Student Fraternities

The Forgotten World of Student Fraternities

Mitglieder der Burschenschaft Teutonia während der feierlichen Eröffnung des Akademischen Jahres der Universität Freiburg; Copyright: picture-alliance / dpaMitglieder der Burschenschaft Teutonia während der feierlichen Eröffnung des Akademischen Jahres der Universität Freiburg; Copyright: picture-alliance / dpaThis is a world with its own rules: all that the outside world knows about student fraternities is often a mixture of half-truths and hearsay, yet such associations are to be found in almost every university town in Germany.

When the word "fraternity" is mentioned, the image that tends to spring to mind in Germany is that of young men in old-fashioned uniforms, with colourful sashes and a small cap. In some faces, a prominent scar serves as a reminder of the ritual fencing duel fought between two students. In fact, this image is not so far from the truth, yet there are huge differences between the 1,000 or so associations, their 20,000 students and, in total, 150,000 members in German-speaking countries.

Even the term "fraternity" is not all that accurate. Its members see themselves as belonging to a lifelong association – a person who joins as a young student (or "fox") will, in later life, become an "Alter Herr" (i.e. old gentleman) and offer the next generation support in the form of money and contacts.

Burschenschaften, German student corps, Catholic student associations

Burschentag 2007; Copyright: Deutsche BurschenschaftThe world of male student fraternities in Germany can be roughly divided into three groups. For one, there are the 300 or so Burschenschaften. Their members uphold the familiar image of uniformed students. These groups first appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, when the German-speaking world was split up into many small states. Among those who followed the call for a unified, strong and independent Germany were also many students, who joined forces to form the first Burschenschaften. In the early days, their work had to take place on an illegal level, and at the time many groups became radical, with many Burschenschaften excluding Jews and liberal thinkers from their ranks.

Many of the Burschenschaft members were upset by the fact that German-speaking Austria did not form part of the newly founded German Reich in 1871. To the present day, the male societies of Germany and Austria are closely interlinked. In several of Germany's states, and in Austria, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is monitoring individual Burschenschaften, fearing increased contact between students and right-wing extremists.

Prominent living members include the Austrian right-wing populist Jörg Haider (member of the "Silvania" association), the former Governing Mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen ("Saravia Berlin") and the ex-Minister-President of Rhineland Palatinate and Thuringia, Bernhard Vogel ("Arminia Mainz").

The aristocracy keeps to itself

Kommers in Landau; Copyright: Deutsche Burschenschaft In terms of outward appearance, at least, the German student corps resemble the Burschenschaften to the extent that they also wear uniforms and gloves. In both organizations, a ritual fencing duel, known as the "Mensur", is obligatory in almost all cases. The differences between the two, however, are to be found at a lower level: "Burschenschaften primarily recruit young people who are keen to advance themselves", explains political scientist Alexandra Kurth from the University of Giessen. Corps members, on the other hand, tend to belong to the aristocracy and other high social ranks. "The corps came about in the mid 19th century, partly in response to the decline in moral values among students. Their focus is on the concept of an elite, regardless of nationality", is the verdict of historian Michael Gehler of Hildesheim University. "This is why corps can also include Indians and Africans among their members." One prominent example is Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate. The author of the etiquette bestseller "Manieren" (i.e. Manners) is the great-nephew of the last emperor of Ethiopia and a member of the Suevia Tübingen Corps.

The Catholic student associations are often confused with Burschenschaften and corps. The groups, which are recognizable from their abbreviations CV, KV and UV, emerged in around the mid 19th century. Originally, they saw themselves as a bulwark against the suppression of Catholicism by the powerful Protestant Prussians. Today, the most widespread of the Catholic associations is the Cartellverband, or Union of Catholic German Student Fraternities (CV). According to the CV's own information, it organizes within it 30,000 members of so-called colour-bearing fraternities. Although the Catholic groups adopted many rituals from the Burschenschaften and corps, uniforms and caps tend nowadays only to be worn on special occasions, and fencing is banned on religious grounds.

Concern about the next generation

The liberalization of society has also left its mark on the Catholic associations. Many fraternities have to advertise publicly for new members if they wish to survive, and nowadays the fraternity houses are no longer home only to future doctors, lawyers and economists, but also to a number of long-haired heavy metal fans studying social educational theory. Even the German football international Christoph Metzelder was a CV member when he was studying management science: with the "AV Silesia" in Bochum.

"If at all, it is the no-colour-wearing (Catholic) associations which today have the best future prospects", believes historian Gehler. Their key principles are most likely to prove compatible with an era in which cosmopolitan attitudes and flexibility count for more than life-long membership, which they still keep cultivating. Flat-sharing seems more fashionable than fraternity houses.

Women, in all the various fraternity forms, tend to be purely decorative. "As so-called couleur ladies, they are allowed to be present at certain events. But that's all", says political scientist Kurth. There are a few exceptions, however. Even way back in 1899, the first student sorority, named Hilaritas, was established in Bonn. Following a series of new societies which have sprung up since the 1980s, there are now around 30 corporations of and for women in Germany. What drives them is much the same as what drives many of their male colleagues: the desire for support and a lifelong family-like alliance.

Further reading:

Alexandra Kurth: Männer – Bünde – Rituale. Studentenverbindungen seit 1800 (i.e. Men – Associations – Rituals. Student Fraternities since 1800). Campus Forschung; Band 878, Frankfurt am Main: Campus 2004, ISBN 3-593-37623-7

D. Heither/M. Gehler/A. Kurth/G. Schäfer: Blut und Paukboden. Eine Geschichte der Burschenschaften (i.e. Blood and Duelling Floor. A History of the Burschenschaften) Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1997, ISBN 3-596-13378-5

Matthias Lohre
is a political editor for the taz newspaper in Berlin and a historian

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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February 2008

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