The peoples of Central Europe have historically enjoyed an abundance of forests, leading to arboreal traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture such as the Christmas tree. Centuries before any form of political unity emerged in Austria or Germany, medieval residents developed a superstition of driving nails into trees (nagelbaum) to please the divine, a practice which shifted to crosses. One example is the Stock im Eisen (‘iron trunk’) in Vienna, a sort of totem pole erected by the early smiths guild. By 1915 the custom has morphed into a public art fundraising method that is easily adapted for wartime relief of widows and orphans. Erected in March, the Wehrmann im Eisen (‘Warrior in Iron’) is a striking example of the art, but Germany has once again outdone their Hapsburg allies.
Seen above, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg’s head is shoulder-height to a man, built of hardwood, and hollow. Fixed atop his 42-foot statue before the Victory Column at the Königsplatz in Berlin, Hindenburg’s wooden gaze is supported by an iron framework, and has been surrounded by scaffolding since September so that Germans can buy the chance to pound nails into him for a mark each, paying more for a silver or gold one. Tens of thousands a day have gathered to take part in the ritual. An intensive publicity campaign and immense social pressure are currently filling the entire statue with nails, reducing the scaffold until the completed idol is revealed. While there are other examples of the art during the Great War, including wooden u-boats, statues of Admiral Tirpitz, the crown prince, and other generals, Hindenburg’s statue is by far the biggest, which is probably appropriate. Of all the personalities now in uniform throughout Germany, none looms as large at the end of 1915.
Recalled from retirement to defend the eastern frontier early in the war, Hindenburg then surrounded and destroyed a Russian Army near Tannenberg, a feat he has attempted to repeat more than once without success. Nevertheless, a cult of reverence has grown up around him already, and in due time Hindenburg will become the most important man in the empire, waxing larger as the situation becomes more desperate. But as he rises, and takes on a coat of nails, so does Frederick William Victor Albert of Prussia diminish.
This trend became evident in the middle of January, when Hindenburg engaged in a power struggle with Field Marshall Erich von Falkenhayn, who retained his post as Chief of the General Staff but gave up control of the War Ministry as a result. Major Hans Gustav von Haeften, the Eighth Army press officer who played a key role in stirring up the crisis, received the brunt of Wilhelm’s rage. “I will not do (French supreme commander) General Joffre the favor of being forced to remove my Chief of General Staff every few weeks,” the monarch stormed before reassigning Haeften from the Eastern Front to the military district of Cologne. Yet Wilhelm retreated from daily management of the war thereafter, increasingly leaving strategic planning in the hands of his military bureaucracy.
Threatening resignation during the dispute, Hindenburg was pacified by the deployment of three corps to the East, where they took part in his successful offensive to throw the Russian Army out of Galicia and capture Poland. But when the Kaiser pressed him to complete the conquest of the Baltic Sea port of Riga during a three-day conference at the captured Lithuanian port of Libau a week ago, the Feldmarschall strongly resisted him, pointing out the madness of assaulting the marshy ground along the Dvinsk River now when it will be frozen-over later. A week of attacks by Russian General Pavel Adamovich von Plehve forced the German lines in Lithuania back a bit yesterday, but today Wilhelm once again insists that Hindenburg attack — until the old general once again threatens to resign. Unwilling to take the offensive without the reinforcements that the Kaiser refuses to send him, Hindenburg has become too important as a symbol of heroic national solidarity, and so Wilhelm dares not bring him to heel. He is simply needed too much.
Political power has been accreting to Hindenburg’s gravitational influence all year. Karl Helfferich, who became State Secretary of the Reichs Treasury during the January infighting, is responsible for financing the German ‘war machine,’ so an ambitious general cannot find a better man to navigate and understand the extensive state military-industrial bureaucracy. Constrained within the income taxation limits imposed by the German right, and unable to borrow money abroad, Helfferich has floated domestic debt and raised indirect taxes in order to pay for all the shells and bombs and aircraft needed to prosecute the conflict, so Hindenburg perfectly encapsulates the German war effort as a ‘man of nails’ (Nagelmänner).
The trajectories of king and commander track on different slopes now. After advancing Hindenburg to near-dictatorship of the German state in a vain desire for victory, Wilhelm ends the war in abdication. Relying on a speech Helfferich writes blaming a “stab in the back” for national defeat, Hindenburg will pave the way for a hyper-militarized Germany as a popular strongman, but without the trappings of royalty. As he restores order to the chaotic postwar nation, the ‘Man of Nails’ will be known as the Ersatzkaiser.