Among the Burschen

Time to learn a little about German customs and manners! Last week I held a speech at a German fraternity (Frankonia) in Heidelberg. Frankonia is a classic German Burschenschaft (roughly, "bunch of fellows") with a history dating back to 1817.

Burschenschaften arose at German universities in the early 19th century. It’s the usual story: young men away from home for the first time gather under one roof, make lifelong friends and connections, perform bonding rituals, and generally have a fine old time. Burschenschaften can be controversial in Germany, since some of them have been associated with right-wing causes and are to this day creepy, quasi-fascist institutions. Frankonia isn’t in that league. Membership is open to all regardless of nationality or ethnicity. The folks I met were extremely cordial and well-groomed; mostly sons of doctors and lawyers and engineers. They tended to talk about politics a lot, as is common here, but I heard nobody express dreams of a greater German Reich, or furtively consult a map of Stalingrad ("You won’t have much fun in Stalingrad!"). Just the usual bitching about high taxes and regulations, and plenty of sentences that begin with "What this country needs is for everybody to realize…" You know the drill.

The fraternStained_glass_coat_of_armsity house itself is a tall, narrow 3-story structure built in 1890 on the side of the same hill that houses Heidelberg Castle. The ground floor has austerely attractive wood-panelled dining rooms and offices. OnOld_dog_11 the second floor is a large hall for banquets and dances, and at the very top a tower balcony with stunning views of Heidelberg. Oh, and the stuffed heads of all the fraternity’s old dogs (R). The fraternity’s coat of arms (L) features a lyre and a sword. This shows that the members pursue interests not only in the "arts" (broadly defined) but also in Fechten (fencing).  The fencing duels are more a stylized rite of passage than actual sport. Every member has to endure one in order to join, and they are also used to settle disputes among fraternities. When you are insulted during a visit to another fraternity, you take out your "visiting card," as the Germans call them, write your name on it, tear it in half, and give it to the fiend who insulted you. A genuine duel is then arranged, with seconds, an audience, plenty of tension in the air, and all the other trimmings.

During the fencing duel, the two men stand a sword’s-length apart from each other and trade blows.  One stands in a protective position, shielding his head with a well-padded arm and his own fencing sword, while the other whacks at him. They then change roles. Almost always, one or both participants get sliced in the face (goggles are worn to protect the eyes). A doctor (former member) is on hand to sew up the resulting gash (Schmiss in German), and everyone eventually retires to drink away the sting.  The Schmiss is worn with pride throughout the rest of the fraternity member’s life.

Many German social interactions, from family gatherings to business conferences, are composed of episodes of stiff, routinized formality followed by more-or-less unhinged alcoholic excess. It was no different at Frankonia. The meals are formal. A bell is rung to announce the meal, everyone stands up until short introductory speech has been made, and the meal is served, in courses. Ashtrays are place on the table just before dessert. Like many fraternities, Frankonia has live-in help; in this case a nice English couple who live in a basement apartment. The woman cooks, and the man tends to the house. The simple, tasty meals were cooked below and sent up through a dumb-waiter.

As the evening progresses, the large-scale communal drinking and singing begin. The most precious fraternity lore concerns the effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Specifically, of excessive beer consumption, which has very different side effects than excessive whisky or wine consumption. One of the brothers told me a tale involving a sieve which I, unfortunately, won’t soon forget. 

The bathroom at Frankonia boasts a Kotzbecken (puking-sink). This practical device comes up to just under chest-level. Support bars are mounted on the wall behind it, and of course you can flush afterwards. This casual integration of things emetic into ordinary life is not unusual. All respectable German beer-houses have a Kotzbecken in the men’s restroom (and perhaps in the women’s as well). Some Kotzbecken even have a wall-mounted ashtray, since it’s rather difficult to smoke and throw up at the same time, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some German, somewhere, has mastered this. I am sure every Frankonia member will feel a thrill of pride when I report that the enamel on Frankonia’s Kotzbecken has been worn away by many early-morning sessions of Praying to the Porcelain Goddess.

I hugely enjoyed my stay there. The young men of Frankonia were very generous and had outstanding manners. For purposes of political balance, I promise to soon visit a meeting of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany and report my impressions from there. I anticipate the same amount of bitching about politics, but significantly less fencing…

12 thoughts on “Among the Burschen

  1. Hmm, I’d find it difficult to come up with such a positive view of those people. Isn’t it more about making sure that the people who join get jobs later on based on their connections rather than their skills?

    And isn’t that kind of mock fighting extremely demented? Injuring yourself just to be a member of some group.

