A little-known but highly significant military symbol of Germany and the Third Reich was the personalized Marshal’s baton, a short, heavy, bejeweled emblem of authority carried only by Field Marshals (Generalfeldmarschall) of the Army (Heer) and Air Force (Luftwaffe) and Grand Admirals (Großadmiral) of the Navy (Kriegsmarine).
These were the highest military ranks in Germany until the creation in July 1940 of the rank of Reichsmarschall for Hermann Göring. The Reichsmarshal position came with its own baton, making Göring the sole possessor of two batons. (Göring had received his Luftwaffe Field Marshal’s baton in 1938.)
In all, only 26 batons were awarded to 25 individuals (again, 2 to Hermann Göring): 1 Reichsmarshal baton, 18 Army batons, 5 Air Force batons, and 2 Navy batons. As a consequence, the number of batons and the number of baton holders do not match exactly. In addition, three field marshals did not receive batons.
Following the 1945 destruction of Germany, the rank of Field Marshal was abolished.
The baton possessed a magical, archaic, symbolic quality extending beyond the merely ceremonial or ornamental.
Following is some grainy newsreel footage of Hitler awarding several new batons, including Hermann Göring’s second, Reichsmarshal’s, baton. The Reichsmarshal can be seen studying his new diamond-studded ivory, gold, and platinum baton with unconcealed pride.
Though no historical background about the video is provided, it is obvious from a list of WWII Field Marshals that the ceremony, involving ten recipients present in person, took place on July 1, 1940.
B&W, silent, 2:24 mins
There is surprisingly little information available about the Marshal’s baton and its great, if intangible, social significance. It was entirely unknown to me until I attended a lecture by historian David Irving.
Irving showed a photograph of a general, I believe Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, reviewing his troops. He remarked, “He’s carrying his Field Marshal’s baton.”
Keitel was head of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), Hitler’s de facto war minister.
The baton, “very heavy,” Irving explained, was a symbol of great authority that its holder carried on ceremonial occasions. A Field Marshal had “tenure,” and could not be fired. He was roughly the equivalent of an American five-star general.
Intrigued by the brief reference to an item I’d never heard of, I peered at the photograph but couldn’t see it. “He’s holding it behind his back,” Irving said.
Keitel was hanged at Nuremberg in October 1946. Having previously exposed the Allied war crime of The Destruction of Dresden (1963), Irving subsequently translated the General’s memoirs into English as The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Keitel (1965).
The Field Marshal’s son, Karl-Heinz Keitel, living outside Cologne, was so delighted that Irving had reinserted for English readers the Politically Incorrect passages excised by the German publisher that he did Irving four favors, one of which was:
He took me into their front room, opened a heavy oaken cupboard door, poked his hand into the inside ledge above the door, and brought down the bejeweled, velvet, platinum-and-gold field-marshal’s baton that was hidden there from the occupation authorities and now from the German police.
The military baton originated in ancient Rome, although some sources maintain the baton was used in Classical Greece, e.g., by the army of Sparta around 414 BC.
A primary symbol of the power of the Roman imperator (general in the army) to command was a short, heavy, ivory baton surmounted by an eagle carried as his personal emblem of office.
Use of the baton has probably been continuous in Europe since Roman times, though historical information is spotty. Marshals of the Holy Roman Empire (medieval Germany) carried batons.
There have been Marshals of France since 1190. French kings and later Napoleon provided their marshals with ornate batons. One such Marshal of France was Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy regime during WWII.
Marshals’ batons were also used in the British Empire, Russia, and other European countries from at least 1700 on. A 1735 equestrian statue of King William III in Glasgow, Scotland commemorating the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 depicts William in traditional Roman attire with baton in hand.
Batons of the Third Reich
As noted, batons were only carried by Field Marshals and their Navy equivalents, Grand Admirals. They are called Marshals’ batons (pl. Marschallstäbe, sing. Marschallstab) or Grand Admirals’ batons (pl. Großadmiralstäbe, sing. Großadmiralstab).
A baton was the tangible symbol of a Field Marshal’s/Grand Admiral’s rank and status, a badge of authority, not a mere decoration.
The primary Field Marshal/Grand Admiral baton, carried on important ceremonial occasions, was an expensive, beautiful work of art individually handcrafted by the Berlin jewelry firm H. J. Wilm.
Though all batons were of similar general construction, each service’s design differed somewhat. The metal shafts, covered in different-colored velvet, were decorated with gold, silver, and platinum Iron Crosses, swastikas, Wehrmacht eagles, and other emblems.
The recipient’s name and date of attainment of rank were also engraved on the baton. After the holder’s death it became a family heirloom.
Because Göring was the only individual to receive two batons for his dual ranks of Air Force Field Marshal and Reichsmarshal, the single most impressive and expensive baton was his white elephant ivory Reichsmarshal’s baton, signifying his rank above all other marshals and admirals. It incorporated exceptional materials, including platinum in the inscription banding and more than 600 small diamonds.
