By Jonathan Green
To wince or recoil even slightly would mean dishonour. Even when the glint of steel, ground to the sharpness of a scalpel, enters his peripheral vision he doesn’t flinch. Seconds later the blood runs down the left side of his face, turning his clothes crimson before pooling around his ankles on the pinewood floor. His features remain glacial.
Only 10 minutes earlier it was sweat that covered his face when his friends kissed him on the cheek to wish him luck. He must have hoped then that he would not be the one who would be scarred for life. Now another fencing duel – or mensur – ends, fought in a centuries-old tradition that is observed down to the last, painful detail.
In the corner of the room the acrid smell of surgical spirit rises from two stainless-steel basins on the floor. A medical student arranges his suture needles, forceps and gauze pads on a table. There is a box of surgical gloves on the window-ledge nearby. Dozens of young German men in their early twenties chat through the fug of smoke, swigging from bottles of Gotha beer.
Some are members of the Corps Hannovera, one of 200 such student corps in Germany. The corps are criticised and shunned by many Germans, castigated as little short of Nazis, their tentacles of right-wing influence reaching into the corridors of power in modern Germany, in politics, business, law and medicine. The corps say that they are maligned and insist that they are politically neutral, merely clinging to an all-male sense of camaraderie and tradition in German history that pre-dates Nazism by hundreds of years.
Drawn mostly from the German upper classes, the men wear uniforms denoting their allegiance to a fraternity. They live together, eat together, drink together, sing songs about honour, women and Germany. And they fight together. Despite the risk of permanent disfigurement, the rewards are great, they say.
They have learned not to open their doors to the public, particularly the media, for fear of attack. Getting permission to observe their furtive brotherhood took me roughly 5,000 miles of travelling, a personal letter of recommendation and thorough vetting over the course of eight months.
The duel I am watching takes place at the house of a rival fraternity, the Brunsviga Corps. Strapped tightly on to the sweating faces of the two fighters are black steel goggles, with discoloured, steel-mesh lenses, modelled on 200-year-old designs. A steel guard covers the length of the nose.
Wound tightly around the neck, guarding the carotid artery, is a thick cotton bandage. Each man wears a chain mail shirt weighing about 7kg (15 pounds) and chain mail gloves under leather gauntlets on their right hands. The right arm is reinforced with a leather padded arm guard.
All this is intended as protection from the schlager, a sword based on the rapier and sabre. Modelled on a traditional European duelling weapon, it is 86cm long and weighs only 360 grams. With this sword the fighters will attempt to slash, cut or whip anything above their opponents‘ eyeline line – skull, forehead and ears are all fair game.
The referee, a pinched character sucking on a bottle of beer, calls for silence. The combatants step up to face each other and the crowds dissipate. On the right is a tall, slender man with untamed white-blonde hair. He wears the duelling colours of those with German aristocratic blood. On the left is a smaller, thickset man. Both have frozen expressions.
Gazing down from the walls are Daguerreotypes of scowling duellists with facial scars, some more than a century old. Lurking at the back of the room is a 50-something man dressed in black with a scar stretching from just below his nose almost to his ear in a concave droop. Everyone here knows him as the fencing master – all have been trained by him at some point.
The aristocrat towers over his opponent with daunting ease. Clumsily, a wooden box is brought for the shorter man to stand on so he can fight his opponent on a level. They place their feet square on, a sword’s length apart.
Only the right arm moves during a fight. To the left of each fighter is a figure in a fencing mask wearing a black padded apron. He too wears chain mail and clutches a schlager. He is the duellist’s „second“ and will protect his fighter in the instance of foul play. To hit below the eyeline is to fight „deep“ – the equivalent of punching below the belt as a boxer, but to do that here means not only disqualification and shame but a scar and injury for life.
On the fighter’s right is another ally, also wearing a neck brace and a butcher’s steel-mesh glove. In his hand is a yellow cloth soaked in surgical spirit. After each round – which comprises four blade movements – he cleans the sword with surgical spirit to minimise the risk of infection. He also looks for nicks in the blade – a blemish may create a jagged cut that is harder to stitch.
„Hoch bitte!“ bellows the referee. The mensur begins. Swords are held aloft pointing to the ceiling. The aristocrat’s seems to be quivering. „Hoch!“ the seconds respond. The duellist are ready. „Los!“ The snick of blades in the air breaks through the silence. With a dull thud they are blocked, hitting padded arms, before they slash and riposte. The blades‘ movements are so fast they are almost invisible.
A round completed, the seconds throw their schlagers upward to block any more blows. The fighters swallow. The tempo increases with each round. The shadows of the blades are thrown on the ceiling from lights around the walls. The movements take place in fractions of seconds, the measurements only millimetres.
And then – only five minutes in – it happens. A fluffed attack, the fencer reconsiders, hesitates, withdraws, and is punished mercilessly. At first it isn’t clear that anyone has been hit. But then a small hairline crack becomes visible, stretching from just below the temple almost to the middle of the forehead.
The fighter remains immobile, his face a mask of serenity. And then a steady scarlet tear forms and weeps, rolling down his face. A few more, and now the cut gushes blood, covering his cold, steel goggles.
A cry goes up from the spectators and the doctor rushes forward with a gauze pad. „Halt, halt,“ shout the seconds and the referee. The doctor sews the wound with delicate stitching, knowing the scar will be for life.
The Corps Hannovera is based in an imposing Gothic edifice of ochre stucco with a turret. It served as a hospital for German soldiers in the second world war, and overlooks the spires of the university town of Gottingen in western Germany, a bastion of the nation’s academic elite. The house draws a lot of attention. Swastikas are daubed on the heavy front door and the cars in the car park frequently have their windows smashed.
I am greeted in the grand hall by John Philip Niemann, 21, an economics student from Wilhelmshaven. The current senior of the Corps Hannovera, he is the son of a prominent German industrialist. Like the eight corps brothers he leads, he speaks with an American twang – evidence of expensive exchange years spent in the US. He stands by a bust of Otto von Bismarck, surrounded by black-and-white pictures on the wall of the entire 384 members, dead and alive, arranged in frames, alongside tapestries and swords.
Bismarck, the 19th-century Iron Chancellor, is the Hannovera Corps‘ icon, and their most famous member. He is not the only prominent alumnus of the duelling clubs. Kaiser Wilhem II was a renowned fighter and proponent of student duels, claiming they were „the best education which a young man can get for his future life“.
Karl Marx, the father of communism, was a duellist. A recently retired general in the German police, a number of judges on the supreme court, members of the German government past and present, captains of industry at DaimlerChrysler and telecommunications giant Mannesmann were all „brothers“.
Bismarck’s birthday is also the anniversary of the Hannovera Corps. And so stiftungsfest begins – a round of parties, drinking and celebration, also marking the end of the college year. The men wear blue and red sashes, signifying full membership of the corps – but not in public: it would be suicide to advertise allegiance to a corps on campus. „I never wear the sash in the town,“ says John Philip. „I’d end up either in the gutter or the hospital.“
Most corps brothers are from „good“ families of a high German caste. A duelling scar – called a schmiss – is a tattoo of breeding in Germany. Usually on the left side, conferred by a right-handed duellist, at one time it certified the owner as cultivated, courageous and virile. The branding was once so prized there are stories of students who didn’t make it into the corps cutting themselves with a razor and pulling the wound apart, pouring wine in or sewing a horse hair into the gash to make it more pronounced.
Today, the rules of joining the corps are little changed from a century ago. Not all who apply get in, some are deemed „unsuitable“. New members are often introduced by the alte Herren who are fathers, uncles or grandfathers.
Michael Gonel joined the corps in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and elder brother. He first came to the house in his mid-teens, and has chosen to join a male tradition taken so seriously that women are not allowed beyond the first floor. „We have to live in a completely open way so we don’t want women in the rooms and doors closed,“ says Michael. John Philip broke up with his girlfriend of three years when he joined. „Once I joined the corps I had no time,“ he says without remorse. „It was better that way. We have to go out if we want to see a woman.“ There is not even a television in the house to offer distraction.
Each year new recruits to the corps – „actives“ – spend a year living at the house, paid for by former members. An hour is spent fencing every day, and members must learn about the esoteric corps history. They will fight three mensurs and attend a dizzying round of parties and social events. Studying has a low priority.