    While I’m not a big fan of Germany, I’d also disagree with the statement that Many German social interactions, from family gatherings to business conferences, are composed of episodes of stiff, routinized formality followed by more-or-less unhinged alcoholic excess..


  2. The jobs comment may have been applicable a generation ago. In my opinion though (as a fraternity member), only rarely, if ever, is a job ever provided simply on the basis of one’s membership in a fraternity. I don’t know of a company that could afford to offer sinecures in today’s business world.

    What does count is the socialization in a fraternity (regardless of origin, income level or field of study). Many aspects of fraternity life provide effective training for future employment, such as public speaking skills, delegation, administration and teamwork. Any preference among fraternity members for hiring a member of a fraternity (not necessarily from one’s own) is likely based more on these attributes and experiences. And yes, these skills can certainly be acquired elsewhere. However, German universities are nowhere near their US counterparts in assisting students to do so.

    Where an internship or job offer is in fact extended within a fraternity, this is usually the result of one member having gotten to know the person hired extremely well, and thus having a better basis to evaluate their use in a company, law firm, etc.


  3. I have no idea who’s right about the jobs comment, but ssp gives us no reason to believe him, as he cites neither personal experience, a reliable account, or any sort of study to support any of his points. We have a saying “Never judge a man ’till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” That’s what this blog is all about — walking at least a few meters in everybody’s shoes. With proper sanitary precautions, of course.

    As for the description of German social interactions, the answer is simple. I am right. You provide no reason to doubt my description. I, on the other hand, have experienced this pattern directly in person, and seen it with my own eyes. Until everything went dark, that is.

    If you would like more objective proof, I refer you to the existence of the German word Schunkeln. There is no English word for this. Oxford/Duden describes it as “to rock to and fro together (in time to music, with linked arms).”


  4. Quite amusing… you are right just because I don’t bother to fill in the details for you. And while I’m charmed by the fact that the citing of ‘personal experiences’ by an complete stranger would turn this into a good argument, it really doesn’t.

    But if this makes it more convincing for you, yes I have met people who joined those clubs. Some of the people I considered jerks in high-school did. And of those fraternity members I happened to meet at university only very few were tolerable while the majority were jerks as well. The vast majority, if you include those people who consider running around town completely wasted at night, bragging who was forced to have the most drinks, puking around and shouting nationalistic phrases. Not exactly good mannered.

    Whatever you say about German social interactions. I’ve survived a number of years of them and while what you describe does happen, reading it reminded me much more of what I experienced when living in the UK or when visiting the US than when living in Germany. Particularly the bit on getting completely wasted. Usually student drinking behaviour in Germany seems much more reasonable than in the UK or US (which may have to do with the licensing…). As for the formalities – that’ll certainly depend on your friends and family.

    Finally, it completely evades me what kind of ‘proof’ Schunkeln is to provide here.

    The topic of fraternities has been widely discussed and that discussion isn’t worth repeating here. Hardly anybody will be completely neutral on the topic and depending on whom you ask, you’ll get opinions from them being democracy-loving saints to them being conspiratory fascists. Naturally, the truth will be somewhere between those extremes and you’ll have to figure out where it is and whether you can tolerate that position because it’s unlikely that you’ll find a source on the topic that both members and opponents would agree on as being neutral.


  5. Dear Andrew,
    More than 100 years ago Mark Twain visited a meeting of the “Burschenschaften” in Heidelberg, and he wrote the same as you. And so I think you are right.


  6. I know some people from the Sängerschaft “Frankonia Brunonia” in Braunschweig (group of singers, maybe they’re related?) and I have to agree with them that all this fencing is absolutely ridiculous. Pathetic even.
    If you must fight, get yourself a platemail, learn how to fight with a sword and visit a LARP-Con like my friends do, but to get yourself ‘insulted’ and proudly wear a Schmiss, because you were dumb enough to start a fencing duel and get hit is … idiotic? Utter nonsense? The words escape me. Which age are we? 19th century? Since when has humanity the abilty to resolve conflicts through discussion, diplomacy and sportsmanship? Maybe these Buschenschaften didn’t get the memo.
    Oh, the ones not accepting women as members are quite a bit behind too.

    As for “schunkeln”: Huh? What do you mean?