Today, Göring’s Luftwaffe Field Marshal baton is displayed at the National Infantry Museum, Fort Benning, Georgia, and his Reichsmarshal baton at West Point Museum, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.
Every newly-promoted Generalfeldmarschall or Großadmiral was actually presented with two batons: the primary baton just described and a so-called Interim Baton (Interimsstab) for everyday use, which, though less expensive, was far from cheap.
Beautifully and decoratively wrought, interim batons were different in shape, about 31 inches long, wider and heavier at the top, tapering to a narrow end. They resembled riding crops. Each general’s or admiral’s name was written on the Interimsstab in Gothic letters. Interim batons served as emblems of rank for everyday use to save wear and tear on the delicate, vulnerable, and costly ceremonial batons.
There is only one book about Marshals’ batons, and it is in German: André Stirenberg and André Hüsken, Mythos Marschallstab. Der Marschallstab in der preußischen und deutschen Geschichte von 1852 bis 1945 (Bremen: Hauschild Verlag, 2004). Three used copies are currently sold on Amazon at prices ranging from $159 to $279.
The book catalogues every Field Marshal’s baton awarded in Germany from 1852 to 1945, with detailed color and black and white photographs of each baton, a history of the award, and an analysis of each baton’s construction and design. To obtain an idea of the contents, see several color photographs of selected pages here.
Replicas, War Trophies, & Fakes
It appears that only a handful of authentic WWII Field Marshals’ batons are displayed in museums in the US, Great Britain, Moscow, Germany, and elsewhere. Others are held in private collections.
Some remain in the possession of the holders’ families.
Specialty firms have manufactured a number of “museum quality” replicas of individual batons that are periodically sold to collectors at expensive prices. Though not genuine, they are identified as replicas, and not intended to deceive.
Some batons were destroyed or stolen by the Allied, Jewish, and Communist occupiers.
Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch, Hermann Göring’s deputy and founder in the 1920s of Europe’s largest airline, Lufthansa, had his gold field marshal’s baton stolen; it was returned to his family in the 1980s.
In 1944, Milch was seriously injured in a car accident. When captured by the Allies the following year, British Brigadier General Derek Mills-Roberts sneered that “All German generals are criminals, murderers, guilty of the atrocities of the concentration camps, etc.”
When Milch replied that he belonged to the air force, and had never had the least to do with concentration camps in his life, Mills-Roberts flew into a rage, seized the Field Marshal’s silver-knobbed Interim Baton and beat the invalid until he fractured Milch’s skull and the shaft broke.
Still furious, “with hatred in his face,” the general proceeded to assault Milch with a champagne bottle. The entire episode was filmed.
“During this time,” Milch wrote, “all the soldiers had their tommyguns cocked and pointed at me so that the slightest attempt to defend myself would have been suicide.”
It seems clear from this and many similar incidents that Allied and Communist leaders successfully inculcated maniacal anti-German hatred in their followers, much like the anti-white hatred we experience today.
Ultimately, Mills-Roberts stole Milch’s Interim baton, which his daughter sold at auction in London in 1986.
On YouTube there is home video footage of an American GI who had been wounded in France in WWII reminiscing to two young relatives about finding a jeweled Field Marshal’s baton two days before he was hit by a grenade and sent to a hospital.
He’d stolen the “souvenir,” as he calls it, from a leather satchel handcuffed to the wrist of a dead German payroll officer.
“A lot of people don’t realize how mean American soldiers can be,” the man says. “We looted every goddamned body we seen. You have to learn the hard way that you don’t put your hand in a guy’s pocket because he may be shot in the ass and there’s all kinds of guts in there. So you take your bayonet or a knife and slit his pocket and flip the stuff out.”
At the hospital, American personnel routinely stripped wounded GIs of all personal possessions. The man believes this is where the baton was stolen from him: “The medics get all the souvenirs. What they done was loot their own people! They stole everything I had.”
The flourishing militaria market is top-heavy with fakes and frauds, especially where highly-prized German WWII items are concerned.
Following the war, the firm of Otto Klein in Hanau, southern Germany—which had actually designed Field Marshal Walter Model’s genuine baton in 1944—is said to have manufactured fake batons. Klein allegedly produced copies—often more than one—of every single marshal’s baton, which sold for thousands of dollars apiece. Reportedly, the hollow center tube on Klein fakes is made from aluminum while originals were made from silver.
While it was fascinating and educational to learn of the existence of an important accoutrement about which I knew nothing, examine photos of batons in ceremonial use, and read about their craftsmanship, design, and ornamentation, what remains most intriguing to me about the Marshal’s baton is its long history, and the intangible aura of myth, magic, and mystery that clung to it right through World War II.