Inside the world of Germany’s student fraternities

Sword-fighting, drinking, history and camaraderie: struggling to recruit, ancient brotherhoods mull their image problem

August 23, 2017
German student fraternity
Source: Getty
En garde! fraternity members raise their foils. Some fraternity initiates must duel, which can leave scars

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 bladder-strainingly 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.


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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 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, Mr Lehmann’s fraternity is now 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.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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