In eiserner Zeit: Kriegswahrzeichen im Ersten Weltkrieg
Schwalbach, Wochenschau Verlag, 2013, ISBN: 9783941264137; 510pp.; Price: £29.51
University of Kent
Date accessed: 22 March, 2023
Endless books have attempted to answer the question as to why the First World War broke out in summer 1914, and the centenary of the July crisis will no doubt prompt historians and popular audiences to further revisit the circumstances in which European leaders ‘sleepwalked’ into a military conflict of unprecedented proportions. Equally important, but less well understood, is the question why the war went on for four long years. Gerhard Schneider’s impressive book In Eiserner Zeit (In Iron Times), with its unassuming subtitle A Catalogue, offers important insights into the ability of the German home front to (re)mobilise itself in the second and third year of the conflict. The subject of this book is the emergence of a seemingly bizarre – and today long-forgotten – ritual that spread in wartime Germany (and Austria) in 1915 and 1916 (but continued in some communities until the end of the war): the hammering of nails into ‘war landmarks’ – a practice that was without parallel in Britain, France or Russia.
The best known iron-nail memorial was the gigantic ‘Iron Hindenburg’ erected opposite the Triumphal Column on Königsplatz in Berlin. This wooden figure of the legendary field marshal was unveiled with great pomp on 4 September 1915 to mark the first anniversary of the battle of Tannenberg. This was a public display of confidence in victory. There was ample opportunity for both Berliners and visitors to the city to demonstrate their faith in the German war effort and to do their bit to complete the figure. Over 12 meters tall, it provided space for two million nails. For a small donation, people purchased the right to hammer an iron nail into the figure; black, silver and golden nails were sold at a premium. The revenues were shared between three war charities. Yet, in the event, the ‘Iron Hindenburg’ was never completely clad with nails – it was simply too grand a monument. The ostensible failure of the ‘Iron Hindenburg’ became a massive embarrassment for the capital city and produced a satisfying surge of Schadenfreude in the British press.
It is unsurprising – but also somewhat ironic – that an image of the ‘Iron Hindenburg’ adorns the dust jacket. For Schneider’s book shows that the ‘Iron Hindenburg’ was anything but typical. It was a national symbol erected in the heart of the nation’s capital city, whereas the vast majority of war landmarks were quintessentially local phenomena: locally initiated and designed, they were completed by local communities to help local people in need. Iron-nail war landmarks are testimony to the vibrancy of local ‘war culture’. In fact, Greater Berlin hosted at least a further 18 war landmarks, ranging from another Hindenburg monument (Berlin-Friedrichshagen) to the figure of an Iron Knight (Berlin-Neukölln). Thus, the failure of the ‘Iron Hindenburg’ is hardly a barometer of the ‘waning of faith’ (the title of a cartoon in Punch). Schneider’s work makes clear that the most persuasive propaganda during the First World War was not choreographed by the state or its subsidiary organisations but emerged at the grassroots level. To be sure, national organisations – notably the awkwardly named Nationalgabe Nagelung von Kriegswahrzeichen in allen Gauen Deutschlands zu Gunsten der Nationalstiftung für die Hinterbliebenen der im Kriege Gefallenen – tried to muscle in, but with limited success.
Iron-nail war landmarks have been occasionally mentioned in histories of Imperial Germany and the First World War, and there are also a number of specialist articles that deal with certain aspects or local examples, but Schneider’s meticulously researched book is the first comprehensive study. He convincingly proves that war landmarks were a mass phenomenon rather than an oddity. It is no exaggeration to say that the nailing ritual represents the most important signifying practice of the mid-war years and that war landmarks are key to understanding the dynamics of (self-)mobilisation in First World War Germany. The book is divided into a monographic introduction (pp. 8–97) and an extensive catalogue (pp. 99–507), supplemented by a CD-ROM with over 300 images. The catalogue documents a staggering 1000 war landmarks. There was practically no town without one, and even some tiny villages boasted – sometimes surprisingly elaborate – war landmarks. Yet, the figure of 1000 objects is just the tip of the iceberg. One can only guess how many smaller war landmarks have vanished without trace. Moreover, Schneider’s book does not even include those erected by schools.
