Last weekend, I accompanied my husband to Heidelberg to celebrate the 130th anniversary of his fraternity. A German fraternity is not quite the same as an American fraternity, but some things it does have in common are a heavy emphasis on drinking and membership into a male-only club.
I haven’t quite made up my mind about the whole concept. It is all a bit antiquated and an attempt to perpetuate some sort of “establishment.” At the same time though, I know that the network has been very important to my husband and I’ve enjoyed talking to and getting to know some of the members and their respective partners throughout the years.
I was having a lot of fun at the black tie ball last Saturday and was thinking once again about the peculiarities of this slice of German university culture. After five years of marriage, the costumes, the swords and the fencing, although still a bit odd, have grown on me. But how to explain this to the outside. In less than 500 words, I’ve tried to provide a quick and dirty definition.
What is a fraternity?
My husband belongs to a Landsmannschaft. It is a society with the emphasis on friendship, and all members are required to fence. This is student fencing, which is different than fencing, the sport. You are not supposed to move and can only hit the head. Therefore, some fraternity members can be identified by their fencing scars, what in the past was a source of pride.
They also have special rules on how they drink, known as the Biercomment (beer commandments). These are applicable when more than two members are gathered. For example, members are only allowed to drink beer or wine, no schnapps or cocktails. (Why? Because they are not mentioned in the Biercomment. Take a look at the general fraternity Biercomment. You’ll see, there is no mention of mojito or maitai.)
They have their own song book and they demonstrate that they are together by wearing the same colours: special hats, ribbons worn across the chest, pins. This is the classic silhouette of fraternity members that you might see in cafes in university cities such as Heidelberg.
How do you join a fraternity?
Potential members express interest in joining or else are invited to join by current members. It doesn’t seem to be a rigorous process to get in, but then you are required to fence (the number of times depends on the fraternity). If you don’t fence, you’re out.
There are other types of fraternities: Catholic, Protestant, music, singing, political. Back when fraternities were established in the Middle Ages, women were not allowed into university, and therefore many of these fraternities have remained men only. It was also a matter of survival back then to be able to fence. Fencing was necessary in order to protect one’s, and/or a woman’s honor.
Amongst my German friends, there seem to be some ambivalence on this institution. Fraternities are without a doubt considered conservative, extreme or rather. I have to admit that I am still a bit puzzled about them, especially as I start feeling bored while talking to yet another young active member who tells me that he is hoping to get a job in investment banking whenever he graduates.
But as my husband and I were swirling around dancing the Viennese Waltz (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, then 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 and so forth) under the mirrored, domed ceiling of a ballroom in the Heidelberg Stadthalle (guildhall), it was a wonderfully girlish, romantic moment to relish. With a deep twinge of nostalgia, I knew that I was amongst a dying breed enjoying something so civilized that I could experience only every five years in such a place.