Jan 20, 2021

The Dueling Cults of Borussia

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Paul Deutschman

It was almost sundown when the Corps Borussia brother I shall call Karl picked me up at the hotel.

We walked along the edge of the Bonn University campus, passing row after row of roofless, war-shattered buildings. The scattering of new, modernistic government structures contrasted starkly with the wreckage.

We finally arrived at a large, shabby, wooden house, where a busy stream of students was moving up the creaky stairs. From its appearance, it could have been any fraternity house back in the States with rooms containing half-made beds, pictures of girls, care-free disarrays of clothes. The main difference was the boys carrying big, puffy bundles like duffel bags; others had long, canvas valises, and inside were their dueling swords.

It was impossible not to know what was inside.

The traditional honor duel of the celebrated German dueling fraternities is called “Mensur.”

Slowly, and at first secretly, they have come back into bloody, ritualistic operation. Officially, the Mensur has been ruled illegal, but at Heidelberg, Göttingen, Munich, Bonn, and all the other centuries-old universities, the students, I learned, were meeting once more to slash away at one another’s faces with rapiers and collect their dueling scars.

The heart of illegal dueling is proud, deceptively tranquil Bonn University—just a few short blocks from the capital buildings of West Germany. Here at Bonn, seven of the ancient fraternities, or corporations as they are commonly called, have been revived. I hoped to become the first outsider since the end of the Second World War to witness one.

To understand these cults, it was essential to learn about Borussia, the most unbending and most exclusive of all the military corporations in Germany. Latin for Prussia, Borussia was the corporation to which the powerful, militaristic Prussian nobility traditionally sent their sons. It was also known as The Kaiser’s Corps—for, in 1875, the future Kaiser Wilhelm of World War I fame was a Borussia brother; his two grandsons were also Borussians.

Even today, despite the loss of their ancestral estates to the Communists, despite the fact that almost all of them are refugees working through college, and despite the grave suspicion and hatred with which many of their fellow students regard them, all but three of last semester’s active Borussians are scions of famous aristocratic families from the lost provinces of the East.

Karl, a likeable, 24-year-old economics student, is one of these. He is a lean, handsome lad with an unscarred face—at least, his face was unscarred when we first met. He was wearing a gray-green Tyrolean jacket and long brown knickers, and when we were introduced he bowed sharply from the waist in almost excessive Prussian politeness.

“People do not understand the corporations,” he said. “Many of our critics claim we’re trying to recreated the evils of the past, but that’s not true. Things are different nowadays—getting scars is no longer the important thing. It’s not like my uncle’s time, when corps-students always poured beer or salt into open cuts in order to accentuate their future scars. Today, we engage in duels for educational purposes—to build character.”

Indeed, a Prussian aristocrat who was not a corps-member told me, “To these kids, the corporations today represent what we call Ausweichen—a means of avoiding the realities of life. They can never be important again.”

At the Borussia Corps-House, with an oil painting of the Kaiser in a black-and-white-striped Borussia bandolier looking down upon us, Karl introduced me to his brethren. Their names almost all carried the prefix von, the sign of a noble family. They were dressed like the Kaiser. The youngsters with their unscarred faces, and five or six elderly alumni called Old Boys, whose faces were so criss-crossed with dueling-scars and masses of wrinkles that you couldn’t tell where the marks of their carefree youth ended and those of sedate old age began.

The members assured me the personal duel, where one student challenges another socially acceptable student over a real or imaginary insult, was gone forever. It had reached its heyday before World War I; in the post-war years it had gradually been supplanted by the more impersonal Mensuren, in which members of the seven Bonn corporations are now carefully matched.

We gathered in a small attic as two students had already donned wire masks, long leather gauntlets and cumbersome-looking body pads resembling a baseball catcher’s chest-protector.

A tall blond lad named Count von der Schulenberg also covered up his face with a mask and stood to the side, acting as umpire. The duelists took stances facing each other. All three men held nasty looking rapiers.

“Silencium!” the umpire said, quieting the room.

“To arms! Mensur! Ready! Begin!”

The action was lightning fast, punctuated by abrupt stops and starts. The two opponents hacked in a series of sweeping criss-cross blows at each other’s heads—with an occasional heavy-handed swipe toward the cheek.

