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Fighting fraternities that still make their mark

Old fashioned, and often elitist, Burschenschaften fraternities are still clinging to their old ways, says Susanne Pleines.

When I was ill as a child, my mother would take me to a sympathetic paediatrician who always knew the right cure. He was a very kind gentleman and yet I was always a little bit in awe of him because he had a huge, intimidating scar on his cheek. “A Schmiss”, my mother would say and leave it at that. But I was intrigued and looked it up in our big Brockhaus encyclopaedia.

It was a scar from sword-fighting. As a medical student, he must have been a member of one of the many Burschenschaften (student fraternities) which had their origin in the Urburschenschaft (original student fraternity) of 1815. In the beginning, these young men (and they were all men!) fought for revolutionary and liberal ideas such as honour, freedom and a united Germany. They wanted to break down social barriers, install freedom of the press and democracy and fly their colours red-black-gold wherever they assembled.

Alas, the authorities thought otherwise. They introduced the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819 and banned all fraternities and democratic reforms. They had to wait until the German Empire was founded in 1871 before they could reform and thrive slowly.

Today, about 160 Burschenschaften still exist and most of them have retained their traditional practice of strictly-regulated sword or sabre fighting during which opponents try to hit each other’s head or face. Flinching or dodging is not allowed and up until the mid 20th century the resulting scars were badges of honour. Better medical treatment, however, makes them much more difficult to identify today.

Famous members of fraternities were the poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (who wrote the German national anthem), the composer Robert Schumann and inventors Adolf Daimler and Ferdinand Porsche.

In today’s political climate, however, their reputation has lost its rebellious kudos. Burschenschaften are now often seen as elitist, conservative or outright right-wing by their critics. Their main legacy to the nation is the German flag and the odd man with a “Schmiss” in his face.

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