Malcolm F. Lowe on Männer – Bunde – Rituale: Studentenverbindungen seit 1800, by Alexandra Kuerth

, December 17, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


Swords and Sociology

Männer – Bunde – Rituale: Studentenverbindungen seit 1800, by Alexandra Kuerth, Campus Verlag, 2004, 213 pp. [German]

Reviewed by Malcolm F. Lowe


The official translation of this title is “Men – Associations – Rituals: Student Fraternities since 1800.” Yet it is difficult to convey the overtones of the words “Bund” and “Verbindung,” both of which suggest that something “binds” (their English etymological cognate) the individuals involved together. Moreover, the term “Bund” became a technical term in various ethnological and sociological theories early in the last century. The author herself inclines toward a definition in the manner of Hans Schmalenbach, by contrast with some earlier Bund-theorists.

The most decisive predecessor acknowledged by the author, however, is the German Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990), who took refuge in Britain, where he pursued his subsequent academic life up to retirement, ultimately settling in Amsterdam. His most important book, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (“The Civilizing Process”), appeared in 1939, but was largely ignored until its republication in 1969. Thereafter, it quickly became very influential, since it seemed to provide a way out of a fundamental impasse in sociological theory at that time.

Whereas Europeans were long educated on the works of classical historians such as Livy, who focused on the roles of great men, sociologists in the last century increasingly emphasized the role of social structures or forces. By the 1960s, however, this approach was increasingly under attack for minimizing the role of individual agency. Elias’ answer was to draw attention to the ways in which all kinds of social networks emerged in Europe in the early modern period. These associations developed and promoted their own various standards of behavior, often drawn ultimately from late medieval court etiquette. This was how increasing societal complexity could accompany increasing government centralization. It also explained how the individual could have an impact on society at large; namely, by playing an influential role within such networks.

A Question Well Put

One of the curiosities the academic visitor to Germany cannot fail to notice is the phenomenon of student fraternities, the schlagende Verbindungen that practice swordplay and even make-believe duels (which fell into disrepute in other European countries during the nineteenth century). These fraternities also have strictly formulated codes of behavior. Members sometimes live in a communal house, and are organized as Altherren (“old boys,” as it were) after completing their studies, as German student associations have been known from late medieval times onward. For Kuerth , all this makes them a peculiarly German form of the networks to which Elias ascribed such importance. Elias himself made some instructive comments about them, though Kuerth thinks he said too little and evaluated their role too positively. So her question is the extent to which these fraternities contributed to or are illustrative of the civilizing process in its specifically German form, including the course of German history in the twentieth century.

Anyone who has detected a typical topic for a doctoral thesis has guessed right. The book’s initial form can be seen in places where Kuerth’s argument is formulated not in her own words but through a long quotation from some authoritative academic. Nevertheless, the question she raises is well put, and the author has assembled a comprehensive collection of information together with insights of her own. After years of investigations and a string of briefer publications, she seems to have become something of an authority herself on male bastions.

An introduction in which she explains her project (ch. 1) is followed by a detailed description of German student organizations as they are today (ch. 2). Not all of them, and certainly not the Roman Catholic ones, practice swordplay. Yet customs such as ritual beer drinking, as she explains later, have spread beyond the fighting fraternities. Not all student associations are exclusively male; some are female or mixed. They also have various local and national roof organizations. Kuerth provides a guide to the bewildering mass of initials by which the individual and parent organizations are known.

Next the author turns to the history of German student organizations up to (ch. 3) and during (ch. 4) the nineteenth century. A decisive turn in their character came through their involvement in the national revolt against the order imposed on Germany by Napoleon and in the semi-successful revolutions of 1848. Subsequently, however, they became pillars of imperial Germany under the two Wilhelms up to the defeat of 1918. Most of the currently existing associations were formed during that period and their present structural organization, too, dates mainly from then rather from anything earlier. Even though dueling became forbidden by law, they were allowed to continue as an open secret because Altherren occupied so many high positions. For Kuerth, this exemplifies how the networks could both enforce a certain social order in general while maintaining an alternative order for themselves.