  7. More than 100 years ago Jules Hurt visited a meeting of the “Burschenschaften” in Göttingen, and he wrote the exact opposite of Mark Twain, so there. (He was a French journalist travelling through Europe before the first world war.) The Burschenschaften of a hundred years ago have been treated with ridicule and scorn in journalism and literature, and rightly so.
    I don’t know much about the Burschenschaften today; I was a guest for two nights in one and know two members. Didn’t you honestly think they were boring, pompous and and ridiculous? You seem to fail to mention that aspect.
    “Many German social interactions, from family gatherings to business conferences, are composed of episodes of stiff, routinized formality followed by more-or-less unhinged alcoholic excess.” That may well be your experience. I don’t think it’s universal, but then, I think mature people don’t enjoy throwing up.


  8. The one thing I’m always wondering about is: why do people care? If they don’t want to join a fraternity, they don’t have to. If I don’t want to be part in the Kaninchenzüchterverein, I simply won’t join one. But noone ever goes around bickering and bitching about Kaninchenzüchtervereine, still a lot of people seem to have serious issues with fraternities in Germany. From the perspective of a regular student from Heidelberg, I do enjoy having those guys around, even though I wouldn’t want to be one of them. Still though, their parties are great (cheap, good music, a lot of women around), they offer quite a lot of interesting events like the speech held by Andrew Hammel and for the rest I simply don’t care. I probably had the big advantage not to know all those prejudices and wrong ideas most people have about fraternities, so I could form my own impression after visiting a couple of events. The same is obviously true for Mr Hammel.

    I’m quite convinced though, that they don’t give a damn about what other students do in their free time. Some get drunk, some do drugs, others play soccer, who the hell cares. Since I don’t see any right-wing revolution being started among those folks, there is absolutely no reason at all to deal with them if you don’t want to. I’m just wondering who is not being tolerant here…


  9. I am originally from Ireland but studied for a year in Berlin in the early 90’s. During that time I joined a Landsmannschaft (another form of Burschenschaft and generally considered to be more liberal). Part of the membership was a minimum of two Mensur or duels. I have always enjoyed sport and I enjoyed the fencing probably more than any other sport I have ever done, though the actual Mensur itself is quite a frightening experience, less due to the possibility of being hit, rather than the possibility of “Mucken” or ducking. I would far prefer to have been hit than to have ducked and be taken out of the “mensur”, while the active members and alumni of my Landsmannschaft looked on. It should be noted that alumni of the fraternity travelled from all over Germany to watch the evening’s “fights”. I use the term fight lightly as in reality you do not fight against someone, you fight with them. This is a key point in undesrtanding teh experience. This is not a win or loose situation but rather a test of yourself. Prior to joining the fraternity, I had been prone to get into the odd physical dispute, not uncommon in Ireland. As I was told prior to the Mensur, this was a way of testing myself physically and mentally. This turned out to be exactly the case. There was intensive practice and all of the members who are going to participate in teh Mensur are rated on strenght, speed and skill and matched with someone at a similar level at the the other fraternities to ensure the Mensur was as equal as possible. There is no hate, anger etc. involed nor are you in any way encouraged to be excessively aggressive. I never met any of my opponents before the Mensur and they became good friends afterwards in all instances. Since then I have never felt the need to get into a fight of any kind as I had proven myself to myself. I ended up doing two mensur as was the minimum necessary and then one more “just for fun”. It should be noted that at the time of joining, I was active in left-wing politics (quite far left)and made this clear to everyone. No one had a problem with the fact that I was a foreigner or because of my political leanings. It also gave me a great opportunity to meet the aluumni and discuss politics and other issues with them, people who I would not have normally come into contact with. The mensur turned out to be a surprisingly powerful experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, as I will the friendships and sense of tradition it instilled in me. The overall experience was incredibly positive and I am grateful for the opportunity of having joined.


  10. Greetings:

    After conducting a name search on the search engine Google, I found this web page. I am performing a genealogy research into my Buerschen family. Any Information one could provide would be greatly appreciated. The original Buerschen left Baden-Baden in 1857 and came to the United States..

    My questions are:

    1.What does the name, Buerschen mean?
    2.Are there any Buerschen family still in Germany?


    Jeff P. Buerschen


  11. And I suppose you all think the German flag is black, gold and red for no particular reason? If you know germanys history-the reason for this so called “foolishness” is evident. While student sword fighting has now been religated to mere ” ritual “-German students were historically some of the best fencers alive during the last 400 years. For the almost 300 years (1620-1900) the best fencemasters in Europe taught at Jena University-Kreussler and Roux families. German fencing evolved into its current form because its very survival was at stake. The last member of the Roux fencing dynasty made it so with the book “Deutsche Pauk” in 1866-changing the lethality and allowing it to survive to this very day. Tradition is something you hang on for dear life-God Bless the student Oragnizations!


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