The M56 Stahlhelm adapted by the East German Military has origins that can be traced all the way back to the 1939 Wehrmacht invasion of Poland. The Iron and Steel Specialty Division of the Third Reich Research Council undertook a study at that time, of the ballistic characteristics inherent to various military helmets of armies of several different countries. The Reich Institute for Defense Technology was tasked with this study, and two Professors, Dr. FRY and Dr. HAENSEL were instrumental in securing examples of different helmets from different countries for the test. These helmets, along with the Wehrmacht’s own M35 Stahlhelm, were tested with small arms ammunition fired from a multitude of angles and distances, for research purposes relevant penetration characteristics. The British “Tommy” helmet fared the worst. However, the Wehrmacht’s own M35 also was found to have serious shortcomings. Finding none of the helmets in current use by the different armies of the world to be satisfactory, the Reich Institute undertook steps to design an altogether new helmet with the ballistic characteristics sought after. Several prototype helmets for testing were produced by the Voelkingen Stahlwerke.
Upon completion of the tests in 1942, the results were provided to the Army Weapons Office. Despite objections by Hitler, this office, under the auspices of a memoranda generated by the Army Medical Inspectorate, went ahead and authorized production of a new pattern combat helmet. The passing of the memorandum was due in part to increasing pressure on the Army Weapons Office to find a solution to the ever increasing number of serious head wounds received by wearers of the M35 and the M42; and to encompass design changes that would address the increasingly scarce supply of necessary materials and labor required for production of the current M35/42 helmet. The M35/42 models were both very expensive to produce, and labor intensive. Subsequently, a total of four prototypes were designed, which were designated A, B, BII, and C. The latter 3 represented major departures from the M35/42 design. After preliminary testing, models B and BII were approved for further testing. Orders were then placed with the Eisen und Huettenwerke for production of no less than 50 examples of each type. They were referred to as the Thale/Harz helmets after their designers.
The Helmets were then sent to the Doeblitz Infantry School outside of Berlin, where they were then put through rigorous “Hands-on” testing in a true field environment with Infantry Units at the school. The helmets subsequently proved to be of sound design for wear and use, and were far superior in ballistics to any helmet then made. It was only then that Hitler was approached with the final results of the research program that had gone on for several years without his knowledge. Both helmet designs, B and BII were presented to him in the autumn of 1944 for his approval of one or the other. The new helmet was to be designated the M45. Remarkably, Hitler took no action against anyone for the tests that had gone on behind his back. He did however reject both helmets, doing so on the principal that the current M35/42 in his eyes, best exemplified the German Soldier. His decision was based entirely on his own perception of how countries with whom the Wehrmacht was at war, viewed the German Soldier in Uniform. He felt the M35/42 best exemplified that look. Not surprisingly, memoirs recorded in diaries of some Soviet soldiers suggest the new helmets given to the Infantry School on the outskirts of Berlin for testing, received their baptism of fire when Soviet Forces first entered the Berlin Capital in the Spring of 1945. Reportedly, Russian Troops encountered two Infantry Companies from the Doeblitz Infantry School. The Dresden Museum has in its NVA Display, an example of a model BII Stahlhelm, believed to be a survivor of the last ditch effort by the Wehrmacht against the Russians, as they unsuccessfully strove to fend off the invaders as they entered Berlin.
After the division of the two German states, and the designation of East Germany as a separate country in 1949, a seemingly new type helmet already had appeared, which was worn in limited numbers by the Barracks Police, or KVP. It actually was based upon the model A Stahlhelm and therefore resembled the M35/42. It, together with the Khaki type uniform then worn by the KVP, proved to be problematic with the East German Populace, who found it too closely resembled the uniform of the hated Soviet Military. Consequently in 1956, with the transformation of the KVP into the new National Volkes Army (NVA), the newly established NVA Rear-Services Administration and Office of Technology was ordered to develop a new helmet deemed suitable for an East German “Socialist” Armed Forces. It could not have physical characteristics associated with either the Wehrmacht M35/42 or the Russian helmet. Consequently the Model A helmet then being worn by the KVP was rejected. Yet the helmet still needed to project the “National” character of East Germany. It suddenly dawned on all, that the helmet in question had already been designed, and tested. And, the factory for producing the helmet already existed, with all the necessary tools and die. It just so happened that the Head Engineer appointed to and tasked with the development of the new NVA helmet was Erich KIESEN. Ironically, he had been affiliated with Eisen und Huettenwerke, which had produced the model B and BII helmets formerly approved by the Wehrmacht Army Weapons Office, but rejected by Hitler. Hitler’s rejection now proved paramount and profound, because it paved the way for acceptance of that helmet without connotations of it being associated with the “Fascist” Wehrmacht Army. Better yet, no monies were necessary for research, design and/or testing. The helmet had already been designed, researched and tested thoroughly, and had passed with flying colors on all accounts. Even better was the fact that Engineer KIESEN was the holder of former patents for an improved helmet liner with a new “Y” type chin-strap and ventilation bushings meant for the M35/42, but never implemented. With modifications, the Model B and BII could be quickly fitted with that liner. But most prophetic of all, was the good fortune that the factory in question was completely intact and located on East German soil. The BII subsequently was selected for production over the model B. So it was that in Jan 1956, production of the model BII was resumed.
The new helmet was introduced to the East German Public via photographs published that February in a magazine for the German Youth, or FDJ. The new helmet was officially introduced at the introduction ceremony of the NVA on May 1st, in Berlin. It was painted in a “Stone Grey” matte and bore a Tri-color Shield on one side in Black, Red and Gold.
Eventually, the helmet under the direction of Gen. Willi Stoph, went through more rigorous testing, resulting in superficial design modifications over the passing years - the removal of the “Rivets” being one of the later design modification improvements. In principal however, the helmet was found to be superior to anything then being fielded by any army anywhere. Not until the advent of the Kevlar Helmet by the U.S. Military, did a helmet surpass the ballistic qualities endowed to the NVA Stahlhelm, officially designated the M-1956.
In 1957 the helmet entered production in earnest in three sizes (60m, 64m and 68m). By September of that same year, 50,000 helmets had been produced and issued to NVA Troops. By years end, all NVA Troops had the helmet. The entire process – development to production and issue, was accomplished in a single year. Also in 1957, the first “Resin” or plastic NVA helmets were produced for issue to and wear by special elite or honor guard troops.
It should be noted that the first production helmets had a liner similar to the M-42, but were configured with a double “Y” chin-strap. Consequently, any NVA Stahlhelm found to be configured with an M-42 type liner and the single type adjustable chinstrap, could very well be an example of a model B or BII produced during the era of the Wehrmacht. The “Rivets” of course should be found to be positioned lower on the helmet than on subsequent 1956 production models. Certainly, something to consider and think about. Over its lifetime, the M56 came in three basic versions, Mod 1 or I/56, Mod 2 or I/57 and Mod 3 or I/71.
The M56 became the hallmark of the Soviet Union's most effective satellite state, and served well until the demise of the DDR in 1990. Quantities were later used by the Croatians in the Balkan conflict from 1991. Only the liner and chinstrap differed as modern and cheaper materials became available, the outer shell remaining consistent.
While much of what is referenced above can be found through research of varied publications, we wish to extend full credit for the above referenced information to Susan E. Gibbons. Much of it, while originally based upon data acquired from different independent resources, is a compilation of historic information extracted from a research publication she authored in 1995.
East German NVA M56 Stahlhelm
East German M56 Helmet
East German soldiers charged with traffic control and other military police duties wore this colorful cover over their helmets. The slip-over cover, highlighted by an embroidered patch showing the DDR coat of arms, was unmistakable.