The above picture has been assumed to be Hans Halberstadt for a very long time. I thought so myself, even after scanning it (thanks Kathy Krusen!) at high resolution and having every opportunity to review it with a critical eye. If you’ve ever been inside the Halberstadt Fencers Club in San Francisco and seen this photograph hanging on the wall, you probably thought it was Hans, too. This well-known image is one of a number of photographs that grace the walls of the Halberstadt Club that have survived the years since Hans’ passing in 1966. The salle, when Hans was still alive, had a great number of photos of Hans as a young man and many photos of his fencing friends and acquaintances. This one, the lunging nude, was assumed by most, if not all, members and visitors alike, to be a photo of Hans as a fit young man. I checked in with John McDougall, who was one of the people that helped preserve and maintain the club after Hans passed away. He’d never asked Hans about that photo specifically and couldn’t ID the subject for certain one way or another. Over the course of the 50+ years since then, the assumption that the photo was of Hans has become commonplace.
Except, it’s not.
It’s the right era and looks much like other photos that Hans had on his walls, in all ways it seems like it ought to be Hans. Why would he put a photo of a nude fencer up on his wall otherwise? Well, as it turns out, it was someone Hans knew very well, competed against for years, was Olympic teammates with in 1928, and one of the finest international competitors of the late-1920s until the mid-1930s.
The nude man in the photo is Erwin Casmir.
Francesco Tagliabo and Erwin Casmir. Tagliabo was trained at the Scuolo Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome and made his career teaching in Germany. He became Casmir’s coach when Casmir moved to Frankfurt am Main around 1924.
Erwin Casmir was an extremely accomplished fencer and has personal records that still stand in his native Germany that are highly unlikely to ever be broken. His uncle, a two-time Olympian with 2 gold and 2 silver medals in fencing, Gustav Casmir, started him out, coaching Erwin as a young man. Casmir volunteered to serve in the German army during WW1 as a young man and, after some self-doubt due to poor pre-war competitive results, returned to the sport in 1920 and soon dominated the field. Take a look at this breakdown of his individual success.
From left to right: Foil, Epee, Sabre
From 1920 to 1928, Casmir won 23 individual German championships. From 1923 to 1928, he won the individual title in all three weapons. He continued to represent Germany through the 1936 Olympics, so you might well wonder why he doesn’t continue to show up in the victory column after 1928. The reason is simple: he stopped competing in the individual events. After 1928, he only competed in team events. With his club team from Fechtclub Hermannia Frankfurt he won another 25 titles.
His Olympic results are, in many ways, just as impressive. He fenced the individual sabre twice and the individual foil three times and never failed to make the final. He won the individual foil silver medal in 1928 behind Lucien Gaudin in a final that the Italians, at least, felt the officiating overwhelmingly favored the Frenchman. In the following two Olympic cycles, he finished in 5th and 4th. In the individual sabre, he had a 6th and a 4th place finish. At the 1936 games, he was the anchor for both the foil and sabre teams, earning bronze medal finishes in both events. The results of the 1932 individual sabre are particularly interesting to me. Casmir finished the final round in a three-way tie for the bronze medal with a bout score of 5 wins, 4 losses. On touches, he finished in fourth place, behind Endre Kabos and ahead of Attila Petschauer – both of whom he defeated in the final pool. He also defeated the silver medalist, Giulio Gaudini. The winner, George Piller (of whom you may well have seen mention on this website previously), defeated Casmir 5-0, but it was the bouts against the bottom half of the pool where Casmir struggled, losing to the fencers who finished 6th, 7th and 8th in the round robin of ten competitors.
(Ok, before I go on, I just have to acknowledge my sincere debt of gratitude to George Masin and the work he has put into the olympedia.org site. Apart from the broad topic knowledge you can search for, like who was actually on the Moldovan Olympic team in 1972, there is a tremendous amount of revealing detail about exactly how well your favorite Olympians performed at whatever Games they participated in. Great stuff! I find myself using it almost daily. Thanks George!)
Helene Mayer’s family resided in Offenbach, but Helene attended school across the Main River in Frankfurt. She was taught by both Tagliabo and Arturo Gazzera, another Italian trained Maestro who’s club was in Offenbach. Left to right, Helene Mayer, Francesco Tagliabo, Erwin Casmir. This photo was probably taken between 1928-1930.
As often happens when I start writing about fencers, something comes up that makes me wander off on a tangent before I can stop myself. This time, it was looking at Casmir’s stellar run of German championships and realizing that his best competitive years may have come at a time when he could not compete on the international stage. The Germans were barred from participation at both the 1920 and 1924 Olympic games. 1920 would have been early, but 1924 would have been right when Casmir was coming into his full strength. An additional factor seems to have been Germany’s exclusion – or lack of participation – in the World Championships. That event, which began as the European Championships in 1921, doesn’t have a record of Germans participating prior to 1929. (The European Championships did not exclude participants from non-European countries. It was re-named ‘World Championship’ in 1937.) In that year of 1929, Helene Mayer followed up her Olympic gold by winning the first ever Women’s Foil World Championship. Or European Championship, if you insist.