The partial exceptions were the Christian-oriented associations and some carryovers of progressive ideals. Typically, however, student organizations were conservative and militaristic; they also created what Kuerth terms a “utopia of a pure male society” for as long as women could be excluded from many sectors of society.

Ideologies and Realities

The ideologues who created national roof organizations in the Wilhelminian era, Kuerth explains (ch. 5), were also leading propagandists of antimodernism. This expressed itself in three forms: anti-Semitism, antisocialism and antifeminism. The admission of Jews was gradually eliminated in such associations as had permitted any to join, though existing Jewish Altherren might not be formally expelled.

The Jews reacted by forming their own associations of two kinds: those which were as German nationalist as the associations that would no longer have Jews, and which were largely imitations of them, and those which adopted Zionism. When women were at last admitted to the universities shortly before World War I, they formed their own associations, again largely based on the existing models. The reality for many students, however, was that membership in such associations was advantageous for social climbing, regardless of whether they shared the views of the ideologues.

In her introduction, Kuerth cites Karl Popper, the distinguished philosopher of science, amongst others for the view that “science is not without presuppositions” and that “rather it is always pursued in relation to society”  (23-24). In fact, Popper would have disagreed with the latter statement as much as he emphasized the former. Nevertheless, Kuerth does show (ch. 6) that the various Bund-theorists drew very definite political consequences for Germany from their academic theories. Anti-Semitism, antisocialism and antifeminism hence variously received a seemingly scientific endorsement.

Bund theory began in Germany with Heinrich Schurtz, who drew attention (1902) to the function of the men’s house in tribal societies, an insight discovered independently by Hutton Webster (1908) and which subsequently became a commonplace of ethnologists and sociologists. Here the young bachelors sleep, eat and conduct their lives together in general. The very title of his book, consequently, claimed that male associations together with age classes constitute the two “basic forms of society.”

In this perspective, such phenomena in modern societies as the men’s clubs of British gentlemen and the German student fraternities take on a new significance. Schurtz went on to contrast the many kinds of German male associations with the family, seen as the primary domain of life for women. Thus the male monopoly of public functions in Wilhelminian society could be seen as scientifically vindicated. Schurtz’s book characterized racism and anti-Semitism as “natural.” He also inveighed against male socialist propagandists of feminism, though showing some sympathy for the efforts of women, provided they eschewed “fanaticism,” to avoid total domination by men.

Among other theorists discussed by Kuerth, Hans Blueher’s book on The Role of Eroticism in the Male Construction of the State (1917, 1919) was notable for its influence on Thomas Mann. He regarded the family as a “constituting principle of the state,” but no more than that, since nature everywhere has to “break through the exclusive domination of the family” in order to build a state, such as in the beehive. In the case of human beings, this required male associations driven by sublimated male-male eroticism. Consequently, Blueher was an opponent of women’s emancipation in any form. Nevertheless, despite his anti-Semitism and his ideas about leadership (Fuhrertum), this arch conservative was also totally hostile to the Nazis because they were a mass movement, not an elitist male association. After they came to power, he retired to private life in disgust.

Another Bund-theorist, Alfred Bäumler, eagerly employed similar ideas in the service of the Nazi regime. He claimed that what corresponded to the “essence of the German people” was not the “female-urban culture” typified by Paris, the historic enemy of Germany, but the “male-heroic culture.” He reproached the existing student associations, however, for having “succumbed to the spirit of bourgeois society” and for their elite character. Together with other Nazi ideologues, he worked for their replacement by universal Nazi-controlled student organizations. Thus, as Kuerth puts it, the student fraternities, although their members were largely hostile to the Weimar republic and sympathetic to Nazi aims, became victims of their own success.

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MALCOLM F. LOWE is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Malcolm F. Lowe

Malcolm F. Lowe is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.