The German Dueling Societies
Two men stand opposite each other, both wearing metal glasses, thick swaths of padding around their neck, encasing their right arm and a thick leather apron worn over their shoulders and torso, depending over the thighs. A command is barked.
“Hoch, bitte!” The two basket-hilted swords snap up, crossed at about mid-blade.
“Legen-sie aus?” (a rhetorical question at best…)
“LOS!” And the flogging begins.
This is the beginning of a highly formalized surrogate duel. It is not “about” anything – no insults or slights, at least none serious – have promulgated it, nor is it a competition as such since scores are not kept and there will be no declared winner or loser. It is – because it still goes on today – part of an old German university tradition and arguably one of the most arcane sociological phenomenon still practiced in this enlightened age – the Mensur.
“Mensur,” derived from the Latin “mensura,” to measure, is a form of swordsmanship unique and restricted to German and some other European universities. It is often referred to as Academic Fencing (Akademische Fechten) and its adherents are members of student corporations. (Studentenverbindungen) It was, in its heyday, practiced in the Germanies, Austria, Switzerland and a few other nations such as Poland, and, as I alluded, is undergoing resurgence. It is often said to be illegal although, strictly speaking, since it involves mutually consensual participation, and mensur clubs make no attempt to conceal their existence, this is not really the case. Let’s describe it as being an officially tolerated activity.
The origins of the mensur, which is usually exclusively associated with Germany, especially during the Wilhelmine period, actually had its origins in French and Italian universities during the late Middle Ages where fencing was part of the overall curriculum. German students brought it back with them where it was enthusiastically taken up in various universities. “Duels” were fought publicly and the weapon of choice was the rapier (stossdegen) which, due to its nature, had the capacity to inflict deadly wounds, most commonly in this case, the punctured lung.
After the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) Fredrich the Great banned the carrying of rapiers by university students which put an end to street dueling but not the institution. Duels were now held with seconds and conducted under specific rules. These included the number of rounds to be fought, the distance between opponents, the extent of allowable movement (sometimes demarked by a drawn circle which was considered shameful to step out of) and also the use of protective clothing. The latter included some form of fabric binding that protected the lower abdomen and groin, also silk bindings around the neck for the protection of arteries and a wired cap to protect the eyes.
Eventually, rapier dueling fatalities prompted the banning of the stossdegen, and by the late 1840s it was supplanted by the Schlager. This was a straight-edged sword whose point has been cut off flat, and nowadays is sharpened about 8 inches on the true edge and 5 inches on the false edge. There were generally two forms of the mensurschlager – the basket-hilted Korb Schlager and the Glockenschlager which featured a bell-like guard.
A word about the societies themselves before we proceed: The Mensur was, by the late 1800’s, known as the Bestimmungsmensur. (mensur by agreement) There evolved (if that’s the right word) three principle dueling societies: the Landsmannschaften, (with roots among the proletarian class) the Burschenschaften (which was considered the more “liberal of the three and consisted largely of the middle class) and the elite Corpsstudenten. (derived largely from the upper professional classes and the nobility) Within these associations were “corporations,” which were university-sponsored.
Jews were not officially banned but “discouraged” from membership so they formed their own societies which, by World War I, had established a rather formidable reputation. Duels between members of Jewish and Christian society members were not uncommon. Indeed, one of the reasons Hitler formally disbanded the Mensur was that the mainstream societies by and large refused to cease collaboration with the Jewish societies, I suppose, in no small part owing to the fact that if you dueled with a man, your participation inferred your recognition of your opponent as a man possessing of honour and, (at least in this regard) your social equal.
Duels, at this point, were no longer the result of facetious insults, but arranged by leaving one’s calling card with a rival corporation or by pub evenings (since excessive drinking which has always been a feature of university life found no exception with the mensuren) where members of the various societies acquired opponents.
