Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Duelling Fraternities: the German Studentenverbindung vs. the American Frat

German Burschen, or frat boys, doing some extremely
organized competitive drinking. (Wikipedia Commons)
At first glance, the German Studentenverbindung (or Burschenschaft) couldn't look any more different from the American Fraternity: they wear funny little caps with team colors, sing traditional patriotic songs, use Latin instead of Greek to invoke an air of "tradition," and in some cases perform awkward-looking and ritualistic fencing matches to affirm their membership in the group and "build character." However, a closer look reveals many of the same über-masculine, friend-purchasing, elitist, nepotistic and binge-drinking characteristics that have made fraternities and Verbindungen the object of criticism and curiosity in both the U.S. and Germany. Though they perhaps don't represent mainstream college culture in Germany the way frats arguably still do in the U.S., the Burschenschaft still offers an interesting window into how young Germans continue to try to express "tradition" and find membership in adult society and the working world. This is how I experienced it first hand, as an outsider looking in...

I knew next to nothing about the Studentenverbindung when a German friend invited me and my American buddy to our first event on a cool, grey evening in the former East Germany. As we entered the surprisingly tidy house, we realized we were in for something a little bit different from the typical American frat party. First of all, there were only males present, and all active members either wore a little cap with house colors and/or a monochromatic polo sweater with a house sash. This stood in direct contrast to my experiences at American frat parties, where I was greeted by scantily clad females, ear-splitting hip-hop and sticky floors. Everyone was immaculately clean-shaven, Haupthaar neatly gelled and often slicked back a la the formerly-esteemed Herr Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Rimless rectangular glasses of course also abounded. After meeting a few Füchse - the moniker given to the newest uninitiated members of the house - I noticed that many of these younger members seemed to have bandages over their ears or on their foreheads. Though I had heard through the grapevine about the Schlagende Verbindung (literally "battling fraternity" or "hitting fraternity") and their penchant for fencing, I hadn't realized that the point was to wear real injuries as a badge of honor to mark your initiation into the group. These Mensuren, as they are called, are also supposed to augment your maturity, self-assurance, and bravery, as this Hamburger Abendblatt article quite aptly describes. Before the battle ensues, though, first a brief excursus back into German frat history...
I wouldn't call it "fencing" so much as "waving a blade around
like a flyswatter until you or your opponent's ear is bleeding."
(Wikipedia Commons)

From Yesterday's "Liberal Ideals" to Today's Traditional "Parallelwelt"

The traditions of the German Studentenverbindung reaches back as far as the late Middle Ages for its styles and traditions; mottos of many Corps Verbindungen invoke dramatic, archaic, and sometimes misogynistic concepts like RitterlichkeitVaterland, and the "proper" traditional role of the woman. The German institution as such actually postdates the first Greek fraternities in the U.S., though: the Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded in Pennsylvania at the College of William and Mary in 1776, while the first "modern" Studendenverbindungen, according to the always-correct Wikipedia, appeared around the turn of the 19th century. The incorporation of fencing as a method of initiation, settling of scores, and proof of dedication came around 1850 or so. I was surprised to find out that the founding principles of the Verbindung and its members were actually quite liberal at that time: dedication to democratic ideals including equal voting rights (for men, of course), promoting political engagement and individual initiative, and duzen (use of the informal 'you') among all members regardless of age or social standing. Though the latter may sound insignificant in a modern Germany where use of Sie is limited to fewer and fewer situations, this practice was a major break from social norms of the time.

So these liberal ideals led to the Verbindungen coming to blows with the establishment at several key points throughout German history. The often-authoritarian Kaiserreich, and later the National Socialists, took issue with the independent streak of the fraternities, thus leading to the banning of fraternities during the 1940s, into the 1950s and beyond. The Nazis didn't like the fraternities' opposition to the Aryan Laws, and later, the Allied Powers forbade all clubs founded before 1945 for understandable reasons. This drove the student clubs into the underground for several decades. They never disappeared, though, and they've emerged in modern Germany as institutions who no longer look as liberal as they may have been at their inception. Now, they exist in a sort of tradition-obsessed Parallelwelt ("alternate reality"), as the above-mentioned Hamburger Abendblatt piece asserts.
A typical Wappen for a
German Studentenverbindung.

Scharfe Mensur, Traditionalist Tunes and the Notorious Bierjunge

...meanwhile, back to our Kneipe – which is what many of the organized parties are called – in present-day Leipzig, where we were beginning to learn a little more about Cherman frat life. Our curiosity about the fencing was finally sated when one of the senior Burschen granted us entry into a "Pauktraining" – or practice fencing session – where the "combatants" wear protective helmets over their entire head and neck in preparation for the real deal, the "Scharfe Mensur." In the latter, only the nose, neck and eyes are protected, leaving the scalp, forehead and ears exposed. Standing erect and still an arm's length apart, the two young males jerked into action, mechanically swinging the blades in an arc above their heads, clanging together about a dozen times in more or less the same spot each time. It was all over in less than 10 seconds, and neither had moved an inch in any direction. Standing one's ground is in fact a key part of the Mensur: if the combatant retreats even one step, they must complete a penalty session, or Strafpartie, for their lack of bravery.

