An Unusual Volkswagen Luftschutz “Gladiator” Helmet

January 4, 2017 marked the 80th anniversary of one of the most successful automakers ever founded, Volkswagen. Interestingly, the origin of the company dates to one of the most infamous eras and organizations of the 20th century.

To put things in their proper historical context, we need to go back to post-WWI Germany’s Weimar Republic, a time when both the economy and political situation in the country were grim. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, assigned war guilt to Germany and imposed significant reparations which hobbled the economy throughout the Weimar era and even into the Third Reich. As the country lurched from one political crisis to the next, the economy trudged along, automobiles gradually became affordable to Germany’s average citizens, though the industry was still mostly producing luxury vehicles.

By the early 1930s, efforts were being made to produce an automobile that the common man could afford for his family. In 1932, one year before Reichspraesident von Hindenburg would appoint Hitler Reichschancellor, Hitler ordered an affordable car be produced that could carry a family of five 100 km/h. In the meantime, Ferdinand Porsche, yes, that Ferdinand Porsche, had produced an automobile called the “Volksauto.”

Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) flag

Hitler ordered a state-owned factory that developed what was called the KdF-Wagen, generally recognizable to our eyes as a prototype “Beetle.” KdF, by the way, stood for kraft durch freude, or strength through joy. KdF was also the largest leisure-oriented organization in the Third Reich, being part of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, or DAF, charged with breaking down class barriers to make recreation and travel available and affordable to all social classes – while mixing National Socialist principles everywhere it could. Just what you’d expect from that bunch.

In 1938, a factory was built in a special purpose-built KdF-Stadt that we know as Wolfsburg. However by the time Germany invaded Poland to kick off World War II, few cars had actually been produced.

KdF Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) logo

All this time, the famous VW logo was evolving. Beginning as a stylized, VW with a curved-arm KdF swastika surrounding the gear (or cogwheel, if you prefer) of the DAF, by the period just before and during the war, the swastika portion had been jettisoned, leaving the stacked VW and DAF gear.

RLB “Gladiator” Helmet with Luftschutz decal

In 1933, the same year Hitler was appointed Reichschancellor, the Reichsluftschutzbund, or RLB, was organized by Herman Göring. It was a volunteer organization that absorbed other air raid and civil defense associations of the time, and was considered a non-governmental organization until it was finally absorbed by the Nazi party in 1944.

Members purchased their own helmets, which generally cost around 5 Reichs Marks. While many members opted for repurposed helmets from other nations, the RLB had three designs to choose from – a one-piece helmet, an M1935 model with a beaded rim, and of course, the most distinctive three-piece “gladiator” style. A distinctive Luftschutz decal would be applied to front. While it was not unusual for Germany’s factories to equip their emergency services with helmets featuring the company logo, very often we see the common aluminum fire helmet used.

About thirteen years ago, when I was still working for Manion’s, a curious gladiator three-piece came across my desk with a stenciled VW logo, the style without the KdF swastika. The painted stencil showed the right amount of wear, and there was no sign of a removed Luftschutz decal, suggesting the helmet was specially purchased and stenciled with the VW logo for use in its factory. Unfortunately, access to original images of the helmet died with Manion’s image servers in early 2014, so the image at the top of this post of a hardcopy from 2004 is the best I have.

While selling for just under $200 in 2004 (including the buyer’s premium), I’ve seen other VW factory helmets – usually commonly repurposed fire helmets – command double and triple that amount. I suspect it was a good investment for the buyer!

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