Dueling Students: Conflict, Masculinity, and Politics in German Universities, 1890-1914.
During the forty seven years of its existence, Imperial Germany was best known (apart from its military) for the exceptional quality of its universities. American students flocked to these institutions in the thousands, including two young Afro-Americans, W.E.B. Du Bois and Alaine Locke. Both sang the praises of their German education for decades. Germany, with its doctorates and research-oriented faculty was highly respected as the best academic system in the western world before 1914. This was recognized in Europe as well as the United States.
Post World War II scholars, however, were quite negative about these same pre-1914 institutions. Historians such as Konrad Jarausch, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Peter Gay, and Fritz Ringer found these institutions to have been ultra-nationalistic, anti-Semitic, as well as thoroughly conservative. To this list one has to add their distaste for the common student practice of sword fights, or dueling. To some extent, Germany's disasters in the first half of the century were seen as having roots in the pre-World War I universities and their professoriate.
In her book, Dueling Students: Conflict, Masculinity, and Politics in German Universities, 1890-1914, Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker challenges the scholarship of the past forty years and offers a different analysis of Imperial German universities and their student body. Her research is prodigious. She has mined twenty archives, including all those having material on German universities in their prime. In a volume of 290 pages, 84 are devoted to footnotes and bibliography. Her book may not appeal to all members of an older generation of scholars (of which I am one), but it is certainly worth reading, and its attempt to offer a somewhat different narrative is worthy of serious consideration.
Surprisingly, Zwicker is not particularly troubled by student dueling." She views it as no worse in Germany thanboxing was at British universities or football at US Ivy League institutions of the same period. I would disagree, since dueling had a long history in German-speaking Europe and, in many respects, was an aristocratic holdover from the distant past. Dueling fraternities did not permit Jews or women to participate. Dr. Zwicker romanticizes dueling in her chapter on the subject. As for anti-semitism, she quite rightly points to its existence in contemporary American and British universities. This is not to excuse the Germans, but to show it was a disease, if not a violent one in the pre-World War I west. In one respect she points out that Germany should be praised, since 6% of German students were Jewish and they comprised only 1% of the population. This, I would think, is a product of the Abitur system in Germany for university admission, which was based on excellence on exams and did not require interviews as in the US and UK. The latter made the rejection of Jews much easier.
The strongest and most convincing argument in the book is the long discussion of "anti-Catholic" fever at German universities, a malady shared by student fraternities and professors. Pius IX had forbidden Catholic students from dueling, which struck German fraternity members as an unacceptable attack on manhood or masculinity. The long reign of Pius IX, with his Syllabus of Errors and doctrine of Papal Infallibility also fed an anti-Catholic fever at German universities for several decades. From 1904-1907, Zwicker sees the Catholics as facing an Academic Kulturkampf by both Protestant professors and student organizations. The author's case is overwhelming on this issue.
Zwicker's main theme, which will be debated by scholars, centres on the growing openness at German universities to Jews, women, and students from non-elite families. She goes so far as to claim that one can discern the roots of Weimar democracy at the universities before 1914. This is an interesting hypothesis but the evidence is not overwhelming. She claims that 26% of students around 1910 were from artisan and tradesman families (a period in which artisans were in sharp decline, the guilds having been abolished in three German states in the 1860s). She also points to another 25% from civil service and white collar backgrounds after 1900. The sons of the former group may have been studying at universities for many decades, and also may have been extremely conservative.
Zwicker also points to the founding of the Freiestudentenschaft (free students) organizations in the last two decades before 1914, which tended toward liberal politics. She makes an important contribution in her discussion of the "Free Students" organization and its tolerance of Jewish students and, in some branches, Catholics as well. However, we do not know how many students belonged to this organization.
In her conclusion, she admits that some of the "Free Students branches and other organizations directed their politics towards militaristic and radical nationalist courses" (p. 204). She also admits that despite the changes in a liberal direction during the last two decades before World War I "fraternities, especially the elite Burschenschaftern and Corps fraternities continued to dominate student life." While one may agree with Zwicker that there were liberal trends in student life she is candid in admitting that Jews formed their own dueling fraternity, in reaction to intolerance. This also indicates dueling may have been rising rather than declining. She quotes a study of the University of Jena where 84 duels were engaged in during the summer semester of 1902. The wind of tolerance and liberalism may have been growing among students, but it still had a long way to go.
Whether, as she writes, "Students increasingly embraced the values of tolerance, equality, and freedom," will remain a much debated issue. Nevertheless, Zwicker merits praise for pointing to a liberal wave in university student politics, which has not received the attention that it merits by scholars from an earlier generation. She has initiated a debate that should attract scholars of Imperial Germany in the future.
University of California, Riverside
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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