This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Iron Giant

27 February 2015

It was clearly an important event. Silhouetted against dramatic clouds a winged idol perched atop a high column. Below it flags, banners, and decorative foliage covered scaffolding surrounding an enormous figure of a man. Crowds of men, women, and children stood on several platforms. In front a military band of the Imperial German Army prepared for the downbeat of their bandmaster. The caption reads:
Berlin  Konzert auf dem Königsplatz

Berlin Concert on the King's Square

I recognized Berlin's famous Victory Column, as I had seen it when I visited the city a few years ago. At that time it was surrounded by scaffolding too, getting refurbished. But it was not located in the Königsplatz, which is now called the Platz der Republik, but instead at the Großer Stern (Great Star), a large intersection in Berlin's grand Tiergarten park. 

The giant figure I also recognized, but it was odd that this man should have a statue since he had not actually won a war yet.  And never would either. 


The statue's stern countenance was that of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, (1847 - 1934). His distinctive flattop haircut and walrus mustache made him one of the most recognizable characters of the First World War and a symbolic image for the Imperial German Army. When the war began in 1914, Hindenburg had been retired since 1911. Recalled to service on the Russian offensive, he was the victorious commander at the decisive Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914. Hindenburg's further success on the Eastern Front made him Germany's most celebrated general and in 1916 he was promoted to Chief of the General Staff.

Paul von Hindenburg (1847 - 1934)
Source: Wikipedia

The Great War transformed people, cultures, and governments in countless unexpected ways. Germany's official head of state was Kaiser Wilhelm II, but after two years of a worldwide conflict, Hindenburg had begun to eclipse the Kaiser as a leader through a new cult of personality that transferred the center of power to the military.

This next postcard shows the statue from a different angle and without the decorations. The caption is titled:

Der eiserne Hindenburg zu Berlin

The iron Hindenburg to Berlin

Height: 13 m. (42' 8") –
Height of head: 1.35 m. (4' 5") –
iameter: 3.14 m. (10' 3")  – 
extent: 9 m. (29' 6"). –
Weight: 20,000
kg (44,092 lbs)
Alder wood and
7,000 kg (15,432 lbs)
the interior construction. 
nailing 600 kg (1,322  lbs) gold, silver, and iron nails
provided at prices of 100.5 u. 1M.
It should be noted that the field grey nails appear to be from high-spirited boys held in their father's arms.

This giant statue was carved in Alder, a white hardwood, over an internal framework of iron. And curiously it was deliberately covered with gold, silver, and iron nails! 

Der eiserne Hindenburg was in fact a Nagelmänner or Man of Nails, a type of heroic artform produced as a wartime fundraiser by citizens of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.

* * *

Der Eiserne Heinrich, The Iron Henry
Heinrich der Löwe,
Source: Wikipedia

The idea for these Nail Men came from a medieval Germanic tradition of hammering nails into trees for good luck. In 1915 as the war effort continued, many cities in Austria and Germany started foundations to aid widows and orphans of fallen soldiers. In an effort to energize public patriotism and solicit donations for soldiers benefits, they commissioned artists to make wooden carvings of medieval knights, iron crosses, shields, and famous people. The public was then invited to pay for the privilege of hammering a nail into these wooden monuments. Small donations paid only for a common iron nail while more generous contributions bought a gold nail and a more prominent position on the artwork.

Some Nail Men were historic figures like this one of Heinrich der Löwe (1129-1195) of Brunswick. The gold nails feature as part of his belt, sword and shield.

* * *

Wehrmann im Eisen, Vienna
Source: Wikipedia

The first Nail Man was erected in Vienna in March 1915. It portrays a stalwart medieval knight of iron or Wehrmann im Eisen. Every part of its surface is covered by a nail head.

* * *

This postcard of Der eiserne Hindenburg shows how the scaffolding was removed as more nails were added. The caption adds:

V. Oberkommando 3. 1. 16 genehmigt

Approved for High Command
3 - 1 - 16

Hindenburg was not the only German public figure made into a Nail Man. So was Admiral Tirpitz, Rupprecht, the Crown Prince of Bavaria, and General Otto von Emmich. During the years 1914 to 1917 when the United States was a neutral country, German-American Societies raised money with similar wooden nail works.  

* * *

The card was mailed on July 2, 1917.

Like the first postcard, a military band is in front of the structure giving a concert. Band music played an important part in attracting and entertaining more citizens to give to the cause. Evidently it is summer when this photo was taken as the bandsmen wear short coats and a civilian man in the back has on a straw hat. However the German army helmet, the Pickelhaube, can not have been very cool, and speaking from personal experience, a brass instrument quickly becomes unbearably hot in direct sun.  

This last postcard also dates from 1917. The nailing of Hindenburg seems to be nearly finished as the platforms are now lowered to the hem of his coat. My confusion about this location was due to the Victory Column being moved in 1939 to its present position in the Tiergarten from its original site in the Königsplatz which was the grand space in front of the Reichstag capitol building.

Ironically this relocation to just a short distance away saved it from destruction as the Reichstag was a major target for the Russian army in 1945.

Der eiserne Hindenburg circa 1919
Source: Wikipedia

By the war's end the iron Hindenburg had raised over a million German marks. Unfortunately the soldiers benefit association went bankrupt and all the funds were lost. In 1919 the colossal was dismantled and put into storage in north Berlin where it was eventually broken up for firewood. His head managed to be saved but was later destroyed by bombs during WW2. This photo shows the deconstruction of the statue and reveals how the woodcarvers arranged the wood in layers that allowed it to be hollow.

The irony of this iron giant made of wood is that Paul von Hindenburg went on to serve as president of postwar Germany from 1925 to 1934 during the Weimar Republic. On his death he was succeeded by Adolf Hitler. The similarities between the two cults of personality, one a general and the other a corporal, demonstrate the power of propaganda images.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more vintage patriotic photos


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. So much that I didn't know about Hindenberg. But frightening too. And it also made me realize how ignorant i am - I had never stopped to consider that brass instruments would get hot when being played out in the sum !

Alan Burnett said...

As always Mike, a rich fruitcake of a post, full of fascinating images and superb research. Balanced to perfection, a joy to read. Another entry in the "Why Blogging is an art form" list

Wendy said...

I'm glad you showed the close-up of the nails because I didn't understand the tradition - I didn't picture the nails driven all the way in. Now I get it. A very dramatic story this week.

Unknown said...

Happy to see Heinrich der Lowe of Brunswick -- I live in Brunswick,Maine, USA -- could this be the namesake?

ScotSue said...

I thought I was reasonably familiar with German history, but I learnt so much from your fascinating post. The statue of Hindenburg was new to me - and somewhat frightening.

La Nightingail said...

A fascinating post as usual. I had never heard of nail statues. Clever in a way. But after all that work, its destruction, and the money lost . . . all I can think is what a colossal waste of time, talent, and effort.

Unknown said...

What a really thorough post! The section about the Nail Men was really interesting and that the addition of nails was used to raise money and get the public involved in the creation of the statue.

Tattered and Lost said...

So incredibly fascinating. I never knew of these nail statues. Now I want to see some in person. I especially want to run my hand over the knight statue with my eyes closed. A fascinating post, as usual!


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP