I chal­lenge you to a duel

Take up your sword: the Ger­man fra­ter­nity ask­ing you to fight (twice)

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

A stuffed fox stares down at a group of about 20 smartly suited men, the ma­jor­ity well into retirement age, drink­ing beer and chat­ting in the wood-pan­elled front room of a grand Berlin house.

Ev­ery so of­ten, a man wear­ing enor­mous white gloves, a plumed hat and a fenc­ing-style sword by his side calls for si­lence and leads the group in an­other tra­di­tional Ger­man sing-song. Free­dom, ca­ma­raderie and the fa­ther­land are com­mon themes.

The fox and most of the men are wear­ing red, black and sliver sashes, the colours of the Ber­liner Burschen­schaft Ger­ma­nia, a Ger­man stu­dent fra­ter­nity cel­e­brat­ing its 155th an­niver­sary.

It is one of about 2,000 fra­ter­ni­ties through­out Ger­many, whose history stretches back to the 19th cen­tury, when many were set up to push for na­tional uni­fi­ca­tion.

But as the pre­pon­der­ance of sil­ver-haired for­mer stu­dents in the room shows, this fra­ter­nity has strug­gled to re­cruit. Na­tion­ally, just 2 to 3 per cent of stu­dents are now mem­bers, down from 30 per cent in the 1950s, ac­cord­ing to Deutsche Welle. Many Ger­mans per­ceive them as stuffy, boozy dens of na­tion­al­ism – or even the far Right.

Ev­ery few years, a new scandal seems to blow up. In 2012, one Bonn-based fra­ter­nity pro­posed a rule change so that only stu­dents of “Ger­man de­scent” could join, af­ter an­other fra­ter­nity ad­mit­ted a mem­ber with Chi­nese par­ents.

Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s host, Do­minik Lehmann, is keen to show that the rep­u­ta­tion is un­jus­ti­fied. He joined as a stu­dent for the sense of ca­ma­raderie, the ex­change of “knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence” be­tween young and old, and be­cause of a “keen in­ter­est in Ger­man history and tra­di­tions”.

The fra­ter­nity cer­tainly has some cu­ri­ous cus­toms. New mem­bers must duel – twice – us­ing fenc­ing swords and only eye pro­tec­tion. Mr Lehmann was coy about ex­actly what hap­pened dur­ing his duel, and bears no ob­vi­ous scars, but the prac­tice is cen­tral to the fra­ter­nity’s iden­tity: crossed swords adorn the frat house walls (it was es­tab­lished af­ter split­ting from an­other fra­ter­nity that did not want to fence).

Not all fra­ter­ni­ties re­quire new mem­bers to fence, but for those that do, it does rather “thin the crowd” of po­ten­tial new re­cruits, he ac­knowl­edged.

New re­cruits also take an oral exam, as­sessed by other mem­bers, on 19th- and 20th-cen­tury Ger­man history. Of course, they must hold Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship – and be a man.

This fo­cus on tra­di­tion and history may also be off-putting to young­sters, Mr Lehmann con­ceded. THE had to sit through two blad­der­strain­ingly long speeches about the fra­ter­nity’s history (it’s not the done thing to leave the ta­ble un­til all the songs and speeches are com­plete, no mat­ter how much beer has been con­sumed).

Why are they some­times rather back­ward-look­ing? Since Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion, fra­ter­ni­ties have “lost their com­mon greater goal and are strug­gling to find a new cause to support”, ex­plained Mr Lehmann.

As for mem­bers’ po­lit­i­cal views, Mr Lehmann, him­self a mem­ber of the so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally lib­eral Free Demo­cratic Party, ar­gued that fra­ter­ni­ties are un­fairly painted with a “very broad brush” as those with the “most ex­treme opin­ions are un­for­tu­nately of­ten voiced the loud­est”.

But there are def­i­nitely a few mo­ments dur­ing the evening that would make some feel un­com­fort­able. At the end of the evening, the room stands to sing Das Lied der Deutschen, the ba­sis for the cur­rent Ger­man na­tional an­them, belt­ing out its con­tro­ver­sial lyrics “Deutsch­land, Deutsch­land über alles”, which were stripped from the of­fi­cial an­them af­ter the Nazi pe­riod.

The ex­pla­na­tion given is that the song is a his­tor­i­cal arte­fact, writ­ten in the mid-19th cen­tury about Ger­man unity, not con­quest. But other fra­ter­ni­ties have stopped singing the lyrics. Marc-Oliver Schach, a spokesman for the Neue Deutsche Burschen­schaft (NeueDB), whose found­ing fra­ter­ni­ties broke away from one of the main um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tions in 1996 af­ter it be­came too right wing, said that the song sends out the “wrong mes­sage”, but some fra­ter­ni­ties “cling” to it be­cause it’s seen as such an im­por­tant tra­di­tion.

The NeueDB fra­ter­ni­ties have suc­ceeded in at­tract­ing “many more” mem­bers who have an im­mi­grant back­ground, he said. How­ever, Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship is still gen­er­ally a pre­req­ui­site for full mem­ber­ship, and let­ting women in has never been “se­ri­ously dis­cussed”. In all hon­esty, he said, the “core prin­ci­ple” of many fra­ter­ni­ties is now “drink­ing, net­work­ing and elite thought” – by which he means that mem­bers see them­selves as heirs to an “aca­demic aris­toc­racy”.

Strug­gling to re­cruit new mem­bers, Mr Lehmann’s fra­ter­nity is pon­der­ing a move away from Berlin to some­where more fruit­ful. But still, these groups soldier on, giv­ing a sub­set of stu­dents an ex­pe­ri­ence that their uni­ver­si­ties can­not of­fer.

En garde! fra­ter­nity mem­bers raise their foils. Some fra­ter­nity ini­ti­ates must duel, which can leave scars (in­set above)

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