You Flinch, You Lose

In German fraternities, a controversial sport tradition turns boys into "men"

Julian Sanchez was in a hurry. He still had to buy a pair of cheap black trousers. He would wear his black leather shoes—as required by the dress code—but didn’t want to ruin his only suit.

“There’s always the risk that you will bleed,” he says.

In 2017, Sanchez, a law student, had just joined the Corps Hubertia fraternity in Freiburg, a quaint and vibrant student city in southern Germany. He was on his way to his first Mensur, a fencing match fought with sharp sabres. It’s a compulsory rite of passage for every new member.

“I was really nervous, I was shaking,” he remembers.

But no one could have noticed. As he walked up to his opponent, he wore chainmail from the chin down, along with a stab-proof vest, gauntlets and three layers of fabric around the neck for protection. A steel mask covered his eyes and nose, leaving only parts of his face and head exposed.

The Mensur is different from Olympic fencing, where elaborate footwork and complex strike patterns are key. In a Mensur, duellers stand a blade-length apart and hold the sabre in one hand, arm stretched out above their heads. It’s the only limb they are allowed to move. By turning the wrist, they strike and defend in a strictly regulated choreography. The match lasts thirty rounds, with four strikes each. There is no winner—the only way to lose is by flinching and pulling back the head when the blade comes down. A bout may otherwise only be stopped to treat serious wounds.

“Unless you’re a soldier or a policeman, you’ll never do anything more intense than this,” says Sanchez. “You can’t die, but you can suffer some nasty scars.”

Five compulsory practice sessions a week—including three under the stern supervision of a professional trainer—had taught Sanchez the importance of rhythm and accuracy. If executed precisely, his movements would leave his head exposed for only a fraction of a second.

As the clang of the sabres filled the air, the men in the room fell into devout silence, interrupted only by the occasional gasp. Once the match was over, Sanchez and his opponent sat down for a beer. It was a feeling of solidarity that he would likely never experience again, he says.

There are many types of Studentenverbindungen (“student associations”) in Germany, with different historical roots. Modern-day clubs like the Corps Hubertia date from the 19th century, although they uphold rituals emanating from even older traditions. Not all of them practise the Mensur, and there are important differences in their political views and admission criteria. But they all promise life-long friendship and a support network that cuts across generations of men.

Traditions like the Mensur are one reason why fraternities in Germany are perceived by many as politically conservative, secretive and elitist. Critics feel that they use similar rites of passage to pass on outdated ideas about masculinity and men’s roles in society.

But their members insist that, as the English name suggests, a fraternity is about brotherhood. A timeless bond unites men of different ages in solidarity. Younger recruits profit from the business connections and financial support of older members and, in turn, support the new generations later in life.

Most fraternities don’t publish membership numbers. According to Dietrich Heither, who has investigated German Studentenverbindungen for over three decades, more than half of the country’s students were members during the German Empire (1871-1918). Today, that figure has gone down to around 2.5 percent. With women entering universities in the early 20th century contributing to the growth in the student population, their relative numbers declined. But according to Heither’s research, attracting large numbers was never a primary concern. “Fraternities have always considered themselves as the elite,” he says.

Around the world, all-male clubs and associations seek to form tomorrow’s leaders. The Bullingdon Club at Oxford University gave the U.K. Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson; American fraternities, like Yale’s famed Skull and Bones secret society, have turned out no less than 18 U.S. presidents since 1877 and 85% of Supreme Court justices since 1910.

Power is at play in German Studentenverbindungen too, says Dr. Alexandra Kurth, co-author of several books and essays on the link between fraternities and right-wing politics. According to her, the belief that politics is men’s business is an unspoken ideal for many fraternities. Questions of gender equality and calls for affirmative action are often dismissed as trivial.

While there are important differences, fraternities are ultimately based on a traditional image of masculinity, argues Kurth. “Men are seen as rational and women as emotional; men as active and women as passive; and while men can defend themselves, women are peace-loving.”

For Sanchez, accusations of sexism are unwarranted. Good behaviour towards women is central to their self-image as a group, he argues. Mannerliness is on the curriculum in both the compulsory etiquette and dance classes. “When we have female guests, we have to treat them well,” he says. “We offer them somewhere to sit, something to drink, and we go and talk to them.”

Yet in many fraternities, women are both adored and despised, argues Kurth. On the one hand, they represent “the beautiful, the pure and the good,” she says. Which means women should be “courted, given flowers and cared for.” On the other hand, there’s a counter-image: “It’s the anti-lady, the politically active student, the feminist,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a downright object of hatred.”

For someone with a trained eye, members are recognisable by their mannerisms. Over time, rules of etiquette or details like the way they raise their glass to someone senior become “part of their flesh and blood,” says Michael Csaszkóczy. He is a guide and Antifa-activist in the German city of Heidelberg, where he gives tours about the local history of fraternities. Even though he is critical of it, members regularly join his walks. Csaszkóczy says he recognises them at a glance—from their appearance, but also from their body language. “It’s all about appearing soldierly and honourable.”

Csaszkóczy finds it problematic that obedience to rules and tradition is valued more than individual thought. “The Mensur is a textbook example of how this socialisation is literally inscribed into the body,” he says.

The newest members of a Studentenverbindung, called Füchse (foxes), are “at the bottom of the food chain,” says Sanchez. Whenever a rule is broken, there are consequences: the most serious one, short of being expelled, is being “demitted.” Once a member has been demitted, no one in the fraternity is allowed to speak to them or even recognise their presence for a certain period of time.

“What we offer is a community,” says Sanchez. “So what’s the harshest punishment? Taking that community away.”

“As a man, you had to be able to face danger,” says one former fraternity member who prefers to remain anonymous. He joined the Landsmannschaft Ghibellinia in Tübingen in 1968, where he took part in multiple fencing bouts and thought he had found friends for life. But in the last Mensur he ever fought, he broke the most important rule—“do not flinch.” The only way to re-establish his honour would be to “fence for cleansing.” When he decided not to do so, he was expelled.

As he left the fraternity house for the last time, he felt proud. He had stood by his decision. “You don’t need to fence to become someone who can face a challenge,” he says.

But his decision came at a price. “None of these friendships and acquaintances lasted. All of them were gone,” he says.

“Unless you’re a soldier or a policeman, you’ll never do anything more intense than this.”

“The Mensur is a textbook example of how this socialisation is literally inscribed into the body.”

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Illustration by

Natsumi Chikayasu