A new fellow becomes a fuchs – a fox – and submits to the discipline of older members. While some parents are pleased their sons are carrying on the family tradition, others are horrified. The historic corps brother was white, upper-class and German. But the presence of Sebastian Duong, 22, a dentistry student, is a sign that change is occurring. His father is a Vietnamese computer programmer who emigrated to Germany and married a German woman. When Sebastian became a corps member „they thought I had joined the Nazis“, he says. „I didn’t tell my mother about the fencing. She found out but I always tell her it is not too dangerous.“ Even his „normal“ friends think him crazy to fence with sharp blades, he says. So why join such an organisation? „I didn’t want to be like the other students sitting in their rooms, smoking and doing nothing,“ he says. The strong camaraderie, the tradition and lifelong bonds are the draw.
Why the constant Nazi tag? The duelling clubs trace their history back to the 15th century when students would travel together, armed, for fear of bandits. The movement then formalised, and later split. On the right were the Burschenschaft, avowedly political and nationalistic. The corps, on the other side, were non-political and more tolerant of race and religion – more interested in drinking and duelling than in austere party politics. All corps use different colours to denote their values. Blue signifies societal and gregarious values, white aristocracy, green bullish behaviour, red tolerance and black marks a strong fencing tradition. But the Hannovera, with blue and red as their colours, deny all accusations of right-wing tendencies. „We all get tarred with the same brush,“ Sebastian complains. With the establishment of the Third Reich in 1933, Adolf Hitler perceived the unswerving loyalty among corps brothers as a threat. They refused to split with their Jewish members, saying corps membership was for life and that fealty among „brothers“ was unbreakable. So Hitler banned them. After the war, the corps flourished again. Today, in addition to the Hannovera, there are six other such groups in Gottingen alone.
Past combatants often fought to the death, but no one has died in a mensur since the 1950s. „It’s just one of those things you have to do,“ says Sebastian. „It’s like you are facing your fears there, not fencing against someone else. The idea is that whatever you face in life after that – nothing will scare you as much.“
Thus to show any fear, even to flinch, spells instant disqualification. To do so more than twice in a row casts you out of the corps. Even to leave the blade stationary for more than two seconds leads to instant disqualification.
But nerves and tension cannot be outlawed. It is time for Philip and Sebastian to complete another level. Their colleagues dress in dark grey suits, as though for a business assignation. After a few practice swipes and a last nervous drag on a cigarette, Philip is led down to the fight. „I have a good doctor – why should I worry?“ he declares with bravado. This being his second mensur, the chance of being hurt is greater than in the previous fight. On the first mensur the basic strokes are to the top and left side of the head, on the second the fencers may also slash at the face, and on the third almost anything goes. Philip stands to fight, the chain mail incongruous against his leather sailing shoes and chinos. Blades clash. The first rounds pass swiftly. In the 18th round a small tuft of Philip’s hair falls to the ground. The battle intensifies. In the 22nd Philip takes a sideways swipe – it’s on target. His opponent makes the mistake – he ducks. The referee calls a halt and both fencers are led from the room.
Upstairs in the Hannovera’s room the mood is electric. Philip sits in a chair in the middle of the room, is passed a beer and a packet of cigarettes. In turn they say what they thought of Philip’s performance. Then they vote. Like the stories of ancient Rome, he will get either the thumbs up or thumbs down. Everyone sticks their thumbs up in his face and break into laughter. His challenger has been vanquished and will have to fence the mensur again with someone else.
Sebastian is next. In the 18th round his opponent tries to fight back with a move called a horizontal quart – a 360… windmill attack. He loses faith in his ability but it’s too late. Sebastian launches the same when he withdraws. The schlager flashes before coming back to the resting position. His opponent’s blood starts to run, dripping over his chain mail and soaking his clothes to the skin. Both are impassive. There is no punching the air in triumph or misery in defeat.
