Collectors International, Inc.
German Student Societies, History and Traditions
by Walter B. Vogdes
There are many reasons why stein collectors
may be attracted to
steins decorated with the coats of arms of German student societies.
complicated Wappen (coats of arms) are colorful and somewhat
They may include the 4F symbol of the Turners, or a harp to signify
the crossed oars of a rowing association. The Munich Child and the
are among the many civic emblems that sometimes appear in the Wappen.
display crossed swords reminding us of the student custom of sword
prove one's courage. Most student steins also include a dedication,
the body or inscribed in the pewter of the lid. Beer was an important
German student life and ritual, and the exchange of beer steins between
was a high honor.
Whether made of stoneware, porcelain or glass, steins displaying a
association coat of arms (fig. 1) are commonly hand-painted and of
quality. This makes sense when we realize that they were commissioned
affluent students to be exchanged with someone with whom they had
lifelong bond. No mere souvenirs, these beautiful steins!
The origins of the German student societies stretch back to the 12th
century, when the first European universities were formed in Bologna
Young men who spoke the same language and perhaps shared some family
protection by banding together. The first "German" university was
founded in Prague in 1348, and it included four student organizations,
time called Nationes. Still reflecting ties to a shared
groups were named for Bohemia, Bavaria, Saxony and Poland. Since those
days the societies have diversified quite a bit, but they still cling
centuries of tradition and ritual.
So how is a stein collector to learn about these beer steins and the
societies which have provided them for us? "The Beer Stein Book"
includes some illustrations, but no narrative. Surprisingly little has
written on this topic in Prosit. And while there is a wealth of
information available about German student traditions, customs, ritual
history, almost all of it is in German, frustrating the American
article is intended to serve as a guide to available literature for
wish to do some further investigation in this field.
One word of caution before we begin: like most complex subjects where
depend upon observation to develop insights, generalities are subject
proven incorrect. Different associations followed different practices,
was true for one society might not follow for another. If you keep an
and an observant eye you will be amply rewarded in your study of German
associations and their steins.
English Language Articles. SCI Master Steinologist Ron
wrote an excellent introductory article about student steins which
the March 1987 issue of Prosit. The subject then went largely
in Prosit until my article in June 2003 ("What does Panier
what can you tell me about my student stein?", p. 1456). Both of those
articles discuss the Wappen and the Zirkel (special insignia),
as well as
some of the practices of student societies.
"The Beer Stein Journal" contained two excellent articles by SCI
member Andreas Hofferek, himself a lifelong member of one of the
associations. In "Student Association Steins" (Feb. 1995, Third Issue)
he writes about the Zirkel, the Wappen and some of the practices and
these associations. In a second article ("Deciphering Student
Symbols", August 1995, Fifth Issue) Hofferek explains how to read and
interpret the sometimes cryptic dedications we find on student steins.
Books. "Howitt's Student-Life of Germany" is a narrative
description of German universities, student life and history,
English "from the unpublished MS of Dr. Cornelius". First published in
1842, it was penned during a period of struggle for personal freedom
political unity following the German victory over the French in 1815,
to the German Revolution of 1848 and the Franco-Prussian war which
led to unification in 1870. In its 468 pages the book touches on
topic associated with universities and student life. I includes the
almost 40 of the most popular student songs, and translates "The
Biercomment of Heidelberg" (30 pages of instruction on how one is to
conduct oneself at a student beer bash!). This book is hard to find,
expensive, but worth searching for.
"German Universities" by James Morgan Hart was published in 1874.
In it the American author provides a first person account of his
German university (Göttingen). Although not a member of a student
does relate observations of their traditions, including sword fighting,
398 pages. This book is also hard to find and expensive.
The last English language book which I mention is "Dueling, The Cult of
Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany" by Kevin McAleer. Dueling, in this
means the act of two parties seeking to resolve a difference by means
weapons. While this is not an accurate description of student sword
student readiness to take up the sword in fierce combat contributed in
way to the culture of dueling in Germany in the late 19th and early
Although not written in English, the determined collector will not let
language get in the way of using any of three auction catalogs focusing
(the artifacts, including beer steins, with which students surrounded
themselves). These hard-cover catalogs are loaded with illustrations of
steins and related items, each with a description. The first is titled
"162. Auktion Studentica" and was published by Galerie Wolfgang
Ketterer in 1991. Two years later Hubert Kampik published "Studentische
Antiquitäten", to be followed in 1995 by another catalog with the same
title. These are excellent pictorial reference works, and can
found in a used book store in Germany, or on eBay.
Hofferek points out in one of his articles in "The Beer Stein
Journal" that "it is very difficult to determine the association and
the location of the university on most of the student steins because
there is no
complete reference guide" to the 4,000 different associations which at
time existed. While this remains true, there is a work which depicts
student Wappen. "Das Akademische Deutschland", volume 4,
published in 1930/31, is extremely hard to find and very expensive.
(One sold in
Gary Kirsner's auction at the SCI convention in July of 2003 for more
$2,000!) Most of us will not be adding one to our personal library any
soon, and you are unlikely to find it at your local library, but there
alternative–the 1993 Kampik catalog mentioned above includes a
the entire set of illustrations from this book. That catalog usually
Peter Krause has authored at least two editions of "O alte
Burschenherrlichkeit". This well illustrated book offers a
treatment of student societies, from their beginning to modern times. I
both editions because although they contain much of the same material,
also quite different, and I have decided to keep both of them in my own
"Gaudeamus igitur, Die studentischen Verbindungen einst und jetzt"
by Paulgehard Gladen is another well-illustrated historical treatment
"...Weiland Bursch zu Heidelberg..." edited by Gerhart
Berger and Detlev Aurand deals exclusively with Heidelberg. In addition
broad historical treatment, each society in Heidelberg is treated
Student Writings. The German student associations do an
of preserving their own historical records. Because membership in these
societies is for life, and the ties of brotherhood remain active, they
anniversaries of important events with large get-togethers. At these
publish Festschrift documenting the history of the association,
historical information about its members. It is therefore sometimes
find the name and some biographical information about a student who is
a particular stein! One caution - if you are tempted to start to
acquire some of
these things, be warned - there are hundreds if not thousands of them!
Postcards. Another excellent source of information about
associations and about student life is postcards. A Coleurkarte
postcard whose primary illustration is the association Wappen. Many
cards are signed by all of the current members of the association. Some
Coleurkarten show all of the Wappen from a particular
others show typical idyllic student life, silhouette portraits,
sword fighting scenes. Each provides just one more glimpse into German
Internet. Finally, although there are not many sites on
offering a broad treatment of student societies, most of the
exist today have their own web site. This is sometimes a means of
association by matching their Wappen, or if you have a specific
question to ask,
you may be able to initiate an email correspondence with a current
member of the