Are German fraternities harmless upholders of university tradition? Or are some "Burschenschaften" a far-right breeding ground? Many students in Münster are fighting to maintain their university’s liberal values
Wandering through Münster, nothing suggests that this prosperous university town north of Cologne is torn by the same political conflicts rattling Germany. But as in other parts of the world, the far right is resurgent, and civil society is fighting back.
German fraternities, called Burschenschaften, are central to this debate. They differ a lot from counterparts in other western countries. For one, they have just a few thousand members in the entire country. Students at German universities can go for years without noticing them, or never notice them at all. Yet they have been influential in business and politics for a long time.
Now, some stand accused of functioning as laboratories for right-wing thought at universities throughout the country, partly due to ties to the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which gained a seat in Germany’s federal parliament in the 2017 national elections.
The conflict recently came to the fore in Münster. In May, the Burschenschaft Franconia, a local fraternity, made headlines when a blogger revealed that one of its new members was active in an extreme-right youth organization. This prompted the university’s student parliament, the so-called StuPa, to recommend the fraternity be removed from a list of student groups.
Being on the list ensures support from the university, such as free use of university classrooms. The issue is currently under investigation by the university’s legal team. "The University of Münster opposes any unconstitutional political activity," says a press statement. It won’t comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
"Burschenschaften are a special type of fraternity," says Alexandra Kurth, a professor of political-science at the Justus Liebig University Giessen, and an expert on German fraternities. Fraternity traditions often baffle outsiders, with fencing, singing outdated songs (including the pre-war national anthem), and wearing uniforms that include little hats or sashes. But they offer members benefits, such as cheap housing and scholarships.
Fraternities also provide access to an extensive network of alumni in important positions. "Fraternity members are very well connected," says Kurth. After initiation rituals focused on fencing and drinking, members stay "brothers" for life and support their fraternity financially. Famous alumni include Henning Schulte-Noelle, former head of insurance giant Allianz, and Eberhard Diepgen, mayor of Berlin in the 1990s.
German fraternities have a long tradition dating back to the early 19th century. Their origins lie in nationalist political clubs that called for the unification of Germany’s many statelets into one country.
What this nationalist legacy means today is unclear. Philipp Schiller, the StuPa’s current president, suggests meeting at the university dining hall to discuss the petition against Franconia.
Amid squat 1970s buildings, the dining hall is just around the corner from the baroque palace that is the main building on campus. Münster is a bike-friendly city, and cyclists are everywhere on the way to the buzzing university quarter. About 20 percent of Münster’s 300,000 residents are students.
"We want to distance ourselves from extreme right-wing movements," says Schiller, the StuPa president. "Franconia goes beyond conservative into reactionary territory." The fraternity only accepts men – and only men of German descent. Brothers visit celebrations at Wartburg Castle in Thuringia and the Academic’s Ball in Vienna, both of which are associated with the nationalist far right.
Münster’s student parliament claims Franconia shared Facebook posts of right-wing extremists. These have been deleted, but one remaining post glorifies the writer Ernst Jünger, whose thinking influenced German conservatives in the 1920s.
From a legal standpoint, the root of the matter is this: Can a student organization be stigmatized just because some find its views unpalatable? "As long as you’re within constitutional boundaries, you’re on solid ground," Schiller says. Letting an extreme right-wing group member join the fraternity was the last straw. "With all due respect to free speech, Germany has a special responsibility after starting World War II," he says.
Kurth, the University of Giessen professor, says: "Fraternities have made headlines with their right-wing connections again and again." One fraternity member in Jena was involved with the National Socialist Underground, a Neo-Nazi terrorist group that murdered ten people, mostly with migrant backgrounds, back in the 2000s. Today, Kurth says, some fraternity alumni are involved with right-wing populist party AfD. Earlier this year, the AfD became the first far-right party to enter German parliament since World War II, upsetting German political stability.
Concerns are growing that some fraternities are far-right incubators, propagating ideology and training new staff. These fraternities "often share ideas and personnel not only with the AfD, but with extreme right-wing organizations such as the Identitarian Movement," Kurth says. Robert M., Franconia’s controversial member, allegedly was a member of the Identitarians. The Identitarian Movement is the hip new kid on the right-wing block, a European version of the American alt-right.