Fraternities try to redefine their image | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.05.2013
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Fraternities try to redefine their image

Its annual conference is a top event for German fraternities: not only a time to drink and be merry, but also to discuss the direction the assocations should take, and how to shake off their far-right reputation.

This year, around 400 members from fraternities all across Germany are meeting in Eisenach from May 23-26 for their annual conference. Former fraternity members, called "Alte Herren," who financially support the associations for life, also come to the annual "Burschentag" meeting. These "seniors" give lectures and help kickstart the younger members' careers.

Hanging out together, enjoying support, drinking excessively, eating heartily - for many young people just graduating from high school, that sounds like a great way of kicking off the college years. And for freshmen just coming to a new city, the advantages are obvious: the chance to meet people quickly and the opportunity to live inexpensively in often luxurious fraternity houses.

Marchia fraternity building in Bonn Copyright: Christine Siefer/DW

Marchia fraternity building in Bonn

Less appealing about the fraternities are the headlines some of them made around a year ago. The national Association of German Fraternities ("Dachverband der Deutschen Burschenschaften" - DB) allegedly discussed the exclusion of members with "migrant backgrounds." In the lead-up to the national conference 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The petition was withdrawn before the conference took place, but the media had already latched onto the "Aryan identity" implication and its association with the Third Reich.

Some fraternities attempted to distance themselves from the terminology, but other reports linking the fraternities with far-right ideology continued. Twenty-five fraternities have resigned from the national DB association over the past year. So the anticipation has been great about what this year's annual conference will bring.

Hundreds of fraternity members stand atop the Warteburg at the national conference in Eisenach Copyright: Michael Reichel/ dpa/lth

Rituals are part of fraternity life - and the national confernce

Between tradition and modernity

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 colors of the original society - or fraternity - were black, red and gold - which would later become the colors of the German national flag. The "fatherland" terminology and corresponding identification with German ancestry remain an important element of fraternity life.

Society-members dressed up in costume drinking beer together Copyright: Jan-Peter Kasper/ dpa

Eating and drinking unite society members

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.

But the patriotism touted in some fraternities continues to draw students with far-right or National Socialistic tendencies. And fraternity members have repeatedly made controversial statements in the past, such as Norbert Weidner, former DB spokesperson and a member of the Raczeks, calling Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a member of the Resistance against the Nazis - a "traitor" in a published letter. He also called Bonhoeffer's murder by the SS "legally justified."

Political scientist Alexandra Kurth sees this connection of tradition with modernity as problematic. "These student organizations partially came about from estate-based societies," she explained. "They are essentially organizations in which the focus was to ensure the privileges of a minority in society: namely, educated white men." As gender equality, international exchange due to globalization and support of immigrants and those with migrant backgrounds have grown, so too has the fear among fraternities for their existence. Essentially, the fraternities are locked in an identity crisis and are deeply divided.

A vision of the future

Peter Gelbach, head of the Alte Herren association of the Marchia society Copyright: Christine Siefer/DW

Peter Gelbach, head of the "Alte Herren" of the Marchia society

The Bonn-based fraternity Marchia, together with 40 other societies who are not part of the DB, began discussing the founding of a new national association in March of this year. But the diverse societies must still find common ground.

They have differing opinions on everything from admission requirements to defining their basic principles. "We would like to focus more on university policies and societal topics, and plan on encouraging fraternities to get involved locally and do volunteer work," said Peter Gelbach, head of the "Alte Herren" association of the Marchia society. "We want to see our fraternities as more education and value-oriented, and less as political entities."

But without working through their political legacy, also during the Nazi period, the fraternities are going to have a tough time spiffing up their image in the long-term.

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