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The first Iron Man: The story of Götz von Berlichingen

Mike Stuchbery
April 24, 2019

Was The Avengers' Tony Stark inspired by a 16th century German knight? As "Avengers: Endgame" premieres, we explore the legend of 'Götz of the Iron Hand,' the prosthetic-wearing warrior immortalized by the poet Goethe.

Iron Man 3 Filmstill
Image: picture-alliance/AP

500 years before Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, made his silver screen debut, a rich and powerful German also used technology to overcome a life-changing injury as he led battles across his homeland. But was this original Iron Man or sorts, dubbed Götz of the Iron Hand, a hero or villain?

Born in 1480 to a noble Württemberg family, Götz von Berlichingen came into the world at a turbulent time as conflicts between nobles and rival cities raged across southern Germany.  It was perhaps inevitable that the young Götz's life would largely be dedicated to warfare, and before turning 18 he was already fighting for the Holy Roman Empire against Swiss forces during the Swabian War.

Taking orders didn't suit Berlichingen, however. He soon left the Emperor's service and formed a mercenary army fighting for the highest bidder — an emerging phenomenon at the time.

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A legend begins

The event that was to define Berlichingen's life and legacy happened during his early career as a mercenary. While besieging the city of Landshut in 1504, enemy cannon fire hit his sword, sending it deep into his right arm. Unable to be saved, his hand and wrist were amputated.

Götz von Berlichingen
Iron Man's inspiration? A portrait of Götz von Berlichingen from 1880 Image: imago/imagebroker

For many of his kind, losing a right hand would mean the end of their career, a retreat to a more peaceful life.

But Berlichingen was determined to get back on the front line and commissioned a local blacksmith to create a prosthetic capable of holding a sword. Two versions were made, with the second capable of articulated movement so that it could tightly grasp objects. Both prostheses are now on display at the Jagsthausen Castle near Heilbronn where Berlichingen was raised.

The original Iron Man?

As the knight quickly became competent using his stronger iron hand, he soon re-entered the battlefield. In the following years, his mercenary brigade rampaged across southern and central Germany while fighting for whomever would pay the highest price.

Meanwhile, Berlichingen also began warring with fellow knights. This won him few friends, and resulted in him being placed under an imperial ban in 1512 — a form of house arrest, with the added deterrent that anyone could legally kill him and claim a reward

Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand
A film still from "Götz von Berlichingen of the Iron Hand" (1979) Image: picture-alliance/KPA Copyright

But by 1514, Berlichingen was determined to escape his home of Burg Hornberg and so paid the required amount of gold to win his freedom. He swore a long and protracted oath never to cause trouble again.

It didn't last.

Two years later Götz of the Iron Hand was at it again, this time taking the Count of Waldeck hostage during an audacious raid and securing a massive ransom in the process. This resulted in another imperial ban in 1518.

Villain, or victim of the times?

Some see Berlichingen's aggressive sorties as the actions of a villain, but Jonas Hock, a Reformation historian based in Heidelberg, asks us to consider what was happening at the time.

"Higher, more powerful nobles who wanted to centralise power" were banning the likes of Berlichingen "from resolving disputes with feuds," he says. "They instead would have to rely on the courts and could not get their way by force."

Burg Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg
Burg Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg where Götz von Berlichingen remained under house arrestImage: picture-alliance/Friedel Gierth

"Having people with tremendous power run around and blow stuff up was getting out of hand, and this was an attempt to curtail that sort of behaviour,” Hock adds.

It is therefore more helpful to think of Berlichingen as a dying breed than an especially violent or criminal sort.

As Hock puts it: "Basically, feuding knights kept doing what they had always done, and largely got away with it. Until they didn't anymore.”

Going straight?

Berlichingen could sense the changing mood, and decided to go into the service of the Duke of Württemberg in 1519, defending the Duchy's interests before getting captured for a time.

In 1525, when the German Peasants' War broke out, Berlichingen was forced to lead one of the rebel armies but soon deserted and instead retreated to his castle. He would later claim to be horrified by the peasant's excesses and joined the fight against them.

But after Götz of the Iron Hand lead an imperial army that crushed a rebel brigade outside Würzburg, it wasn't enough to save him from those he'd crossed earlier. Following the war he spent some time as a prisoner in Augsburg before returning to house arrest.

Avenger, Assemble!

Approaching his sixties, Berlichingen might be forgiven for wanting to spend his old age in comfort. But when opportunity knocked in the 1540's it didn't take much convincing for the warrior to strap on the hand again.

"The fact that the Emperor called upon him when he was already sixty, and even commuted his house arrest, which he had been sentenced to for his involvement in the Peasants' War, shows he was well respected as a military leader," Hock notes.

Götz of the Iron Hand would serve both in Hungary and France, distinguishing himself alongside men half his age before returning home. He died peacefully in 1462, aged over eighty.

Contested legacy

Berlichingen's iron appendage, as well as his colorful career, might have been enough to secure his legacy. But fate wasn't done yet.

In 1773, the writer and poet Goethe wrote "Götz Von Berlichingen," a play that has gone down as a classic. In its most memorable scene, Götz tells the besieging forces of the Emperor, "Er kann mich im Arsch lecken!" — basically, "He can kiss my arse!" The line is now dubbed the "Swabian Salute" and can be found on all manner of merchandise.

Filmstill - Avengers: Infinity War
Robert Downey Jr. (2nd left) plays Iron Man in the Marvel Studios 2017 blockbuster, "Avengers: Infinity War"Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Marvel Studios

When asked for reasons for Berlichingen's enduring popularity, Hock doesn't hesitate. "His knack for spin! At the end of his life, he dictated his autobiography to a scribe, presenting himself as favorably and as interesting as possible."

So, definitely a shameless self-promoter. But a hero or a villain? It's probably not that simple.

As Hock contends: "He was probably simply one of the very lucky ones. Unlike Franz von Sickingen (another famous knight), he got away with his lifestyle and managed to die at an old age."

It's clear Berlichingen was a complex character but also the product of a fractious time, a figure who transcends good and evil stereotypes.

In that regard, he's not so different from the contemporary Iron Man and leader of The Avengers, a superhero whose impregnable exterior betrays inner vulnerability.

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