War landmarks had essentially three dimensions: they combined propaganda spectacles with charity drives and war commemoration. The nailing ritual was meant to forge a new Volksgemeinschaft, performing the nation at war. By means of collective action, the wooden objects were – or, in a few cases, were manifestly not – turned into steel figures symbolising the community’s iron will to see the military campaign through. The citizens voted with their feet, and, on the whole, there was a high turn-out at nailing ceremonies. Often people made a fetish of iron-nail figures by addressing them as if they were living people with character and personality: people of Hagen greeted their war landmark (which featured a blacksmith) ‘Good morning, dear Iron Smith’. The iron-nail figures themselves did not remain silent either: they ‘spoke’ directly to their fellow citizens and ‘wrote’ articles for the local newspapers; and the blacksmith of Hagen even entered into correspondence with his ‘colleague’ in Cologne.
While all this might seem silly today, the contemporaries were in fact dead serious about iron-nail objects. Schneider notes the semi-religious aura surrounding war landmarks and the ‘liturgy’ within which they were completed. In particular, the unveiling ceremonies resembled secular services culminating in the participants making the solemn promise to support the war effort until the very end. Moreover, every iron nail represented a particular patriotic motto – often couched in the coarse language of the local vernacular – chosen by the participant. And people did not just symbolically swing the hammer. Schneider stresses the brute force with which many people drove nails into war landmarks, as if they wanted to literally transfer their physical strength and willpower to the soldiers at the front.
There was more to war landmarks than merely signification. In return for the privilege of driving a nail into a war landmark, the participant had to make a small donation. The proceeds went to charitable causes in support of populations especially hit by the war, above all the surviving dependants of wounded and fallen soldiers. War landmarks were meant to express the gratitude of the home front to the soldiers and their families by means of symbolic gesture and real gifts of money. The civilians’ pecuniary sacrifice was supposed to emulate the soldiers’ blood sacrifice, thus forging an iron bond of solidarity between home and front. While previous charity drives had appealed to the well-to-do, the differential pricing of iron, silver or golden nails invited much wider participation; even poorer populations could afford to purchase a nail for a few Pfennig. The money was desperately needed, for war widows and their children could barely survive on the meagre support they received from the public purse. Yet, contrary to the declared purpose of the sale of iron nails, substantial amounts were never paid out but were instead invested in war loans (in the well-intentioned hope of expanding the available funds).
In the course of time, war landmarks assumed yet another function: that of embryonic war memorials. The authorities considered the construction of permanent war memorials inappropriate before the war had been brought to a successful conclusion, and yet the popular need to commemorate the fallen soldiers in a monumental fashion could not be entirely postponed until after the war. Thus, war landmarks began to double up as provisional war memorials with relatives and friends of dead soldiers dedicating their iron nails to the memory of loved ones killed or lost in action. However, the new custom of erecting war landmarks started to peter out at the height of the war of attrition at Verdun and the Somme. The real slaughter, it seems, dealt a blow to the rhetoric of sacrifice. To be sure, by then many war landmarks had been successfully completed. Those landmarks that sprung up after 1916–17 tended to feature Christian symbols rather than iron warriors.
Of course, war landmarks had their critics, too. Arts associations especially took exception to the ‘hurrah kitsch’, that is the massive proliferation of cheap public sculpture. Yet others considered the performance itself tasteless; it seemed particularly barbaric to hammer nails into sculptures representing living people such as Hindenburg. However, critical voices were drowned out by the masses who swarmed to buy iron nails. The fiercest critics of iron-nail war landmarks were foreign journalists. They tended to interpret nailing ceremonies as displays of German frightfulness and occultism. Interestingly, the dismissive comments in the press of the Entente were not swept under the carpet in Germany, but picked up – and ridiculed – by German newspapers.
The publication of Gerhard Schneider’s monograph-cum-catalogue at the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is purely coincidence. This is not one of those volumes that have been hastily put together in the run-up to the commemorations in July and August but the product of nearly 20 years of intellectual labour. The author has trailed hundreds of archives and museums, and browsed through countless local and national newspapers, for this in-depth study of the home front ritual of driving iron nails into ‘war landmarks’ in Germany. The outcome is a landmark of historical research.