But after Sebastian is led upstairs the mood explodes. He is hugged and kissed – thumbs up without preamble. When I say that I thought there was meant to be no winner, a corps brother answers: „Well if the other guy really tries to fuck you, you can get him back.“ Sebastian, who has just scarred someone for life, is unrepentant: „It was me or him,“ he says flatly. „I don’t have a bad conscience because they put someone up who is bad at fencing.“
Downstairs it’s a different scene. The loser, his face a mask of blood, smiles in a daze as his comrades offer words of encouragement. Each time the medical student pushes into the wound with the needle he winces; his only anaesthetic is a bottle of Jever beer. Sebastian comes over and hands him another bottle. They shake hands, smile and drink each other’s health. „We’ll be friends,“ says Sebastian. And with that he calls his mother to say that he is OK.
That night drinking goes into overdrive. Corps members drink bierjunge, a challenge to down three-quarters of a pint in one go. At times in the evening people slink off to vomit in designated basins in the toilets called papst, meaning Pope: you bend over and make a „donation to the church“.
The next few days are a ceaseless melee of drinking, parties, etiquette and entertaining. At a midsummer ball female students in expensive ball gowns are treated with reverence and dashing seduction.
On another night a party is thrown, a keniepe. Men ranging from 30 to 80 years old, all in Hannovera sashes, line long tables drinking vast amounts of beer. Toast follows toast. Candles on the tables flicker over lineaments of faces in the darkness and the tell-tale scars of mensurs past are evident. Many of the men are in expensively tailored suits and hold cigarettes with manicured hands. Songs are sung from green books with studs on the corners so they don’t get soaked in the beer on the table. With twinkling eyes and a scar from his chin to his bottom lip, Michael Eggers tells of the appeal of being a corps „brother“. He was a general with the German police before he retired recently. „We only take men who are honourable,“ he says. „You learn to tell the truth and you face danger. And I like women, of course, but I think it is good for all men to have a time when they don’t feel erotic dreaming. Later of course you meet nice girls from good fathers who are welleducated and on the right level.“
Eggers is unabashed when asked if corps brothers give each other preference in business. „Yes, a little bit,“ he says candidly. „But not all the time. As general of the police I had to deal with the secretary of state who was a corps brother but we didn’t get on so well.“
Dr Bernd Bessau, an alte Herren from Emden, says that the bond of duelling will live on. „If someone joins the corps they know they will have very good connections for the rest of their lives,“ he says. „So we need something to provide a level to stop people just joining for that – but something that binds all corps members together.“
Yet, as the years wear on, the scars get ever more discreet, rules are tightened up and the duel becomes ever more sanitised. Ten years ago fencers could slash to the face and fight „deep“: not now. And, in Germany as a whole, the corps are in a bad state. „It is not so easy to find the right people these days,“ says Eggers. Some corps are starting to „sell out“ now; one group has taken up horse riding rather than fencing.
The rigorous etiquette and emphasis on honour is a hard road. Throughout the five days that my photographer colleague, Simon Roberts, and I spent with the corps, the brothers treated us with the utmost respect, deference and general kindness. There was no indication of anything untoward – such as the right-wing tendencies they are accused of – and their behaviour was no different from any other sporting club, and probably far better.
The absolutes by which they live – and the willingness to be scarred for life – mean that there is no compromise with integrity. In one drinking game Simon tried to pour half his beer away midway through. He was spotted and the corps brothers were appalled. As he tried to make light of it the corps brothers frowned. „You never, ever cheat,“ one said. The corps has chosen its own form of rebellion – not through rock or rap, drugs or fashion but, paradoxically, through tradition, through centuries-old codes of honour and formality. As Bessau puts it, with some anger: „The French have their history, the British have theirs. Why can’t we have ours? Yes we have a darkness from the Nazis, but why does it have to cover all the other areas?“
For the brothers soon to be embraced into the fold, the concerns are more immediate. Philip has only one mensur left until he is a full-blown corps member. After graduating he wants to work in a bank or do something associated with economics, and the contacts he has made may be important, he believes. „I will try to make it on my own first and if not, well, I will see what the corps has.“
As for Sebastian Duong, he is now a full corps brother. His membership is for life and, for now, he is happy. He has maimed another man, but it has given him no taste for violence or machismo: „I never want to pick up another sword again.“
Jonathan Green is a freelance journalist
Quelle: Financial Times