Germany's archaic men-only student fraternities, with a reputation for fencing, drinking and extremist rightwing views, are under attack from within their own ranks.
Eight of the country's 100 fraternities have split from the umbrella organisation, Deutsche Burschenschaft, and formed a new association in protest against the increasingly rightwing stance of some of their fellow colourfully uniformed, sword-brandishing compatriots.
The Neue Deutsche Burschenschaft is expressly liberal and accepts foreign students and Germans who opted out of military service. It defines the Fatherland territorially as post-unification Germany - unlike some arch-nationalist fraternities which foster ideas of recreating the Greater German Reich.
"People think we are all right-wingers so we want to make sure that our position is known. We want to go back to our origins when the fraternities were founded in 1817 as a liberal and progressive student movement," says Carsten Zehm, a business psychology student and member of the fraternity Alt-Germania Hanover. The fraternities were forbidden in the early 19th century for supporting the creation of a German nation, and were banned again under the Nazis and in eastern Germany under communism. In the five years since reunification the fraternities have boomed again in eastern German universities.
But this new wave has been coupled with claims of nationalistic chauvinism. An academic report published last year by the Marburg Information Centre for Racism Research said: "Increasingly more fraternity members are quite openly representing racist and neo-fascist views and demand the restoration of the Greater German Reich from Konigsberg to the southern Tirol."
The 21 active student members and 200 Alte Herren of Alt-Germania Hanover voted unanimously to join the new liberal umbrella organisation - it was expelled from the old umbrella group last year for accepting members who had opted out of military service. Seven other fraternities also joined immediately and another 20 are said to be planning to leave the old organisation "with honour" at its annual assembly later this year.
Alt-Germania members still fence but only under conventional rules of the sport. They have forsaken the traditional Mensur fencing bouts still practised by many fraternities which aim to draw blood - a scarred face is a lifelong badge of belonging to a fraternity. But otherwise Alt-Germania is proud to stick to its time-honoured traditions. Each new recruit becomes a Fuchs (fox) for six months, learning fencing and the traditions of the fraternity. If he passes a test at the end of this he may be accepted as a fully fledged Bursch (lad), from which the name for the fraternities originates.
Three times per semester Alt-Germania members don their traditional formal attire - dark suits, coloured caps and sashes - for Kneipen get-togethers for members and old boys only. There are also regular debates as well as parties, to which women are also invited. Alt-Germania's progressive stance does not, however, extend to allowing women students as members. "Perhaps in 20 years time," says Carsten Zehm. Most German students consider the fraternities at best to be elitist gatherings of Hooray Heinrichs and at worst dens of neo-fascism.
An attack on a fraternity house in Hamburg last month was not unusual. But Zehm denies that they are elitist old-boy networks: "That just doesn't work in the modern economy," he says. "I didn't do military service and I don't drink, so I don't fulfil two of the stereotypes about us." He was initially attracted by a dinner held to welcome new students ("they had a huge roast pig"), and then by the "sense of community" it offered in an overcrowded higher education system, and the chance to meet students from other disciplines as well as old boys. He hopes the formation of the Neue Deutsche Burschenschaft will help improve their image among the student body and attract a wider range of members. "In Alt-Germania we also aim to invite one student each year under the Erasmus exchange programme," he says.
A Cameroon student left the house after three months to move in with some Africans. But a Briton stayed all year. As an afterthought Zehm adds: "We even have a homosexual living here, so you see we are really not prejudiced."