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Re-Printed from “Die Nationale Volksarmee –

Journal for the Society of East German Militaria Collectors, # 5, Fall 1994


By Lee Stewart

Although the DDR had armed forces in the form of the "German Peoples Police" starting in 1949, the formal acknowledgment of a national military establishment occurred only after West Germany was admitted to NATO in 1955 and after the creation of the West German Bundeswehr on 2 January 1956. In reaction to these events, on 18 January 1956 the DDR People's Chamber (Volkskammer) passed "The Act on the Foundation of the National People's Army and the Ministry of National Defense” With this act, the Supreme Command of the Barracked People's Police (K.VP) was redesignated as the Ministry for National Defense and Willi Stoph was appointed Defense Minister. Although East German propaganda portrayed this act as a "spontaneous" reaction to West German involvement with NATO, it only officially acknowledged a situation which had existed since at least 1952, i.e., paramilitary armed units with military capabilities and training but designated as police formations.


The creation of a new Socialist German armed force which was distinctly German in nature and in appearance but which divorced itself from much of the German militarist tradition of the past presented several problems for the DDR Government and its USSR sponsors. David Childs, in his books East Germany and The GDR: Moscow's German Ally, makes the following observations:


"From the start of their campaign to build up the Streitkrafte [armed forces] the SED [(Socialist Unity Party of the DDR] and their Soviet backers were faced with' certain dilemmas. In the eyes of the world, including many in the SED, the Gentian armed forces of the past were an intrinsic part of the German authoritarian and expansive state. How could the SED build up a truly German military machine which clearly had nothing to do with the old militarist forces of the past9 How could it produce a new officer corps, NCOs and soldiers educated in the norms of the new society9 Here uniforms posed a problem. The spirit of an army cannot be gauged from its uniforms alone, but they can be important psychologically, and any revolutionary regime has difficulty with them. It wants to indicate that it is carrying on the best traditions of the past but at the same time creating something new. If it is to win support of the people for the new forces the regime must consider their likely response to various uniforms. Moreover, in countries where military propaganda has been widespread and most men have served in a national service army, the old uniforms are likely to be popular if only because they have been worn by relatives and friends and are familiar.

In the case of Germany, both states were faced with this problem. The Federal Republic tried to make a fresh start and appease foreign opinion by adopting American uniforms for its new armed forces. This solution brought criticism from traditionalists and gradually the uniforms became more Germanic, but there has been no return to the Wehrmacht uniforms of the Hitler period. After issuing their paramilitary forces with modified Wehrmacht uniforms, the SED put the KVP in Soviet-type uniforms in 1953. This proved to be unpopular and the NVA got traditional German uniforms from its inception..."

With the inception of the NVA, the traditional field-grey uniform of the German Army was reintroduced, minus the traditional helmet which was very closely identified with the Nazi era, to stress the national character of the new armed forces. This coincided with the USSR's intensive diplomatic efforts to gain worldwide official recognition for the DDR. The DDR Government, however, also hoped to gain popular support for the new NVA by emphasizing this continuation of German military tradition. A report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 3 August 1957 claimed that the new, traditional-style, uniforms of the NVA had “broken the ice” in the relations between the military and the populace and had helped to improve them.


The Central Committee of the SED held long discussions on the new uniforms for the NVA before they were introduced. Many of the veteran communists had problems agreeing on what was to be regarded as proper symbols of "military tradition of the working class." They could not put up with Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, Prussian military marches or Wehrmacht uniforms. It was decided to wait and see how the populace would react to the new uniform of the police which was also modeled on the old uniform. The new uniform appeared to bring an increase of authority to and respect for the police among the people. Based on this perception, the Central Committee decided to give the NVA uniforms in the traditional style and color.


The new uniforms for the NVA were introduced to the Volkskammer and approved on 18 January 1956. The new Defense Minister, Willi Stoph, authoritatively stated that the NVA would "... protect the territory, independence and civil population of the Republic... serve the interests of the entire German people. . (and) wear German uniforms reflecting thus the national traditions of our people.. ." Minister of Defense Stoph provided the following rational for the introduction of the traditional-style uniforms in his speech before the Volkskammer:


"There are important progressive traditions in the military of our people which found their expression in the uniform German imperialism and fascism, however, degraded the uniform as a symbol of military and national honor In the National People's Army, the German uniform will have true patriotic meaning as an expression of a resolute readiness for the defense of our democratic achievements..."

