about military collections — they always exist within whatever parameters the collector decides.

There are several dealers selling Sanke cards. Some deal in German propaganda cards from both wars and include Sanke cards in their offerings. Ebay is also a good source. Cards are affordable in the $35 to $100 range, depending — as always — on condition and the subject. The more famous classic images of Richthofen go for more and autographed examples of any subject bring premium prices.

The author’s collection of cards has several with evidence of being glued into a scrapbook in the last 90 years. There are also some with pinholes indicating they may have been on some young boy’s wall (or a girl’s, as girls were known to be avid purchasers of the cards), sending many away for autographs. The back of one of the author’s cards — Blue Max recipient Albert Dossenbach — has a pencil notation in a child’s printing indicating he was a 15-victory ace.

The Sanke cards grew out of the early medium of postcards and are now an invaluable documentation of German flyers who, for a short time in aviation history, were at the top of their profession.

Recommended Reading:
Woolley, Charles. The Sanke Cards World War One German Aviators. Atglen PA: Schiffer Military History 2003.

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