“There are certain regular strokes, like in tennis,” Karl told told me. “The forehand, from your right to the left side of your opponent’s head, is called Terz. The backhand, sweeping across your body to the right side of his head, is the Quart. The slash directly at the face is known as the Zieher. There are two kinds of duels—the High Party, when you are permitted to strike only at your opponent’s head, and the Low Party, when you can try both head and face blows.”

For the duels in the days ahead, there would be no wire masks.

“You must always keep your head erect during a duel—no matter what happens,” Karl pointed out. “It is absolutely forbidden to flinch. This results in a great loss of honor.”

Afterward, beer was brought in by two Foxes, who are essentially pledges. I met the First Officer, serious-faced, clean-cut Count Alfred Schwerin-Kosigk and a stern-lipped boy whose family coat of arms was one of six I’d seen engraved on the door outside.

On the surface, it was like any other college bull session. But instead of talking about girls, dances, and campus politics, they discussed the mystic meaning of the Mensur and the various tests of brotherhood a Borussian goes through. They tried to convey to me the importance of the corps in German life: the proud parts played by Old Boys of the various corps in a famous plot against Hitler, and the tortuous psychological reasons why they had decided to re-form their historic ranks and maintain the ancient traditions.

For Karl and the other Borussians, corps-membership brought a sense of continuity not only of Germany, but of their families, and of Prussian manners.

The son of an East Prussian cavalry officer who was killed in the war, Karl had escaped to the West with his mother and lived for a time in the crowded servants’ quarters of an estate near Hanover. Later, he attended a good West Zone prep school, with tuition paid by more fortunate relatives. When the time came for college, it was almost inevitable that he would go to Bonn. It was even more inevitable that he would join Corps Borussia.

“Other corps invited me too,” he said, “but I was sure that Borussia was the Corps for me since my grandfather and two uncles had been Borussians and eight of my family had been members of Saxo-Borussia, our ‘cartel-corps’ at Heidelberg Univesity.”

Karl was initiated in 1953, the color band of the Borussia Fox pinned across his chest. A large, silver cup was filled with white Rhine wine and passed from one member to the other. Everyone toasted Karl, and addressed him for the first time with the familiar pronoun du instead of the more formal sie—a significant gesture. The night culminated with a regular old-fashioned Kneipe—the celebrated beer party of the German corps-students—with many formal toasts offered and singing of the famous old drinking songs.

The corporations were formed for highly nationalistic reasons after the Napoleonic wars, when the states of Germany were trying to become a unified nation.

Because their ambitions for a unified Germany would have upset the status quo, they were declared illegal, and forced to operate secretly. By the time the Revolution of 1848 swept across Europe, when they could have come out into the open, the patterns of secrecy had become hardened into ritual.

As might be expected, rivalries grew up among the various corps. As their hot young tempers combined with the old European tradition of qualified gentlemen having it out with swords or pistols when some insult touched their honor, dueling became a highly accepted, though still secret, way of campus life.

At first there were only individual duels, with nine-and-a-half ounce sabers. The technique was a highly Teutonic one—you merely stood there and hacked away at your opponent. But how could you prove you’d been in a duel? That you’d avenged a grave insult and never flinched, despite a heavy rain of blows? Only by the scars you could show to the outside world. And so, corps-students began going to great lengths to invite insults, and thus gather a full crop of dueling scars that, as Karl admitted, “the duels lost the very meaning of honor!”

Around 1860, they added the refinement of Mensur, with rapiers that weighed eight and a half ounces. Here, you generally bore no ill will toward your opponent, and protective covering lessened the chances for grave, permanent injury.

For some years the personal duel and the Mensur existed together, the latter regarded as a kind of training ground for the former. But they both accomplished the purpose of inflicting scars, and by the 1920s actual “insult” duels were dying out. Then came Hitler, who wrecked the entire moral foundations of the corporations by forcibly converting them into student organizations called Kameradschaft.

“For two years,” Karl said, “Borussia played along with the regime on the theory that Hitler was doing good for Germany, and that by swallowing a few Nazi slogans, we could keep the Corps alive. But little by little, the Nazis applied rules that went absolutely against our principles. As a Kamaradschaft member, you were automatically enrolled in the S.S. This meant the local S.S. leader could come to meetings and learn Corps secrets. Also, you could no longer have majority rule, but had to do as he told you. And, worst of all, you were expected to denounced any corps-brother who expressed any anti-Nazi opinions. This was unthinkable.