"In these uniforms, but with red arm bands, the armed workers in 1918 chased out the Kaiser, the Hamburg workers, miners from the Ruhr, workers and peasants from Saxony and Thuringia fought against the nationalist Freikorps and the reactionary Reichswehr. In these uniforms, in the Second World War, many officers and soldiers came forward in the National Committee "Free Germany" against the Hitler-fascist army."

What occurred in the Volkskammer was a novel act, as described by Klaus-Ulrich Keubke and Manfred Kunz in their book Uniformen der Nationalen Volksarmee der DDR 1956-1986; "When the members of the [Volkskammer] provided the printed document Number 63 "Decree Concerning the Creation of the National People's Army and of the Ministry for the National Defense" and adjourned in complete agreement, they were also supposed to approve the uniforms of the first socialist German army. Towards reaching this decision, an unusual step was taken - a fashion show.


In the [Volkskammer] the representatives inspected the uniforms that were intended for the members of the workers and farmers army. There was no question that the exhibit of military clothing aroused great interest among them.On the afternoon of January 18 [1956] The {Volkskammer] representatives also unanimously approved the printed document Number 64 "Decision Concerning the Introduction of the Uniform of the National Peoples Army "


Keubke and Kunz also describe the public interest which arose with the introduction of the new uniforms for the NVA:


"Of no less importance was interest by the population in the uniforming of the NVA. Newspapers during those days - and in later editions - were passed from hand to hand, in which full-page compilations of uniform types, service rank grade insignia and effects of the Ground, Air and Sea troops were published. After the introduction of the uniforms, many youths requested the editorial staff of the newspaper "Young World" to depict the rank insignia of the army. This appeared in the January 23 rd issue.

In Berlin, the capital city of the DDR, a special event attracted people. In the rooms of the German Sport Arena, in the present-day Karl-Marx-Allee, visitors continually crowded to see the uniforms and effects on display. They discovered which main uniform types were intended for the members of the National People's Army, the soldiers and NCOs of the Ground and Air would receive stone grey drill (fatigues), service, parade and walking-out uniforms. The officers of both elements likewise were to be provided with stone grey service, parade and walking out uniforms, but not with fatigue outfits Generals were outfitted with two modifications of the service uniform - staff and field duty uniforms.

There would also be service, parade and walking-out dress uniforms for all service ranks in the Sea Forces. In place of the fatigue uniform of the soldiers and NCOs of the Ground and Air Forces, the sailors, mates, masters, as well as officers wore a ship [bordanzug] outfit for certain activities on board ships and boats.


For female members in all armed forces of the NVA who are active in medical and administrative service positions, duty and walking-out uniforms were intended to be a stylish coat and skirt."


The new dress uniforms of the NVA were reminiscent of previous uniforms from the Imperial era, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi era without being a direct copy of any of the predecessors. The "steingrau" color retained the traditional grey but without the greenish cast of the previous "feldgrau." Instead, the grey was tinted with a brown cast, which some East German historians have attributed to the substitution of the brown color of the Soviet uniform. The modern-style field or battle dress uniform was a complete departure from previous field dress of the German military The dark blue uniform of the Sea Forces followed the tradition of most navies of the world. The sailor's jumper (Kieler Hemd) was a direct copy of the Imperial era 1917 model uniform and was adopted in commemoration of the Kiel Sailor's Revolt of 3 November 1918


The helmet has always been an important part of the German uniform for parades and ceremonies and guard duty, as well as for field and combat duty. For psychological and propaganda reasons, as well as reasons of insufficient physical protection, the Model 1935 helmet of the Nazi era was as unacceptable for the NVA as it was for the West German Bundeswehr While the West Germans adopted the American helmet, the NVA was not satisfied with the Soviet helmet which was used by the KVP and initially by the NVA. In 1956 it decided to rapidly produce a new helmet that was designed for the NVA uniform In order to meet time constraints, the designers selected the Model B/II helmet which had been designed, tested and selected by the Wehrmacht in 1943 to replace the Model 1935 helmet but which had never been placed in production The NVA engineers conducted further tests on the design and improved the head harness system and the metallurgy of the helmet to produce the Model 1956 helmet. The Model 1956 helmet was first put on public display on 1 May 1956 during the first parade of the NVA. This helmet was delivered to all units of the NVA by 1958. The Honor Formations of the NVA were issued light weight plastic helmets, weighing 500 grams, on 17 June 1957.


