German fraternities are often linked with neo-Nazi ideology, but the Association of German Fraternities is trying to clean up that image.
The German fraternities have made it quite clear: in a press statement at the weekend, the Association of German Fraternities ("Dachverband der Deutschen Burschenschaften" - DB) said membership of a fraternity "is incompatible with membership in any other organization that advocates National Socialistic ideology."
The statement was an attempt to combat repeated reports linking the fraternities with the far right. The reports are damaging to its image, said the DB.
"But the damage has already been done," Michael Schmidt of the liberal fraternity group IBZ told Deutsche Welle. "A connection has been implied that is unacceptable to most of us. There is little that can be done about it now."
A community of shared values: 'Honor, liberty, fatherland'
German student societies were originally established in the 19th century as groups critical of state authority, based on the principle of "honor, liberty, fatherland." Like those behind the French Revolution, the Germans too stressed their loyalty to the fatherland and military values.
The movement was co-opted by the Nazis during their period of rule, and it was not until the 1970s that some of the more liberal student societies opened their doors to women, foreigners and non-Christians.
The DB currently has 123 associations and 10,000 fraternity members. Some of them are flag-carrying fraternities, where members wear military-style medals on their lapels. Senior members feel a responsibility for promoting the careers of their juniors. Former fraternity members support the societies financially for life.
The advantages for freshmen, particularly in big cities, are obvious: the chance to meet people quickly, the opportunity to live inexpensively in often luxurious society houses, and the possibility of being a member of an elite group, without having to prove themselves much beforehand. Some fraternity members can be identified by scars on their faces, which they have received during dueling matches with actual swords. All of it constitutes bragging rights - something the fraternities promote themselves with.
"The world is incredibly complex and when people come up with a simple scheme for interpreting it [such as fraternities do], then of course it's appealing to some people," argues sociologist Armin Nassehi of the University of Munich. "The fraternities are no different than Opus Dei or the Red Army Faction."
The current damage to the fraternities' image that IBZ's Schmidt mentioned goes back some six months. In the lead-up to a national conference for German fraternities last spring, one fraternity - the Raczeks, based in Bonn - planned to submit a proposal to change the DB's constitution so that only applicants of German descent could become members. This came after a German citizen with Chinese parents had become a member of the Hansea fraternity of Mannheim. The petition was withdrawn before the conference took place, but the "borderline formulation," as Schmidt called it, had already found its way into public debate.
The scandals continued. Norbert Weidner, former DB spokesperson and a member of the Raczeks, called Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a member of the Resistance against the Nazis, a "traitor" in a published letter. He called Bonhoeffer's murder by the SS "legally justified."
Joachim Perels, professor emeritus for political science in Hanover and an expert on the German resistance during World War II notes that such an attitude was widespread in Germany at the beginning of the 1950s. "Half the population was of the same opinion," he told DW. "But legally speaking, that is incorrect: there was a trial [decades later] that found that Bonhoeffer and others tried to liberate Germany from the clutches of a corrupt clique of politicians. The Resistance's aim was to free Germany."
What is dangerous about the fraternities, he added, is that they - of all groups - have not faced up to the legacy of German history: "There has never been any critical self-reflection by the fraternities about that world of thought prevalent in the 1920s - one that was anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-pacifist. But only that would be a real step forward," Perels said.