A photo of the participants of the 1922 German Championships held in Offenbach am Main. Front and center, in matching hats, are Hans Halberstadt and Erwin Casmir. 1922 was the last time Hans Halberstadt would win the German epee championship (his strongest competitive weapon) until Casmir retired from participating in the individual championships.
One thing about the nude not-Hans-Halberstadt photo that I’ve always wondered about, without taking the thought any further for critical consideration, is this – in the nude photo there is no evidence of the two things that have always aided me in identifying Hans in large groups: his mustache, and his glasses. Hans did, at times, shave off his mustache, but he was never without his glasses. He was also very seldom to be seen without either a cigarette, a pipe or a cigar, but he only seemed to have combined that habit with fencing late in life, as the oft-told tale of his fencing mask with a cigar-sized hole cut out of the mesh to accommodate his puffing during lessons affirms. Ask George Nonomura about it.
Hans Halberstadt in an undated photo, likely taken sometime around 1922. Note the mustache. And the glasses. And the serious expression. I guess this is as close to a Hans nude portrait that we can now claim.
The taking of nude portraits of Erwin Casmir is not relegated to the singular image. There is another that has survived to this time. This one, from the image collection of Olympians from fencing historian Andy Shaw, (my source, at least) shows another view of Casmir. Not a front view, mind. Just a different pose.
Erwin Casmir, standing with sabre. This photo is believed to have been taken around 1928.
It just occurs to me that some may find these images shocking, or in poor taste. I hope not. They are artfully done with the clear intention of revealing the subject in a new light, and not in any crass or exploitive manner. Similarly, the nude poses shot by photographer Imogen Cunningham of Helene Mayer in Canyon de Chelly in 1939 are wonderful art photographs while being much more revealing of the subject. And no swords. In both cases, the hero is the human form as something to celebrate.
Now onto the reveal. How do I make the case that the photo at the top is Erwin Casmir and not Hans Halberstadt? Please welcome, from stage right… Ebay! That’s right, my obsessive Ebay sleuthing has once again delivered a revelatory piece of history into my grasping mitts. This time it was entirely unforeseen. An image came up in one of my standard searches. Erwin Casmir, dated 1932. Original press photograph. Nice fencing pose. Fully clothed. Lunging with a foil. No one else bidding. Teammate of Hans Halberstadt. Why not pick it up? That’s how my process works. So, I hit the ‘Buy It Now’ button due to my lack of patience and a few days later it’s in my mailbox.
When I started looking at the new photo, I began to realize the similarity to the ‘naked Hans’ photo. I pulled that photo up and realized I’d unwittingly stumbled upon the answer to a question no one was asking. “Who’s the nude guy?” is that unasked question. Well, I’ve got an answer. To confirm, I first looked at the faces.
Side by side comparison of the heads in the two photos. On the left, the New and on the right, the Nude. Both: Erwin Casmir.
Pretty clearly, the same guy. As bad as the condition is of the existing print of the nude photo, it’s still clear enough to show that it’s the same fellow. Indeed, the nude photo is actually crisper from a focus point of view. Comparing the shape of the nose, the eyebrow, chin, even the curve of the shoulder from the rise of the back shoulder down to the bump of the sword arm. Same and same. The backgrounds, too, share some features. The curtain in the back has shifted a bit, but it is nearly the same. But in both photos, very difficult to see in the nude photo due to its condition, there is a Persian rug for the subject to stand on.
Ok, I’ll stop stalling. The new photo:
And so you can see them side-by-side:
In the lower right of the dressed Casmir, there is an illegible maker’s mark for the photo studio. I can’t make out anything other than, “…& Co” for the name of the studio, but down below, it says “Frankfurt”. On the back of the new photo, there is a date stamp of July 26, 1932 over the top of another stamp in German. I believe this is a photo distributed to the international press by the German Olympic media reps at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The marking on the back matches pretty closely to others from that Games that I have. However, I’m going to guess that the photo itself was taken earlier. Casmir started going grey at the temples pretty young, and neither of these photos show signs of that. I think they were shot on the same day and in the same location and I’ll guess they more likely match the date of the standing nude of Casmir from 1928 – which was likely taken at the same photo shoot. Or at least, that’s what I’d imagine.
So there you have it! The answer to a question you never knew you needed answered. Next time you find yourself at the Halberstadt Fencers Club, take a look at the photos on the wall, especially the oldest ones on the downstairs wall. On the left, if you’re facing into the club. There are some great photos to be seen. I’m not sure if there are any more mysteries to uncover – I’m pretty sure I know the specifics of the rest of the photos. Then again, I didn’t realize this photo had a story to reveal, either. I guess I’ll just see what comes.