Dating back to Napoleonic times and with a penchant for fencing with sharpened swords and colourful costumes, student duelling societies have become renowned as bastions of deeply conservative and right-wing thought.
But now divisions between liberals and conservatives within the societies have come to the fore after some members demanded the expulsion of a colleague because of his Chinese background.
Although Kai Ming Au, a member of the Mannheim fraternity, was born in Germany and had served in the army to some his lack of German blood rankled.
They cited a decision issued last year by the Deutsche Burschenschaft, the umbrella group the 100 fraternities belong to, that said members with “non-European facial and bodily characteristics” needed to be checked by a committee.
This apparent racial discrimination prompted comparisons with the infamous Nuremberg race laws of Nazi Germany when anybody deemed “non-Aryan” was excluded from public life. It also led to liberal duelling fraternities to stand up for Mr Au and defeat the conservatives who wanted him expelled in a vote at the annual Burschenschaft conference.
But the standoff and better divisions between the two camps led Michael Schmidt, a Burschenschaft spokesman, to warn that “a split in the fraternity is conceivable”, adding that he expected continued “heated debate” over membership criteria.
The blaze of embarrassing publicity surrounding the affair has also put the 10,000 duelling members on the defensive after years of living in relative obscurity on the margins of mainstream student life.
Stefan Dobner, from the conservative Munich-Arminia-Rhenania fraternity, denied allegations of racism, saying that “it is, and was, at all times possible for any German citizen to become a member of a fraternity, and it is wrong to say membership was restricted to so-called ethnic-Germans.” But this has failed to deflect withering criticism levelled at the fraternities.
“I think it is absolutely scandalous and shameful that German academics are supporting this,” commented Alexandra Kurth, an expert on German student groups, on the proposals to exclude people on grounds of race. “It’s an indicator of how established right-wing extremism is becoming in these groups.”