The best translation of Studentenverbindungen would be ‘student fraternity’, although they’re very different from their American equivalents. They are small communities of students (around 15) who live and socialise together. Some members live in the fraternity house, usually a large (and beautiful) old house in the centre of town. Older members, or Alte Herren, occasionally return to meet up with old friends and also support the Verbindung financially. No one owns a Verbindung: current members organise all the social activities and live in the house while older members oversee its finances.
What do they do?What's the history?Where are they?Who can join?Why join?What are the drawbacks?Who is the typical Verbindungsstudent?Am I in for life?What about the rumours?How to find out more
What do they do?
The emphasis is creating a community and friendship among members. Apart from living and eating together they organise a number of events and socials throughout term e.g. parties, excursions to other cities and academic lectures. Some do fencing (with real swords!) but participation, at least for Erasmus
students, is usually optional. A traditional social is a Kneipe: a candlelight evening singing traditional German songs, chatting with friends and drinking beer! The sense of community runs deep and members are very loyal to their Verbindung.
What’s the history?
They originated in the early 19th Century when German students were eager for national unification and an end to autocratic rule. They played an important role in promoting the idea of national unification and their colours (black, red, gold) were adopted as the national flag. Despite this democratic foundation some were strong supporters of the Nazis – a fact which contributes to their bad press in Germany. Nowadays most have no political affiliation.
Where are they?
You can find them in most traditional German and Austrian university towns e.g. Heidelberg, Tübingen, Göttingen, Marburg and Jena, as well as cities e.g. Berlin, Munich and Cologne.
Who can join?
In general only male students can join, although female/mixed Verbindungen do exist. Otherwise there are very little criteria – you just need to show a willingness to join in. A few Verbindungen require that members are Christian. Most are very willing for foreign students to join.
If you’re serious about learning German then a Verbindung could really help. If you speak to British students who have done an Erasmus year they will tell you how difficult it can be to live and spend a lot of time with native speakers. By joining a Verbindung you’ll ensure that you speak a lot of German. During my year I met a number of Erasmus students in a Verbindung and their German was far better than most Erasmus students.
- You’ll be doing something really different. While studying abroad is a good experience, it’s not hugely different from the UK. Verbindungen, however, are genuinely unique to Germany.
- Accommodation and food at the fraternity house are very good value.
- You’ll be able to use the house and whatever’s in it like your own: TV, computers, piano, lounge, kitchen…Invite friends over for a party if you like!
- You’ll meet a range of former and present students from across Germany.
What are the drawbacks?
It’s a huge time commitment and you can’t just turn up when you feel like it. You’re expected to commit to the community and spend large amounts of your free time at the house. Sometimes this is hard to balance with a degree. Many Germans don’t join as they don’t want constraints on their freedom. As an Erasmus student, however, you may be willing to forgo this for a few months…after all, you’re in Germany to learn German!
- There’s often a lot of peer pressure so you’ll need to be headstrong and learn to say “no”, especially in regard to the massive beer consumption that sometimes takes place!
Who is the typical Verbindungsstudent?
He studies law or economics, is politically conservative, wears a Barbour jacket, drinks a lot of beer, comes across as arrogant and is overweight! You’ll have to decide whether this is true or not…
Am I in for life?!
While you stay a member your whole life if you want to you can also leave at any point. In any case, there is a slight expectation that Erasmus students who join are a kind of ‘visiting member’ and you won’t be expected to commit long-term in the way that German students do.
What about the rumours?
Verbindungen have a bad reputation in Germany, mainly for being politically right-wing. In some instances this is true and you should do some research about which Verbindung you visit or decide to join. Even so, there are lots of rumours e.g. you have to have a fencing scar or Schmiss to join, which simply isn’t the case. Each Verbindung is very different and unless you go and meet the members for yourself it would be wrong to generalise, as much of the popular literature in Germany is not wholly accurate.
How to find out more
Every Verbindung has a website so just go to Google and type in ‘Verbindung’ and the name of the town you’re going to. They’ll be lots of hits and they are named after old German tribes e.g. Teutonia, Germania, Markomannia. You can read more there and also get contact information. When in Germany you’ll know which houses are Verbindungen as they have a big flag hanging outside.
Even if you think a Verbindung definitely isn’t for you I’d still recommend dropping by one evening for a drink, just so you can experience a traditional element of German student life.