“The final blow fell when the Nazis decreed that the corporations had to expel all their Jewish members,” Karl said. “The terms of our charter already restricted our membership to Protestants. But the Nazis said a Jew was anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents and that included about one out of every five brothers. To save the Corps, these ‘Jewish’ brothers decided to resign voluntarily, but we couldn’t go that far. We finally realized the Nazis had made our oaths of brotherhood and honor meaningless, and it was useless to continue. In 1936, the Corps disbanded.”

A great social and economic vacuum existed in Germany after the war. Sometime in 1947, five young war veterans met at Bonn University. They had all trained together at the same cavalry school: all were originally from once powerful, aristocratic Prussian families that had lost everything, and their family trees were thick with former Borussians.

They looked up Herr von Zitzewitz, a veteran of some eighteen duels, who had also lost his land in the war and was working as an elderly man in the government’s agricultural department. At that time, even non-dueling fraternities were banned, but the six homeless Prussians secretly re-formed Borussia. The Kaiser’s Corps was back in business.

The ban against fraternities has since been lifted, as an “infringement of personal liberty.” But German law has always held that engagement with a deadly weapon constitutes a duel, and this is strictly illegal. Recent court cases have ruled the rapiers used in Mensuren are deadly weapons.

The brothers were upset by the ruling, but two-edged rapiers look pretty deadly to me. “The corporations, through our influential Old Boys, are fighting this interpretation,” Karl said.

After a serious of consultations, it was decided I be allowed to attend a Mensuren. When Karl and I arrived at the huge oak-paneled Beer Room, it was teeming with activity.

Dozens of corps-members in varied color-bands and caps were moving back and forth greeting one another with a kind of heel-clicking, piston-waisted formality that I thought went out with the last Congress of Vienna.

We edged toward the Borussia section, on the far left alongside the carefully shuttered windows. The room was thick with cigarette smoke and the aroma of beer fumes and sweating bodies.

Karl smiled nervously, stripped to his waist and slumped into a chair. He would be fighting later in the evening. The brethren began hovering over him like handlers over a boxer before an important bout. A square of felt covered with leather was tied over the left side of his chest, and a thick, downy shoulder pad was strapped over his left shoulder. This gave him all the protection needed on his left, or nonfighting, side.

Breathing deeply now, he stood up while a short, leather apron was strapped about his front, covering him from neck to waist and extending over his right should and upper arm. A padded cloth known as a “Small Necktie” was wrapped over his jugular vein. A thick leather harness was strapped around his chest, along with a special arm padding that fit over his right arm. Then a “Large Necktie,” a sort of turtleneck sweater made out of heavy black leather, was strapped over his neck.

A soft leather glove provided further protection for the sword arm, fitting carefully into the rapier’s armguard so that a duelist cannot even be bruised on his right wrist. Following this came a thick, two-piece outer apron that covered Karl’s body once again, going separately down each leg as far as the knees—and bound underneath in a kind of jockstrap arrangement that gives full protection to the genitals.

“It restricts your movement a great deal, but it’s worth it,” Karl said.

Along with the nose and ear guards, the last item of equipment was the most important: a pair of heavy, felt-lined goggles that covered his eyes completely, leaving only two tiny, steel-gridded openings for him to see through.

At a signal everyone gathered at the far end of the room for a group photograph. There were almost 200 corps-members, all decked out in their tribal colors and decorations. Their faces froze into stiff, dedicated poses, eyes seeming to become glazed over with a sense of history. Two scowling boys up front crossed rapiers high over their heads, as if bestowing a benediction over the assemblage, and suddenly I recognized the group. It was an identical reenactment of the hundreds of other Mensur pictures on the walls, and I realized that the arrogant, monacled, hussar-jacketed Old Boys had once seemed like carefree college kids.

We moved upstairs for the first Mensur, a High Party between two untried Foxes. The dueling doctor waited at the top of the steps, a cigarette drooping from his lips, a tired, disillusioned look etched into his forehead. Spread out on the glass shelves over the washstands, in neat Teutonic array, were his medical instruments.

The dueling room was small and heavily shuttered, with the corps-members pressed tightly around the walls. The two duelists stood in a cleared space about the size of a boxing ring.

