The Strange Inspirations of Nation-Building


East German soldiers of the Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment marching to relieve guards at the Neue Wach memorial. 

A social media conversation with a few friends this morning served as a reminder of how truly fascinating the study of nation-building through the adoption of flags, symbols and other devices and practices often proves to be.

In an attempt to solidify identity, national founders or, as the case may be, satraps acting at the urging of their conquering puppet masters, often reach far down into the memory hole, resurrecting symbols and traditions long forgotten or, in a few noteworthy instances, long repressed.

In resurrecting the dignity of France following its defeat, humiliation and conquest by Nazi Germany in 1940, Charles de Gaulle, founder of the Free France movement, employed the Cross of St. Lorraine as a sort of French patriotic counterweight to the Nazi Swastika.

One especially remarkable example of nation-building involved a decision in the 1950’s by the German Democratic Republic – East Germany, as it was commonly known in the United States – to  reaffirm a controversial chapter of German history. At the urging of it’s Soviet hegemons, East Germany’s rulers resurrected many Prussian military traditions, which had formed the foundation of Nazi Wehrmacht’s dress and martial traditions.  This represents an especially remarkable volte-face when one considers that the Nationale Volksarmee (the East German Peoples’ Army) was conceived as the “instrument of power of the German working class.”

On the other hand, given the regime’s desperate internal and geopolitical situation, the decision wasn’t that surprising.  After the Workers’ Uprising of 1953, the Soviets and their East German surrogates were frantic to shore up support for a regime that had become hopelessly discredited in the eyes of millions of East German citizens.  This became an even greater priority after its Western counterpart, West Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany, undertook its first tepid steps toward a national army.

There was little support among the East German and Soviet elites for returning to the iconic Stahlhelm, but the Soviet M-40 helmet, employed by other Soviet-dominated East Bloc national armies, was considered off limits too.  As a compromise, the Volksarmee’s distinctive new steel helmets were actually based on a 1944 Nazi prototype which was never employed beyond the experimental phase.

On the other hand, the traditional Prussian field-gray uniforms were restored with surprisingly little deviation from the earlier Wehrmacht uniforms.

Arguably, the most remarkable borrowing of all was reflected in one of the most noteworthy of East German state rituals:  the Changing of the Guard at the Neue Wach, known at the time as the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism.  This was roughly the equivalent of the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

German Guard Change – NVA Wachablösung Wachregiment Friedrich Engels DDR.

Compare this to the changing of the Guard at Adolph Hitler’s Reich Chancellory in 1936.

Changing of the Guard at Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, 1936.

Remarkably, in building its own national defense force, West Germany moved largely in the opposite direction, abandoning of many early of the Prussian practices that distinguished the old German army.  The Bundeswehr (Federal Army) helmet was closely modeled on the U.S. M-1 helmet, though it retained the leather suspension system that characterized the earlier Wehrmacht Stalhelm.  And while the uniforms retained some historic German features, they were also patterned after other armies within the Western Alliance.

Moreover, to underscore the democratic underpinnings of the new Bundeswehr, much of the parade drill was revised to reflect more informal American traditions.  For example, Bundeswehr soldiers stood at attention with their hand slightly cupped in the American fashion rather than rigidly extended.

Incidentally, the history of the Bundeswehr is brilliantly recounted in “Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era” by David Clay Large.

The profound differences between these two post-war German armies are reflected in the October 3, 1990 turnover of the East German military base on Prora, located on the Baltic Sea island of Rugen, to the West German Bundeswehr.

The Last Appeal – Or How the NVA Became the Bundeswehr.

The spit and polish of the Nationale Volksarmee, which undertook its final military parade and affirmation of East German nationhood at the Prora base on the afternoon of October 2, offers a remarkably sharp contrast to the Bundeswehr, which took possession of the Baltic Sea base early the following morning.



About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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