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Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick:
Student Life at the German Universities, 1900

ENGLISH people who have been in Germany at all have invariably been to Heidelberg, and if they have been there in term time they have been amused by the gangs of young men who swagger about the narrow streets, each gang wearing a different colored cap. They will have been told that these are the "corps" students, and the sight of them so jolly and so idle will confirm their mental picture of the German student, the picture of a young man who does nothing but drink beer, fight duels, sing Volkslieder and Trinklieder, and make love to pretty, low-born maidens. When you see a company of these young men clatter into the Schloss garden on a summer afternoon and drink vast quantities of beer, when you observe their elaborate ceremonial of bows and greetings, when you hear their laughter and listen to the latest stories of their monkey tricks, you understand that the student's life is a merry one, but except for the sake of tradition you wonder why he need lead it at a seat of learning. Anything further removed from learning than a German corps student cannot be imagined, and the noise he makes must incommode the quiet working students who do not join a corps. Not that the quiet working students would wish to banish the others. They are the glory of the German universities. In novels and on the stage none others appear. The innocent foreigner thinks that the moment a young German goes to the Alma Mater of his choice he puts on an absurd little cap, gets his face slashed, buys a boar hound, and devotes all his energies to drinking beer and ragging officials. But though the "corps" students are so conspicuous in the small university towns, it is only the men of means who join them. For poorer students there is a cheaper form of union, called a Burschenschaft. When a young German goes to the university he has probably never been from home before, and by joining a Corps or a Burschenschaft, he finds something to take the place of home, companions with whom he has a special bond of intimacy, and a discipline that carries on his social education; for the etiquette of these associations is most elaborate and strict. The members of a corps all say "thou" to each other, and on the Alte Herren Abende, when members of an older generation are entertained by the young ones of today, this practice still obtains, although one man may be a great minister of State and the other a lad fresh from school. The laws of a "corps" remind you of the laws made by English schoolboys for themselves,---they are as solemnly binding, as educational, and as absurd. If a Vandal meets a Hessian in the streets he may not recognize him, though the Hessian be his brother; but outside the town's boundary this prohibition is relaxed, for it is not rooted in ill feeling but in ceremony. One corps will challenge another to meet it on the dueling ground, just as an English football team will meet another---in friendly rivalry. All the students' associations except the theological require their members to fight these duels, which are really exercises in fencing and take place on regular days of the week, just as cricket matches do in England. The men are protected by goggles and by shields and baskets on various parts of their bodies, but their faces are exposed, and they get ugly cuts, of which they are extremely proud. As it is quite impossible that I should have seen these duels myself, I will quote from a description sent me by an English friend who was taken to them in Heidelberg by a corps student. "They take place," he says, "in a large bare room with a plain boarded floor. There were tables, each to hold ten or twelve persons, on three sides of the room, and a refreshment counter on the fourth side, where an elderly woman and one or two girls were serving wine. The wine was brought to the tables, and the various corps sat at their special tables, all drinking and smoking. The dressing and undressing and the sewing up of wounds was done in an adjoining room. When the combatants were ready, they were led in by their seconds, who held up their arms one on each side. The face and the top of the head were exposed, but the body, neck, and arms were heavily bandaged. The duelists were placed opposite each other, and the seconds, who also have swords in their hands, stand one on each side, ready to interfere and knock up the combatant's sword. They say, >Auf die Mensur= and then the slashing begins. As soon as blood is drawn, the seconds interfere, and the doctor examines the cut. If it is not bad they go on fighting directly. If it needs sewing up they go into the next room, and you wait an endless time for the next party. I got awfully tired of the long intervals, sitting at the tables, drinking and smoking. While the fights were going on we all stood round in a ring. There were only about three duels the whole morning. There was a good deal of blood on the floor. The women at the refreshment counter were quite unconcerned. They didn't trouble to look on, but talked to each other about blouses like girls in a post-office. The students drove out to the inn and back in open carriages. It is a mile from Heidelberg. The duels are generally as impersonal as games, but sometimes they are in settlement of quarrels. I think any student may come and fight on these occasions, but I suppose he has to be the guest of a corps.".....

A Kommers is a students' festival in which the professors and other senior members of a university take part, and at which outsiders are allowed to look on. The presiding students appear in vollen Wichs, or as we should say, in their war paint, with sashes and rapiers. Young and old together drink beer, sing songs, make speeches, and in honor of one or the other they "rub a Salamander,"---a word which is said to be a corruption of Sauft alle mit einander. This is a curious ceremony and of great antiquity. When the glasses are filled at the word of command, they are rubbed on the table; at the word of command they are raised and emptied; and again at the word of command every man rubs  his glass on the table, the second time raises it and brings it down with a crash. Any one who brought his glass down a moment earlier or later than the others would spoil the "Salamander" and be in disgrace. In "Ekkehardt," Scheffel describes a similar ceremonial in the tenth century. "The men seized their mugs," he says, "and rubbed them three times in unison on the smooth rocks, producing a humming noise, then they lifted them towards the sun and drank; each man set down his mug at the same moment, so that it sounded like a single stroke."

A Kommers is not always a gay festival. It may be a memorial ceremony in honor of some great man lately dead. Then speeches are made in his praise, solemn and sacred music is sung, and the "Salamander," an impressive libation to the dead man's Manes, is drunk with mournful effect.

In small university towns---and it must be remembered that there are twenty-two universities in Germany---the students play a great part in the social life of the place. German ladies have often told me that the balls they looked forward to with most delight as girls were those given by students, when one "corps" would take rooms and pay for music, wine, and lights. For supper, tickets are issued on such occasions, which the guests pay themselves. The small German universities seem full of the students in term time, especially in those places where people congregate for pleasure and not for work. Even in a town as big as Leipzig they are seen a good deal, filling the pavement, occupying the restaurants, going in gangs to the play. But in Berlin the German student of tradition, the beer person, the duelist, the rollicking lad with his big dog, is lost. He is there, you are told, but if you keep to the highway you never see him; and to tell the truth, in Germany you miss him. He stands for youth and high spirits and that world of ancient custom most of us would be loath to lose. In Berlin, if you go to the Universität when the working day begins, you see a crowd of serious, well-mannered young men, most of them carrying books and papers. They are swarming like bees to the various lecture-rooms, they are as quiet as the elderly professors who appear amongst them. They have no corps caps, no dogs, no scars on their scholarly faces. By their figures you judge that they are not Beer Persons. They have worked hard for twelve years in the gymnasiums of Germany, they have no idle habits, no interests so keen as their interest in this business of preparing for the future. They are the men of next year's Germany and will carry on their country's reputation in the world for efficiency and scholarship.


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 263-268.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu