Hard As Nails

How a curious iron soldier alongside the Town Hall helped raise money for those bereaved by the Great War

A longstanding Viennese tradition concerns the tree trunk preserved outside Stock-im-Eisen Platz 3. The name of the city centre square – and the lively figures over the building’s doorway – recall how Vienna’s journeyman locksmiths would hammer nails into the trunk for good luck. Soon encrusted with nails it became a venerable symbol of the city’s guild of locksmiths.

Sign of the Times

It is less well-known that Vienna’s nail-hammering habit manifested itself in a different way during the First World War. Down one side of the Town Hall (Rathaus), at the corner of Rathausstrasse and Felderstrasse, stands the statue of a knight. Known as the Wehrmann in Eisen (Iron Soldier) the knight’s armour is made entirely from nail heads.

Inspired by the locksmiths of Vienna it was one Lieutenant Commander Theodor Graf Hartig who commissioned the wooden statue in 1914. With enthusiastic support from Vienna’s city council it was erected in Schwarzenbergplatz on Mar. 6, 1915. Hartig’s idea was that in return for a donation, members of the public would be allowed to drive an iron nail into the statue. The money raised would be used to support those widowed and orphaned by the fighting. The first three nails were hammered in by Austrian Archduke Leopold Salvator, German Ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky, and Turkish Ambassador Hüseyin Hilmi Pascha, symbolising their wartime alliance.

Patriotic fervor was whipped up by the authorities during the war years and a visit to the Wehrmann was encouraged as a way of registering national pride. Those who did not go risked being branded as unpatriotic. Although the number of new nails had dwindled by mid-1916 it has been estimated that half a million were eventually knocked into the statue.

A Craze is Created

The idea of raising public money by hammering nails into sculptures became a craze, spreading not only throughout Vienna but also across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More than 50 examples have been documented, not only in the form of knights but also heroic figures, weapons, U-Boats, and shields bearing coats of arms. The idea was popular in Germany, too, where almost 250 examples are recorded, including one depicting Field Marshall von Hindenburg. For a higher donation – and a more visible presence on a finished statue – nails were also available silvered and gilded, with a numbered document supplied as proof of donation.

Perhaps most surprising are the examples well outside Europe, for example an iron man in Buenos Aires used to raised money for the Red Cross in Austria and Germany, and to assist German sailors made redundant by Allied shipping lines. A nail-studded shield adorned with a double eagle still hangs in the American city of Baltimore.

The Hammering Continues

With end of the war the iron men and other sculptures were removed from their prominent locations. Vienna’s Wehrmann remained in Schwarzenbergplatz until 1919, when he was taken to a municipal storage depot, and then to a soldiers’ association museum, where he slipped from public view.

Fast forward to 1934 when Austria was undergoing another tumultuous chapter in its history, this time at the hands of the Austro-Fascist movement. It was in this year that the Hofburg’s Außeres Burgtor (the only remaining gate of the old city walls) was converted into a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Great War. People remembered the Wehrmann, and so he was brought out of retirement and set up once again on Schwarzenbergplatz. As the statue was already covered in nails it was placed on a new wooden pedestal, into which thousands of new nails could be hammered to raise funds for the monument.

Man on the Move

When the refurbished gateway was unveiled as the Heldendenkmal (Heroes’ Memorial) later the same year, the fundraising campaign came to an end, and the Wehrmann went on the move again. This time he was relocated to the arcades on Felderstrasse, in accordance with an original idea from 1917, where he has remained ever since.

The alcove in which the statue stands carries a marble inscription by the Styrian-born priest and poet Ottokar Kernstock (1848-1928), chiefly remembered for having written new lyrics for Joseph Haydn’s Austrian Imperial Hymn, which became the country’s new national anthem in 1929. Completed before the fall of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918, the inscription is suitably patriotic:

Wehrmann Wiens gemahne an die Zeit, Da unerschöpflich wie des Krieges Leid Die Liebe war und die Barmherzigkeit! (Iron man of Vienna commemorates the time when suffering brought by war was as great as love and charity!”).

By 2007 the well-travelled Wehrmann was showing his age and underwent a thorough renovation. An explanatory sign has been added alongside the renewed statue to explain to curious passers-by the story of this extraordinary and almost forgotten piece of Viennese history.


Duncan J. D. Smith is the author of Only in Vienna
(Christian Brandstätter Verlag)

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