The First Officer of the presiding corps stepped forward, solemnly declaring the Dueling Day was opening. Everyone raised their right hands, and gravely took the pledge of secrecy. Then one of the seconds from the presiding corps stepped sharply forward and snapped the hilt of his rapier to his forehead.

“I request silence for a Rapier Party between Herr von Schmidt from Corps X and Herr Kraus from Corps Z.”

The umpire held what looked like a hand-drawn baseball scorecard, containing spaces to check off the rounds as they were completed, plus the names of the duelists, seconds and testers. In a loud, imperious voice the umpire cried out, “Silencium!” Then he proceeded to introduce the principles in formal German.

The first and last rounds of a Mensur are called Honor Rounds, and the other twenty-eight are Sharp Rounds. The former are mere formalities; the latter are serious. Since this was to be a High Party, each round would consist of a ceremonial touching of rapiers plus four head slashes by each man.

The seconds dashed about interrupting each round as if they were separating a pair of maddened bulls, but these two shiny-faced, trembling Foxes just weren’t that bloodthirsty. All they wanted to do was get the rounds over as fast as possible, while keeping their honor intact. The action dragged through the 29th round, and the duelists looked relieved when it was over.

The next bout produced a thin cut on the forehead of one of the duelists. The third Mensur was the first Low Party of the evening, and I could see that these men were much more experienced. The action was fast and expert, and soon one of the men had blood flowing freely down his face, over his padded jacket, and dripping heavily on the floor. The doctor was not called in.

Each time a cut was inflicted, the injured man’s second would cry out “Halt!” and action would be suspended long enough to record the cut. Officially no one wins a Mensur, as it is supposed to be a lesson in discipline rather than a contest, but the man inflicting the greater number of cuts is considered the unofficial winner.

Once it was decided that the man was not going to bleed to death, the umpire would call out “Silencium!” again, and the duelists would resume hacking away at each other. By the time they reached the 20th round, the taller of the two men was bleeding from five separate cuts. Small rivulets of blood were running unheeded down his dueling outfit and forming separate little pools on the floor.

His seconds finally declared a default. The duelists shook hands and then the taller student, his unbowed head covered with blood, was led off to the bathroom where the doctor was waiting. The doctor did the stitching expertly but, as I suppose I should have expected, without anesthesia.

I slipped out of the next duel and went down to see Karl. He was sitting in the half-deserted room, puffing a cigarette, wearing all of his dueling costume but the goggles and glove.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

He smiled.

“Not so good,” he said. “It’s better to go on first than to have to wait.”

When the fifth Mensuren was over, Karl got up swiftly, his handlers forming a guardian phalanx around him. Together, with the entire Borussia Corps, we went upstairs.

Karl sat down in the duelist’s chair, where men came up to shake his hand and wish him well. There was obvious tension in our corner as Karl rose and stepped to the center of the floor.

The host president called “Silencium!” and the seconds measured out the required sword’s length distance between Karl and his opponent—a wiry, black haired boy with sullen black eyebrows and incongruously fresh, red cheeks.

The Honor Round flicked by—then rapiers snapped together like firecrackers as the first Sharp Round began. Both men were very sure of themselves and very impersonal. They seemed evenly matched. Their arms moved with quickness and dispatch—their blades clashing like angry cymbals.

There appeared to be great hostility between the two seconds, but this was merely part of the spectacle. Two men may be the best of friends, but Mensur protocol demands a show of disdain and hot temper, a throwback to the old days when an insult was in the process of being avenged.

They had just broken their men apart for the 12th round, when Karl’s opponent’s second shouted “Halt!

A thin scratch about the size of a shaving cut was showing on Karl’s forehead, an inch or so above the goggles. It was obviously nothing to get excited about. The 13th round began. Both men were trying face strokes with each round, flicking their rapiers deftly at the other’s cheeks. They parried the blows expertly.

In the 14th round the Borrusia second called, “Halt! I declare that my duelist was cut.”

Several curious spectators gathered around to look at the new cut on Karl’s left forehead, about a half inch from the previous one. In the very next round, the Borussia second called another halt.

“I declare that my duelist was cut on the forehead,” he announced once more. Everyone went silent as the doctor came in.

He pulled apart the lips of the cut.

It was a more serious one, just above the hairline. The depth of the gash wasn’t clear because of the hair, but the blood was very red and seemed to be going down Karl’s face in a throbbing motion. He was pale but erect, and didn’t bother to shake his head in order to keep the blood from running along the sides of his goggles. The doctor decided against ending the Mensur, and the 16th round began.