So how was the fashionable Paukanten attired for consensual flogging? By the late 1800’s a padded leather vest that reached the knee protected the front, shoulders and flanks, the neck was protected by a gorget, the sword arm either wrapped thickly in silk or encased in a padded sleeve with a leather gauntlet with the wrist often protected by a ring of chain mail and iron-framed spectacles with wire mesh to protect the eyes and nose. For the adherents’ first year, a padded cap was worn and a face mask was used for practice sessions. Years before, an iron cap protected the top of the head, but was later discarded to ensure the landing of cuts.
Ironically, while the early rapier play had an element of finesse, mensur “play” became increasingly cruder in its application as more rules and traditions were applied to it.
First, in the early period of Schlager fencing, the rear foot was posted and lunging was allowed. But eventually, duelists stood rooted to the spot, feet firmly planted, chests facing their opponent flat-on. The sole target was the head and the only part of the body allowed to move was the sword-arm. To exhibit the slightest degree of body movement was considered shameful and brought the duel to an immediate end. Indeed, the “seconds’” primary job was to watch for such movement.
There were several ways of determining the distance between duelists but one of the most common was to assume your “stand-and-deliver” stance and extend your sword and sword arm diagonally from right to left and lay your foible across your opponent’s right shoulder. On the command, the swords were raised up so the blades crossed at roughly mid-point of the blade with the hilt in line with your right shoulder and the blade angled so that the point (or non-existent point) was directed roughly at your opponent’s right hip. Alternately, the swords might be crossed in the upper forte or even almost hilt-to-hilt, with the point angled over your opponent’s right shoulder. The arm was straight at the elbow and the sword arm held so close to the head that the right bicep should actually be in contact with your right ear. This position – or contortion, if you prefer – was known as Verhangte Auslagung, the hanging guard. This was the ideal position for practicing the fencing art of Gedektes Heibfechten, or “covered-cut fencing.” Parrying with the sword was often forsaken since the incoming cut could be taken with impunity on the arm.
The most powerful cut was also the simplest. Upon the command to commence, the wrist rotates to the right so the thumb, if extended, would point straight up combined with the simultaneous dropping of the arm to the level where the wrist would be almost level with the solar plexus, thus delivering an extremely powerful blow to the centre of the head at the level of the hairline. This could be recovered into a sloping guard of either five or six. (the sabre guard of six, not the parry associated with epee or foil) If the sword is recovered straight up with the hilt on your right side, this could be combined with an attack to the right side of your opponent’s head, targeting the jaw-line, cheek or temple.
Another cut could be accomplished from the hanging guard by snapping the sword arm across the front of your face so your wrist is now level with your left temple, the wrist rotating to full supination and the point angled slightly down to direct a True Edge cut to your opponent’s left temple or cheek.
Yet another assault is known as “turning the key.” In this stratagem, the sword appears to be executing the direct center-of-line head cut described two paragraphs back, but when your sword hilt is directly in front of the center of your own face, the sword is quickly snapped back upwards along the same line as its descent so that it’s end position (bearing in mind that the sword must be in constant movement, else the match is halted) is above your own head. As the sword rises, bearing in mind that the end of your blade is still above your opponent’s head, the wrist is sharply snapped so that were your thumb to be extended, it would point down. If this is done at the right time and elevation, the rebated point twists into your opponent’s scalp, often removing a plug of hair that one can only equate to taking a divot in golf using a very small club.
There evolved two different methods of exchanging blows – one where a round (which was defined as five cuts) was first delivered by one duelist while the other defended, then the positions reversed, or, more commonly, when both fencers whaled away at each other exploiting any target of opportunity. It was matches such as these where the definition of “schlager” became plain: “to beat or flog.”
In modern mensur, bouts last thirty rounds with a nominal breather at the half-way mark, during the Wilhelmine period, bouts of sixty to eighty rounds were the norm and although unusual, there are records of some bouts being pushed to one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty rounds. At the one-sixty mark, we’re talking about each duelist delivering (and presumably receiving) eight hundred blows within a time-frame of twenty five minutes. In some matches, putative “rounds” were dispensed with and the action went on for twenty five minutes with breaks being excluded from the count.
