The “Iron Hindenburg” commemorative medal, introduced in 1915, was intended for those patriotically-minded German subjects who contributed towards a major fundraising campaign initiated in Berlin that year, in aid of war relief. The centrepiece of the campaign was a huge wooden figure depicting the acclaimed German warlord Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, with the public invited to pay for the privilege of hammering a symbolical nail into the effigy. The monies thus raised were intended to assist various good causes across the Empire which were aiding victims of the Great War, including wounded soldiers, and the widows and orphans of fallen servicemen.
The giant figure was sited at the King’s Square (Königsplatz), close to both the Victory Column (Siegessäule) and the Reichstag buiding. The design of this likeness, which became known as the “Iron Hindenburg” (“Eiserner Hindenburg”), was the work of German artist and sculptor Georg Marschall (18.08.1871-26.01.1956), although, at the time, this credit was not without dispute, sculptor Oswald Schimmelpfennig (1872-c.1944) publicly claiming that he himself was the true originator of the statue’s design.
The fabrication of the statue was sponsored by three Berlin-based institutions, namely the Aeronautic Relief Society (Luftfahrerdank G.m.b.H.), the National Charity Foundation (Nationalstiftung), and the City Hall of Berlin. Day-to-day management of logistics and construction of the giant figure was overseen by an engineer named Kohlrausch.
The “Iron Hindenburg” statue was the largest example of Germany’s wartime “Nail Figures”, or “Nail Men” (“Nagelmänner”), more than 700 examples of which sprang up across the Reich during the course of the conflict, to serve as patriotic fundraisers. The statue of Hindenburg in Berlin was, in addition, supposedly the tallest wooden example of its kind in the world, having a height of 13 m, a diameter of 3,14 m, and a circumference of 9 m (this was at its greatest extent, around the greatcoat skirts). Moreover, somewhere between 7 and 7,3 tons of iron were used for the Field-Marshal’s internal structure, while about 20 tons of alder wood covered the figure. Whilst period sources differ as to the exact dimensions, and quantities of material expended in its construction, what can be in no doubt is the imposing nature of this statue raised in the Königsplatz. The site lent itself well to instilling martial and patriotic spirit, becoming a popular open-air venue for military music, with promenading Berliners taking to the area in warm weather, to enjoy the bravura concerts of regimental bands, as well as the sight of the statue. Indeed, patriotic music played an important part in the process of attracting, enthusing, and entertaining citizens engaged in the process of publicly donating to the noble cause of war relief. To add emphasis to the heroic achievements of the man whose likeness filled the Königsplatz, four field-guns captured at Tannenburg were placed in front of the pedestal.
The total weight of the symbolic nails available to be driven into the statue amounted to no less than six tons, although the individual pieces themselves were of various finishes, which dictated their price to the public. Thus, simple cast-iron nails were available to the public at 1 Mark apiece, while those which had been silvered were 5 Marks each. The most expensive nails available to patriotic (and wealthy) citizens were cast from gold, which for 100 Marks a time could be hammered into the Field-Marshal. A four-tier wooden gallery was erected round the pedestal of the “Iron Hindenburg”, allowing Berliners to reach the upper portion of the figure, and hammer their chosen nail at a height of several metres.
The solemn inauguration of the “Eiserner Hindenburg” took place on September 04, 1915, at a ceremony witnessed by thousands of citizens. The statue was unveiled by Princess Alexandra Viktoria (21.04.1887-15.04.1957), whose formal title was H.R.H. Princess August Wilhelm of Prussia, being the spouse of the fourth son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Proceedings began with a choir singing Beethoven’s Opus 48, no.4, “Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre” (“The Heavens Resound with His Praises Eternal”), leading into a stirring speech from the Imperial Chancellor and Minister-President of Prussia, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (29.11.1856-02.01.1921). To hurrahs, Her Royal Highness then rose and released the cloth draped over the statue, revealing the statue to the crowd. The Lord Mayor of Berlin, Adolf Wermuth (23.03.1855-11.10.1927), then spoke, accepting the monumental figure into the care of the city, and stressing that the will for victory came only from the unity of the people. The measure of the official importance given to the unveiling of the “Iron Hindenburg” was expressed by the presence of two airships (a Parseval and a Zeppelin), on sentinel duty overhead.
The very first nails, of gold, were hammered into the giant wooden figure by Princess Alexandra Victoria and von Bethmann-Hollweg, inserting them into the huge letters affixed to the pedestal, which spelled out the name “HINDENBURG”. Her Royal Highness tapped her nail (suitably emblazoned with an Imperial Crown) into the centre of the letter “H”, while von Bethmann-Hollweg chose the centre of the letter “B”.
Five hours after the unveiling of the statue, 20,000 nails had been driven into the effigy of the “Victor of Tannenberg”. In addition to the grey ring which was forming around one leg, substantial progress had been made on the pedestal, where the intention was to gild the letters of Hindenburg’s name.
By the end of August 1918, 5,600 golden, 75,000 silvered and 780,000 cast-iron nails had been hammered into the “Eiserner Hindenburg”, with only a part of the Field-Marshal’s greatcoat left uncovered. The sale of nails would eventually realize a total profit of 1,15 million Marks.