Karl got through four or five more rounds before he was cut again. This time, it was directly on the eyebrow. You could see the red flesh, like a gash of lipstick running the full width of the hairline, blood flowing faster. The men in our corner were worried.

“He isn’t keeping his guard high enough,” someone whispered to me.

On his backhand side, Karl was getting his rapier into position and whipping the blow out neatly with his wrist, but he was keeping his guard a shade too low, likely a technical error he’d been committing all through his dueling career, without ever getting caught at it before.

I found myself glancing worriedly at the umpire’s scorecard, wondering how many more rounds there were to go. Yet in some silly way I couldn’t quite explain to myself, I couldn’t help but feel proud of Karl. He was standing there like some battered but unbowed Prussian knight, his teeth gripped with between pale lips.

They started again.

The other man was becoming over-confident now, and Karl managed to draw blood from him with a long, neat slice on the right cheek. The bright red blood streamed down the other’s neck band. With every fresh cut, the bug-eyed spectators crowded in eagerly to regard the damages. A few Old Boys even stood on chairs to get a better look.

But Karl’s movements were becoming slower. His opponent, with impersonal cruelty, began mixing his strokes. Around the 25th or 26th round, his blade lashed across Karl’s cheek.

Karl’s character changed completely. He’d been a rather methodical, easy-going boy with an amused, slightly superior smile on his face. Now he acted as if lashed on by some inner suicidal drive—as if he wanted to be beaten down by his opponent’s sword in a blaze of honor and a pool of blood. The blood was flowing everywhere, staining his shoes and making slippery little pools on the floor.

The worst damage came during the 29th round, on the very last stroke of Mensur. The other man’s blade caught Karl once more on his left forehead, but not clean and sharp like the previous ones. It had been partly deflected by Karl’s rapier hilt and the result was a twisted stroke.

When we crowded around Karl we could see that a deep, curved hunk of flesh had been torn loose from his forehead. The blood was pouring from the wound, as if an artery or vein had been severed.

The doctor stood directly alongside the fighters now, and after they had gone through the formality of touching swords for the Honor Round, Karl was rushed off.

The other corps-members filed downstairs, but most of the Borussia brothers stood hesitantly in the doorway of the men’s room. Karl was sitting there stolidly, stripped down to his undershirt, while the doctor washed out his wounds. When he finished, he took a curved steel needle and deftly began stitching up the flesh on his forehead.

Downstairs, many of the participants in the previous Mensuren were wandering about in their street clothes. They were recognizable by the strips of adhesive tape or the newly sewn, blood-crusted lines across their cheeks and heads.

Later, I found Karl in the Beer Room. His face was drawn and pale—but composed. With the blood washed away, there were two neat thin wounds down the length of his left cheek and one short one next to his mouth on the right side. The hair had been shaved on top of his head, and there was the careful latticework of a rather longish scar. His left eyebrow was all puffed out, but in one piece again. The entire left side of his forehead was a mass of angry welts and cross-patches.

I came up to him and shook his hand, trying hard not to offer my condolences. It was too early to tell how the scars would look after they had settled in his face. But he was marked now, and I couldn’t help realizing that once the wrinkles of old age set in, the scars would bring the same Old Boy look to his face that I saw on so many of the others around the room.

While we were standing up there, a plump, jovial Old Boy bustled up. He shook Karl’s hand warmly, gazing thoughtfully at his scars. “Very interesting,” he said. “Very interesting. It will be very good with the girls.”

When we heard that the tenth bout would be between two fencing masters, we went upstairs. The boys were very professional, their wrist motions clean and their blows quick and sharp. Some of the previous duelists had been heavy and stiff, as if afraid of even seeming to flinch. But these men were bobbing and weaving like two experienced and fearless boxers, and they won approving murmurs from the crowd. Suddenly there was a cry of “Halt!” and I saw a terrific gash down the right side of the face of one of the duelists. The blood flowed rapidly—obviously an artery had been severed. The doctor took a quick glance, and spoke quietly to the man’s second. Everyone looked disappointed, as they were afraid the Mensur was over.

Suddenly the injured man spoke up, the first time a man had spoken while his Mensur was still in progress. I asked Karl what he had said.

“He wants to go on at least five rounds more.”

Paul Deutschman

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