Studentenverbindungen: What they are & why

In German, the term "Studentenverbindung" ("Union of Students") is used for fraternities (rarely sororities) that follow academic traditions and customs developed over centuries in the social sphere of German and German-influenced academic institutions. The degree to which these sets of customs are formalised and practiced vary; the two main features that most Studentenverbindungen share are the "Conventsprinzip" (communal decision making with equal vote to all full members) and the Lebensbundprinzip (lifelong membership). Studentenverbindungen played a key-role in the formalisation of nationalist ideas at German and Austrian universities, especially in the 19th century.

After reforms in the Austrian Empire in 1859, one branch of them became part of the conservative establishment; the other branch remained progressive, anti-Habsburg and national-liberal. Both branches gained momentum towards the end of the 19th century. Either way, these German academic traditions (with distinct side-branches at Dutch/Flemish and Baltic universities) influenced political groups at all universities in the German tradition, which included all non-Italian universities in the Habsburg Empire.

Most Studentenverbindungen admit only men and follow traditions in costume and heraldry. One can distinguish between "farbentragend" ("blaze wearing"), in which members wear hats ("Deckel") and bands around their chest for official occasions; representatives carry swords ("Schläger"), a flag ("Standarte") and wear traditional student costumes in the style of the late 18th century ("Wichsen"). Studentenverbindungen that are "farbenführend" ("blaze carrying") have no hats and chest bands, but flags and at least one Wichs set for a representative.

Studentenverbindungen of this kind are usually choirs ("Sängerschaften"), sport clubs or associations of students from a geographically confined area (Landsmannschaften). They are generally less rigorous. Even more loosely organised Studentenverbindungen wear neither blazes ("Coleur", comprising of the hat and band), nor any other heraldic elements or costumes and are called "Schwarze Verbindungen" ("Black Fraternities"). Most of them origin from the 19th century and served specific purposes: The financial support of students, lobbying for university chairs / lectures in a certain language or the establishment of literature societies.

Classification of Studentenverbindungen

A more important distinction is linked to the tradition of academic fencing in the form of ritualised duels between two members of different Studentenverbindungen ("Mensur"). Some Studentenverbindungen are "schlagend" (Mensur compulsory for all members), some are "fakultativ schlagend" (Mensur is done regularly, but participation is voluntary) and "nichtschlagend" (participation in Mensur is strictly prohibited for all members).

The latter category includes all Catholic or Christian Verbindungen, which includes the majority of all Studentenverbindungen that originate in the Habsburg Empire. Most Catholic Studentenverbindungen are traditionally against pan-German ideas and organised into federations, whereas "schlagende" fraternities are proudly federal and membership in a federation of Verbindungen - if it occurs at all - is little more than a friendship treaty. The term "Burschenschaft" usually refers to a "schlagende" Verbindung.

The German Kaiserreich period (1871 to 1918) is generally seen as the "Golden Age" of the Studentenverbindungen. At all academic institutions in the German tradition, Verbindungen for different nations developed. Men as different as Karl Marx, Theodor Herzl and Otto von Bismarck were lifelong and passionate "Coleurstudenten" (members of a Verbindung) and illustrate the social and political importance of Verbindungen. The age of modernism is linked with the radicalisation of nationalism, rise of militarism and a rapid economic and intellectual development. For a thorough investigation of these phenomena at Galician universities, one does not get around the Studentenverbindungen. The rise and racist refinement of nationalism is directly linked to the history of fraternities.

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Further Reading

Wikipedia on Studentenverbindungen

Wikipedia on Burschenschaft

Federation of Austrian secondary school Studentenverbindungen

Federation of Austrian university Studentenverbindungen