While traditional uniforms were acceptable, apparently traditional awards and decorations were not. In East Germany, David Childs comments:


"Although the People's Army got back traditional uniforms it did not get back the right to wear medals belonging to the old regimes. This contrasts with the situation in the West German armed forces whose members are allowed to wear decorations gained under previous regimes. Obviously, most of the medals worn by members of the NVA will be for activities after the setting-up of the DDR. However, three medals have been created to cover activities before 1945. In May 1965 there were six members of the NVA who had the right to wear the Medal for Taking Part In the Struggles of the German Working Class between 1918 and 1923. The Medal for Fighters against Fascism 1933 to 1945 was worn by 158 East German soldiers at that time. These would include both those who worked illegally in Germany and some who carried on propaganda for the USSR. The Hans Beimler Medal was awarded to those who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. In 1965, 42 members of the East German armed forces had been granted this honor. No doubt there were also members of the forces who had the right to wear Soviet and other suitable decorations mainly connected with the 1939-45 war."


The new awards generally took the same form as Soviet awards.

Above all else, the selection of uniforms for the NVA was based on political requirements of the DDR regime.


 Keubke and Kunz provide the following political / ideological rationale:


"The selection of the stone grey uniforms for the Land and Air Forces of the NVA and the dark blue/white for the Sea Services in 1956 was above all a political decision..."


The logic of the military legacy of the past was clearly stated with the uniforming of the NVA. In the DDR, an unmistakable break with the militaristic tradition of the Prussian-German military history had been completed. Class character and purpose of task mostly differentiated the National People's Army from all other earlier German Armies. But the state of being for the soldier in the first German worker/farmer state was different from the beginning in that the protection of the state's civilians' peaceful lives and support of brother socialist armies was its purpose. Conquering intentions and threats against other peoples and states are incompatible with the goals of the new armed forces. On the other side, a clear break with the reactionary militaristic legacy means there is no anililistic relationship to the German military history. Whereas the National People's Army (in respect to its tradition) cites the struggles of the masses (especially the revolutionary workers' movement, as well as the progressive strengths in battle against the Napoleonic yoke of 1813/14) for that portion of the legacy, it nevertheless draws upon earlier German armies for its uniforming. Today the stone grey uniforms of the NVA are a recognized symbol of a socialist army whose frame-of-mind is directed towards the assurance of peace and towards protection of the accomplishments of the workers."

Apparently the people and the regime of the DDR were satisfied with their decision to use traditional uniforms for the NVA Although there were several minor changes to the uniform over the years, the NVA continued to wear the same basic style and cut of uniform adopted in 1956 right up to the disbandment of the NVA on 2 October 1990.



  1.  Klaus-Ulrich Keubke and Manfred Kunz, Uniformen der Nationalen Volksarmee der DDR 1956 - 1986, Brandenburgisches Yerlagshaus, Berlin, 1990. (English translation from Larry Stewart and Bob Gowen)

  2.  Thomas M Forster, The East German Army, George Allen & Unwin Ltd . London, 1967.

  3.  Thomas M. Forster, The East German Army, The Second Power in the Warsaw Pact, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1980

  4.  William J. Lewis, The Warsaw Pact: Arms, Doctrine, and Strategy. Mc Graw-Hill, New York, 1982.

  5.  David Childs, East Germany, Frederick A. Praeger, Washington, 1969.

  6.  David Childs, The GDR: Moscow's German Ally. Unwin Hyman Ltd., London, 1988

  7.  Stephen R. Burant, Editor, East Germany, A Country Study, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, July 1987.

  8.  Information GDR. The Comprehensive Reference Source of the German Democratic Republic. GDR Academy of Sciences, Pergamon Press, New York, 1989

  9.  Ludwig Baer, History of the German Steel Helmet, 1916 - 1945. Publisher Unknown, 1985.

  10. Reinhard Bruhl, et al. Armee fur Frieden und Sozialismus, Geschichte der Nationalen Volksarmee der DDR, Militarverlag der DDR, Berlin, 1985

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