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Inside secretive fraternities of Germany and Austria

Marco Müller
February 4, 2018

Sexist, far-right and a thing of the past: Fraternities in Germany and Austria are getting a closer look since an anti-Semitic songbook came to light. How extreme are these student associations?

Celebration of a fraternity in Jena
Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Schutt

Fraternity brothers apparently like to sing: Two decades after its publication, a songbook belonging to the Austrian fraternity "Germania zu Wiener Neustadt" has emerged, complete with anti-Semitic and xenophobic references.

The scandal has led to the resignation from all offices of Udo Landbauer, the fraternity's vice president and member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the junior partner in Austria's current government.

The fraternity itself is under fire as well. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wants it dissolved.

"There's no place in our country for associations in which something this repugnant occurs," he said on Wednesday in Vienna.

These are welcome words to critics across the border in Germany, who say that Germania's attitudes are the norm among fraternities in both countries.

Udo Landbauer
Landbauer was forced to step down from all positions over the songbook scandalImage: picture alliance/dpa/R. Jaeger

Secret societies

Fraternities are student organizations that meticulously uphold traditions and a particular understanding of manhood. These are men-only groups with a ritualistic pledging process. Those who pass the trial period can become lifelong members, potentially affording them valuable career contacts.

As members of a closed, sworn society, there is a sense among fraternity brothers that they belong to an elite circle. During university, they mostly enjoy low-rent living in opulent housing in their cities' choicest areas.

Fencing among fraternity brothers is also a tradition. During these duels with sharp blades, most parts of the body are protected, with the deliberate exception of cheeks and the rest of the head. If someone is hit, there is mostly some bleeding and a scar is left. However, these dueling scars are not seen as a sign of defeat. Instead, they are worn with pride as a demonstration of someone's readiness to fight.

Read more:10,000 protest in Vienna against far-right FPÖ at 'Academics Ball' 
Fraternal origins

Fraternity member with dueling scars
Dueling scars are still a badge of honor in some fraternitiesImage: Getty Images

Official events, which are mostly beery affairs, are attended in a uniform unique to the fraternity. Older fraternity brothers attend as guests whom younger classes look to for advice and career stewardship. They can significant wield influence.

Fraternities as organizations do not look kindly on outsiders interested in revealing what goes on behind their closed doors. Michael Gehler, a history professor at the University of Hildesheim, is one such outsider. In the late 1990s, the first edition of a book he and some colleagues wrote taking a critical look at the history of fraternities quickly sold out.

"We found out that these organizations had bought up the books," Gehler told DW. "They didn't want it reaching wider audiences."

Germany is home to more than 1,000 student societies, of which about 120 are fraternities. Most are in university cities with a long tradition, such as Marburg, Heidelberg and Tübingen. They came into being during Napoleon's occupation of Germany in the 19th century, when Germany was still a collection of independent states.

Students back then were particularly interested in forging a sense of national identity and thus founded the first fraternity in Jena in 1815. Its founders adopted the colors of a Prussian volunteer military unit: black, red and gold – today the national colors of modern Germany.

Criticism of fraternities

Fraternities have long been viewed as anachronistic and often criticized for extreme right-wing views. The criticism is not entirely disputed by some in fraternal circles, depending on how the term is defined.

"Fraternities stand for achievement and uphold a rather different image of manhood with their fencing," said Philipp Stein, spokesperson for the "German Fraternity" (Deutsche Burschenschaft), by far the largest and oldest umbrella organization, with 70 fraternities and 8,000 members.

If a traditional view of family and manhood is classified as "right-wing," serving as a "counterweight to a left-wing zeitgeist," he told DW, "then it is not an incorrect label." But right-wing was not the same as right-wing extremist, he said.

Philip Stein,
Stein: 'A counterweight to the left-wing zeitgeist'Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Reichel

Membership in fraternities within Stein's umbrella group is offered only to those with one German parent. The other parent must then be at least European. Members are also required to have done their military service.

Such requirements led to a split in the umbrella group, first in 1996 and then again in 2016. Withdrawal from the "German Fraternity" was due to "particular behaviors clearly seen as falling along the right-wing, far-right and radical-right spectrum," said Michael Schmidt, a spokesperson for 27 fraternities that withdrew in 2016 to form one of the two other umbrella groups. "This has nothing to do with fraternal values," he said.

Read more:Between secrecy and fame: 300 years of Freemasons 

Fraternal influence

The numbers and significance of fraternities have declined since the time of the German Empire and the Weimar Republic, when more than half of students were members. Nowadays, the membership rate has fallen to 2 percent or less, said Dietrich Heither, a social scientist and fraternity expert.

Fraternities are a thing of the past, he said, because "dueling and hard-drinking academics don't fit with the social and soft skills that more modern, international companies demand."

However, he added, that was no reason to write off their influence altogether. Above all, the "old guard" of fraternities retained good contacts in politics and business, Heither said.