Lifelong Friendship the German Way

Growing up in garrisons along the iron curtain, I adored my father who was an infantry officer. I only recognized after his death that he did not particularly enjoy his career. Nevertheless, as a child, I tried very hard to emulate him and his role. In pursuit of that quest, I determined, among other things, in grammar school that I would join a student corps in college.

A student corps is a dueling fraternity whose members wear colored ribbons and live together in the corps house. As it turns out, a German TV network decided to cover my fraternity last month. They did a great job, which, frankly, surprised me in light of the difficulties that Germans have with tradition.

Many German fraternities organize around religious, political, or ethnic principles. Corps, on the other hand, adhere to the tolerance principle and accept any male who attends an academic institution that awards a doctoral degree. I did not plan it that way but the tolerance principle afforded me the opportunity to participate as a Mormon who did not drink alcohol.

The goal of most German fraternities, corps or otherwise, is to cultivate lifelong friendships. In my case, it worked. I am still in touch with my fraternity brothers. In fact, I even feel a bond with those of my brothers whom I have never met.

We have participated in the same rituals. Especially the mensur, a student fencing duel with razor sharp but non-deadly blades brings us together. When you share that much fear, no one cares about the superficial differences that separate human beings ordinarily.

Of the many costly choices that I have embraced as a young man, I value my membership in the Corps the most. The lifelong friendship thing works.

If you know anyone who wants to learn German on the cheap and has a sense of adventure, send him my way.



  1. That’s cool Hellmut. I knew conservative lawyers in Germany with “Schmisse” on their cheeks and foreheads that hinted at their involvement in either Burschenschaften or Corps. I understand that the two are nearly opposite on the “tolerance principle” and drinking. Were you the only one who ever duelled sober?


  2. Thanks, John. I don’t know what’s going elsewhere but in my corps, we all dueled sober. Besides, drinking swells scars. These days, most people want small scars if they have to have any at all.

    Our mensur physician happened to be a beauty surgeon. That’s not why we selected him. He was just available but we were sure happy that he knew what he was doing.


  3. Burschenschaften organize by ethnic principles. You need to have a German grandfather. Corps organize under the tolerance principles. We don’t care about your ethnic or ‘racial’ background, nor your religion or your political persuasions.

    As long as you attend a university and are willing to stand for your corps on mensur, you qualify to join a corps. However, that does not mean that anybody gets to join.


Comments are closed.