The Nail Men of World War 1

May 8, 2024 0 comments

On March 6, 1915, a large crowd gathered at Schwarzenbergplatz in Vienna for the unveiling of a new monument—a wooden depiction of a medieval knight dubbed “Wehrmann in Eisen,” or the “Warrior in Iron.” Soon after its unveiling, Archduke Leopold Salvator of Austria proceeded to deface the monument by hammering a couple of iron nails into its body. Other dignitaries such as the German Ambassador Tschirschky-Bögendorff and the Turkish Ambassador Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha also joined in by driving nails into the effigy. As the curious spectacle unfolded, more nails were hammered in by onlookers. By the end of first week, an estimated 1,600 nails had been driven into the wooden monument.

Wehrmann in Eisen. Photo credit: Thomas Ledl/Wikimedia Commons

Wehrmann in Eisen was a Nail Man, or Nagelobjekte in German, and the first of many that went up across the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire during World War I. Serving as a novel fundraising method for military support, individuals were required to make a donation before being permitted to drive a nail into the Nail Man. The value of the donation determined the type of nail received, ranging from iron to silver or even gold-plated. Prices for each nail varied from location to location; for instance, at the Iron Cross in Heidelberg, a basic black iron nail cost 1 mark, while a nail in more prominent positions, such as within the '1914' inscription or the Kaiser Wilhelm 'W', commanded higher donations of 5 to 20 marks. Similarly, at the 'Iron Siegfried' in Wiesbaden, the cost ranged from 1 mark for an iron nail to up to 300 marks for a gilded one, with additional contributions encouraged.

The Nail Man took on various forms, ranging from the iconic iron cross to shields, coats of arms, and even depictions of animals, flowers, and ships. Figures in human form often portrayed knights in armor, though occasionally modern soldiers or historical and legendary personalities were also immortalized. One notable example was the colossal Iron Hindenburg, erected in Berlin in 1915. Admirals Tirpitz and Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, as well as General Otto von Emmich, were among those depicted as Nail Men.

Wehrmann in Eisen. Photo credit: Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of hammering iron nails into living trees, wooden crosses, and even rocks harks back to medieval Europe, akin to the modern practice of tossing coins into wishing wells or fountains. It was believed that driving a nail into a tree, particularly if one was sick, could transfer pain or ailments to the tree's healthy wood. However, this custom faded away around the late 19th century, along with many of the so-called "nail trees." Among the few surviving remnants of this tradition is the renowned Stock im Eisen, still visible today at the corner of Palais Equitable in Vienna, preserved behind a glass case.

The Nail Men phenomenon was directly inspired by the tradition of Stock im Eisen. These nail statues were crafted to facilitate a communal participatory act, transforming a simple wooden figure into a metal-plated monument through the collective effort of the people, openly displaying their support and encouraging one another to completely cover the statue with nails. Newspaper articles often documented the tally of nails driven into local monuments, sometimes even featuring the names of individuals who had made monetary contributions. This practice not only galvanized widespread support for the war effort but also exerted a subtle pressure on individuals to have their names immortalized in print, symbolizing their dedication to the cause. Furthermore, the funds raised through these nailings aimed to reinforce the patriarchal social structure, with widows and orphans as the primary beneficiaries. Additionally, the Nail Men served as poignant memorials to the fallen soldiers.

The Iron Hindenberg. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Following the war, many of these memorials fell victim to the changing political landscape, seen as symbols of the defunct Monarchy. However, some endured, such as the original Wehrmann. After languishing in storage for over a decade, the statue was unveiled once again in 1934. Additional nails were driven into it, this time to raise funds for the war dead monument at Vienna’s Äußeres Burgtor. Subsequently, the Wehrmann found its current home across the street from the city hall, where it continues to stand.

The Iron Edelweiss of Enns. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

# Kathryn E. Densford, The Wehrmann in Eisen: nailed statues as barometers of Habsburg social order during the First World War, European Review of History


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