Stepney’s Iron Hindenburg

12 Feb

At a charity fete in 1916, the people of Stepney adapted a German patriotic money-raising gimmick to support British troops with their own ‘Iron Hindenburg’ statue.

"Hard hits at Hindenburg: driving them home"

This picture from the 27 September 1916 Illustrated War News shows two nurses from Mile End Hospital knocking nails into a wooden figure depicting Paul von Hindenburg to help raise money for ‘our brave wounded and disabled soldiers’.  One of these wounded soldiers is shown holding up their ladder (apparently borrowed from Harrod’s) while they do it.

Wooden statues into which nails were driven were used in Austria and Germany from 1915: the Men of Nails. A particularly notable example was the 42-foot statue of Hindenburg erected in September 1915 in the Königsplatz (next to the Reichstag), in front of a victory monument to Prussia’s wars with Denmark, Austria and France from 1864-71.

Unveiling the Iron Hindenburg in Berlin (image from Gutenburg)

An academic article (here) recounts this event in Berlin: The Kaiser’s daughter-in-law unveiled the statue, to the sound of a choir singing Beethoven, and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg gave a speech. The Princess drove a golden nail into the Field Marshall’s name, the first of over a million nails driven into the sculpture by Germans giving money per nail to support the war effort. The ceremony was widely reported in the international press (NY Times).

Somehow, it seems unlikely that such a great scene accompanied Stepney’s Iron Hindenburg (or that it lasted until 1919 like the Berlin one). The hero of Tannenburg was certainly not depicted quite so heroically in the statue and the nails were driven with anger and humour rather than respect.

The British version was clearly meant as a parody of the German statues. The Illustrated War News caption says:

If the scene shocks the delicate susceptablities of the Germans, they will do well to remember that it was themselves who initiated this curious perversion of motive and method.

Anger and humour were prominent in British attitudes towards the Germans in 1914-1918. This mockery of the Iron Hindenburg fits neatly into both categories.


Posted by on 12 February 2012 in Events


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3 responses to “Stepney’s Iron Hindenburg

  1. SilverTiger

    12 February 2012 at 1:26 pm

    A derivative of the “Men of Nails” is still to be seen in parts of Europe. To be specific, I have seen in Alsace (France) charity pitches where you buy nails to hammer into a wooden base, usually a tree stump or log. The idea is expressed that the target amount will have been reached once the log is completely covered.

    While I can see why people would be willing to hammer nails into a figure representative of the enemy (e.g. Londoners “nailing” Hindenburg), it seems bizarre that people would hammer nails into the effigy of one considered to be a hero.

    You have a very interesting blog here and I wish you lots of success with it.

    • Matt

      29 July 2012 at 3:37 pm

      To Silver Tiger,

      Having recently finished a history course on WWI I can give you the answer that was provided to me. The original goal that the behind the wooden Hindenburg(s) in Germany was a communal participatory act that would transform a wooden statute into a metal platted one.

      In the era of Europe’s first total war, the mass mobilization of the public and industry towards war aims was paramount to victory. The nails used in the German Hindenburg(s) was a visual illustration of national unity as German citizens placed their time, effort, and resources behind one of the most popular war leaders leading their country.

      Hope the answer helps.


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