Even though the mensur sword is not a particularly heavy weapon, I leave it to the reader’s imagination the stamina and strength, at least in the sword arm, to deliver the three hundred blows that constituted the “standard” requirement of a bout during the Wilhelmine period. Also bear in mind that the sword and sword arm are in constant motion – a veritable whirlwind of cuts delivered not simply with great speed, but also with not inconsiderable force. Finally, try to imagine that in between hammering your opponent, you are also trying, at least some of the time, to defend yourself – either with sword or padded arm – against your opponent’s best attempt to turn your head and face into human coleslaw. And all while wearing heavy leather and padded fabric. It’s little wonder that some mensuren, adrenaline pumping like water through a fire hose, are often oblivious to the fact that they’ve been hit.
Well … some hits, at least. A mensur duel usually ran its course, but occasionally a blow of such severity would be struck that the duel would be stopped out of the necessity for immediate medical attention.
Whereas the bulk of cuts are taken in the scalp, it was not uncommon to have an appendage partially or completely removed. The Schmiss (a dueling scar, often referred to as the Renomminerschmiss or “bragging scar”) was considered a status symbol and apparently regarded with high favour among the ladies of the day. However, not so much when it came to the not inconsiderable number unencumbered by a nose, ear, or in some cases, an entire cheek or piece of the jaw-bone.
Such was the social cache of the dueling scar that some of the unincorporated who lacked the gumption or desire to undergo the rigors of consensual mutilation would sometimes resort to creating a scar on their own or finding an unscrupulous doctor who would accommodate them for a small fee. Often, in order to give the schmiss the necessary verisimilitude, the wound would be pulled apart periodically to inhibit normal healing or lay a horse-tail hair into the incision to promote the proper visual scarring.
Naturally, one might ask what could possibly prompt an ostensibly intelligent young man to join a society whose entire purpose was dedicated to ritualistic combat that degenerated to the very antithesis of true swordsmanship, and which promised, almost guaranteed, scarring to the possible point of deformity.
First, I think it’s significant that the Mensur of the Wilhelmine period was an historical phenomenon that flourished between 1871 – the end of the unification wars of Bismarck – and the beginning of WW I. While British, French, Belgian and Russian armies were carving out international empires with ample chances to prove yourself in battle, Germany was at peace. If, as Von Clausewitz once stated that war is simply a duel on a larger scale, then the duel, using this rationale, was war in microcosm – a surrogate until the real thing mercifully came along. And it spoke a lot of an officer’s character if he had a visible schmiss. Here was a man who could be relied on to stand dispassionately in the face of physical danger. And it was a function of the social order. In the Die Gebrauche beim Zweikampf (the dueling code of the officer corps) it proclaims “The unusually high and respected position that the officer occupies in our Fatherland demands that, next to his competence and devotion to duty, his most solemn obligation be the ‘painstaking preservation of his caste-honour.’” The Von einem Praktiker of 1893 further states “The duel is for the sake of the individual only insofar as he is a member of an entire case, his honour being identified with cast honour.” To be a member of a university Mensur proclaims you to be, at least by association and deed, a member of a specific caste – the societal elite.
It would also be entirely true that to be a member of any of the Mensur corporations was a form of networking not dissimilar to the modern fraternity, where one made social contacts that later translated into a smoother transition to the military, corporation or government.
But more than anything, the duel as interpreted by the Mensur was an essentially atavistic endeavor – an attempt to perpetuate the mythology of the ancient knightly virtues. It became an overwhelming part of the concept of Selbstvervollkommnung – “self-perfection”- insofar as it forced upon the participant, albeit voluntarily, steely self-control that included an indifference to danger and a heightened sense of personal honour.
One might wonder of Lohengrin would have been proud…