A pristine forehead and set of ears ready
to prove his bravery.
The whole scene all seemed very serious to us visitors with all the protective equipment and build-up and whatnot, but we still found ourselves chuckling (inwardly) at the mechanistic nature of the "fencing" and the anticlimax of the whole thing. There didn't seem to be too much athleticism required, and dumb luck seemed to determine whether or not you came out with some mangled cartilage or a marked face. In the end we figured out that the marking bit was really the whole point of the thing: it's the "tattoo" of membership for Burschen, the sign that you've done the Mensur and purchased your way into the club. We would later learn that former members that become doctors are brought in for the Scharfe Mensur so that wounds sustained are treated promptly, but also so that a scar will be left behind.

So while my American friend and I further pondered the curious sporting spectacle we had just witnessed, we filed together with all the Füchse and Burschen into a narrow room containing a long, rectangular hardwood table and dark, wood-panelled walls. Lining those walls were a series of 18th and 19th-century maps of the German Empire, along with various old flags and fancy gilded crests of mysterious origin. It was all very impressive to us young American chaps. A silver-haired Alte Herr (or non-active senior member) then arose to speak. My German wasn't as strong then as it is today, but there were plenty of archaisms and invocations uttered about honor, loyalty, traditional German values and so on. There were also plenty of references to Reinheit (cleanliness), Ritterlichkeit (chivalry) and Vaterland (Fatherland); though quite general in nature, these concepts aren't exactly devoid of troublesome historical associations. But just as I had slipped off into a quiet peaceful place to ponder these things, my repose was broken as all members suddenly broke into song about Lusatia, Silesia and a bunch of other former German territories that now at least in part belong to the Czech Republic and Poland. This all but confirmed my suspicions that the modern Burschenschaft was now really more about traditionalism, conservatism and preserving "Old Germany," and less about supporting the liberal ideals it had originally espoused – that it truly does exist in a Parallelwelt as the Hamburger Abendblatt article suggested.
The American Bierjunge is comparatively chaotic and
unregulated. It is carried out by using the "Octabong".

With the sporting and singing portions of the evening concluded, all members dispersed to grease the proverbial social cogs with liquid libations, and engage in what I in hindsight like to call "formalized informal socializing." The beer began to flow freely, and I quickly realized that German frats don't differ so much from the Americans in their love, infatuation with fermented beverages. Junior members stood out as they proudly displayed their bandages and fresh blade wounds. I observed quietly, Beck's in hand, as the young 'uns were deliberately incorporated into the conversations of the older members. We two Americans, equally identifiable as foreign visitors, were also a curiosity for the Burschen. It wasn't long before we were introduced to the concept of the Bierjunge, the alcoholic counterpart to the Mensur described above. Conflicts or personal scores – real or manufactured – can also be settled at the frat with a little competitive drinking. The Germans were jumping at the opportunity to challenge the inexperienced North Americans in their midst.

In true German fashion, this institution has a complex and meticulously laid-out set of rules (see the Wikipedia page for the complete and convoluted rules list). I was confused at first when a member I hadn't even met yet approached me and rattled off some prescribed phrase to challenge me to one of these so-called Bierjungen. After a few awkward moments of silence and me giving this guy a very confused look, an onlooker explained to me that I had to respond with some other phrase to accept the challenge. Next, an Unparteiische (disinterested party) would preside over the duel, rattle off some more prescribed phrases and announce the start of the duel and judge who won the race. There are obviously rules in place to break the tie as well: residual beer left in the glass or spilled onto the duellist's clothing or the floor are measured by the Unparteiische. In the end, I lost my first Bierjunge, but I'm proud to say the American upstarts swept the following five. My companion even vanquished their 'ringer' – a 6-foot-6, 250 pound beast of a man – decisively. We may not have proven our bravery in the Mensur, but at least our ears were intact and we had a decent buzz.

By the end of the evening we had learned a whole lot about how fraternities in Germany work, and I think the most striking thing I realized once I had time to step back and see the big picture is that the German Verbindung and the American fraternity have uncanny similarities in their cultures, events, and behaviors; but they also differ in very specific ways that reflect the countries' respective national characters. Below are four big ways in which German and American frats are simultaneously alike and different:

-- while the Germans hark back on the Middle Ages and Latin symbolism to justify their rites, the Americans paste Greek letters on their houses but retain few of the rites and practices of centuries past

-- while the Americans are competitive drinking among the complete chaos of the beer pong and flip-cup tables, the Germans are formally initiating, performing, and assessing their competitive drinking in the form of the Bierjunge

-- while the German fraternities are singing about more chivalrous times and many now-ceded German territories in wood-panelled rooms, the Americans are belting out profane chants and fight songs at a football stadium

-- while new German members are undergoing the meticulous process of initiation via Pauktraining and eventually a series of Mensuren which often results in members' permanent 'marking', the Americans are undergoing any number of disgusting and often dangerous initiation rites that I thankfully know very little about

All of these points aside, the two institutions remain 100% congruous in at least one respect as far as I can see: they both make use of oaths of loyalty and lifetime membership to exploit advantageous relationships in the academic and working worlds. This is really the true essence of the international fraternity; if you're headed for college, you (or your parents) have some cash to spare, and you're willing to endure some mildly to seriously painful initiation rites, then the German/American fraternity is the place for you.

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