The inauguration of the statue was widely reported in the international press, including the newspapers of enemy states, such as Great Britain and France. In the neutral U.S.A., “The New York Times” published an article titled “‘Iron Hindenburg’ Unveiled in Berlin; Thousands Struggle to Drive Nails Into the Effigy of the National Hero” in its issue dated September 05, 1915:
“Berlin, Sept. 4, (via London) – As many thousands of Berliners as could pack themselves into the square surrounding the Column of Victory gathered today for the dedication of the colossal “Iron Hindenburg” – a thirty-foot wooden statue which will be sheathed with gold, silver, and iron nails purchased in the interest of a fund for the rehabilitation of East Prussia”.
The mass patriotic drive of Berliners was, however, mocked by the British one year later. In September 1916, during a Red Cross charity campaign, the staff of the Mile End Military Hospital, in the London Borough of Stepney, “adapted” the idea of an “Iron Hindenburg” into a fund-raising gimmick. Their unflattering creation, made in a pointedly slapdash manner by the residents of Stepney, was a three-metre high wooden monster purporting to be the German Field-Marshal: like his larger cousin in Berlin, he was also displayed as an object to be hammered with nails, but in this case to raise money for wounded and disabled British troops. The “Illustrated War News” reported on September 27, 1916: “If the scene shocks the delicate susceptibilities of the Germans, they will do well to remember that it was themselves who initiated this curious perversion of motive and method”.
The tumult of Germany’s domestic politics in the closing stages of the war, and beyond, did not bode well for the “Iron Hindenburg”. In October 1918, a revolutionary mob of soldiers tried to burn the statue to the ground, it only being saved by the actions of the police. In 1919, the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control demanded that the colossus be dismantled, which it was, subsequently being put into storage in a north Berlin warehouse. A newspaper report in 1920 stated that the German government had sold the statue to a private company, which had resold it to American entrepreneurs to exhibit in the U.S.A., though in the end this fate for the Field-Marshal seems not to have come to pass. However, the real end for the statue was only slightly less ignominious. It was eventually broken up in Berlin for firewood, a casualty of Germany’s harsh economic climate during the years of the Weimar Republic. Although the head of the statue (some 1,35 m high) did initially remain intact (from 1938 being exhibited in the aviation museum located at the Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin), even this unique piece was ultimately lost, destroyed by Allied bombing during the closing stages of WWII.
Although pre-eminent in the public consciousness, von Hindenburg was not the only German warlord whose likeness appeared in the form of a “Nail Man”. Thus we find Grand Admiral Alfred Peter Friedrich von Tirpitz (19.03.1849-06.03.1930), Field-Marshal H.R.H. the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria (Rupprecht Maria Luitpold Ferdinand, 18.05.1869-02.08.1955), General of Infantry Otto von Emmich (04.08.1848-22.12.1915), and even Captain Karl Friedrich Max von Müller (16.06.1873-11.03.1923), commanding officer of the legendary light cruiser S.M.S. Emden, all recreated in wooden effigy. Moreover, some Nagelmänner were figures from Germanic history, such as Henry the Lion (c.1129-1195), who had a monument erected in Brunswick, and Roland (736-778), whose statues raised money in Mannheim and Brandenburg an der Havel. Other, more generic forms, human and non-human, were adopted as “Nail Figures” including knights, soldiers, heroes from Germanic mythology, shields, coats of arms, Iron Crosses, animals, flowers, ships, and submarines. In total, the hundreds of nail figures erected during the war raised over 10 million Marks for war widows and their children. These numbers are a powerful reflection of the important contribution, not least financial, made to the war effort by Germany’s local communities during the Great War.
Let’s return to the description of the “Iron Hindenburg” commemorative medal.
Both the obverse and reverse of the medal had a beaded border just inside a wide raised rim, surrounding, again on both sides, a square diamond device with raised border. The square diamonds were each surrounded by four upward-sweeping, eight-leaf, laurel branches, arranged in the same configuration, i.e. one branch filling each of the four fields formed between the beading and each side of the diamond.
Within the field of the diamond on the obverse was a full-length, forward-facing representation of the “Eiserner Hindenburg” statue. The effigy was flanked on either side by Arabic numerals, on the left by the number “19”, and on the right by the number “15”: these signified 1915, the year of the statue’s unveiling. Within the field of the diamond on the reverse were five horizontal lines of uppercase text, giving the legend, in raised lettering, of “DEM / EISERNEN / HINDENBURG / DAS DEUTSCHE / VOLK” (“For the Iron Hindenburg, from the German People”). The medal, which measured 18 mm in diameter, was manufactured variously in iron, zinc, and aluminium, by the Nuremberg-based firm “Münz-Präge Anstalt Ludwig Christian Lauer”. The “Eiserne Hindenburg-Denkmünze” was worn suspended from a small bow, about 28 mm wide, the usual method of attachment to the wearer’s clothing being simply a safety pin fixed horizontally to the reverse of the bow. The bow itself was made from black, white, and red horizontally striped ribbon, in representation of the national flag of the German Empire.