24 September 2018
By Stephan Ploke
President of the Akademischer Ruderverbindung Westfalen
Have you ever wondered why Germany typically has a strong eight, but no equivalent to the Oxford-Cambridge or Harvard-Yale races? The German water-sports magazine Der Wassersport was already asking that same question back in 1883 and identified a lack of sportsmanship and spirit amongst the German academic youth as the main reason. Indeed, the concept of sports forming an integral part of any higher education as it is common in Anglo-Saxon countries is missing in Germany. Therefore, university sports comparable to the UK or the U.S. are basically nonexistent. Rather, the opposite has historically been the case, i.e. a certain disdain for sports was (and to a certain extent still is) widespread amongst academics in Germany, as physical exercise was typically associated with the physical work of the working class.
In an attempt to change this, the aforementioned article demanded: “Our universities need to emulate the foreign colleges!”
This postulation actually became fruitful some years later, when there was a real mania for various water-sports, largely driven by the support by the German Emperors, Wilhelm I and II (also see Tim Koch’s article here). Many academic and university rowing clubs were founded during these years which were, however, not associated with the universities – they were largely private clubs open to students only or academic divisions of normal rowing clubs. Notable foundations still existing today are Akademischer Ruderverein zu Berlin-Grünau (1891), Akademische Ruderverbindung Westfalen Münster (1891), ARC Rhenus Bonn (1890), ATV Dithmarsia Kiel (1890) or Angaria Hannover (1886). Many others followed in a second wave after the First World War, e.g. in Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Danzig, Königsberg or Breslau. Most of these clubs were organised as German student fraternities and associated with the “Akademischer Ruderbund” (Academic Rowing Association).
The structure of these academic rowing clubs traditionally differs notably from regular clubs as most of them were set-up as German fraternities with their particular traditions. They are typically rather small with a limited number of active members (in the range of 20-30 students), traditionally men only. Due to this intimate character, great emphasis is put on the right fit of the members – everyone starts as a temporary member, allowing both sides to properly get to know each other, before being promoted to a permanent member after fulfilling certain requirements such as a proof of adequate rowing skills and solid knowledge of the club’s history and traditions. And once you become a permanent member, you remain one for the rest of your life, which is the quintessential idea behind the fraternity concept, i.e. to stay in touch with and bound to your club for the rest of your life, support the student members, give back what you have enjoyed in your youth and to return regularly for your club’s anniversary, balls and the so-called “Kneipen” (explained later).
Another peculiarity is that these clubs are largely run by the student members which elect their officers, the so-called “Chargierten”. The old boys are only providing the infrastructure such as the boathouse, boats, coaches etc.
Whilst the desire to row and compete was clearly the reason for founding academic rowing clubs in Germany, their ambitions have always suffered from the conflict between sports and their very rich social lives as well as from their relatively small member base and the aforementioned lack of enthusiasm for sports amongst German students. Hence they were typically no match to crews from the big racing clubs and mainly targeted at winning races limited to academic or university crews. Many prices for such races were sponsored by the German Kaiser Wilhelm I and II and by wealthy citizens in an approach to promote university rowing:
However, the ambition to achieve higher goals has nevertheless always existed in these clubs and in certain instances, their crews or single members have achieved remarkable successes. A perfect example is Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jäger from ARV Berlin, who were the first ever German rowers to represent their country in the Olympic Games and presumably the first Olympic Champions of all times (see here and here for more detail on their story).
In 1914, representatives of the various academic clubs decided to join forces and to line-up an eight that would be competitive enough to qualify for the 1916 Olympic Games which were then cancelled due to the First World War. After the Second World War, notable successes were achieved by ARV Dithmarsia Kiel with two rowers in the gold-winning German eight at the 1960 Olympic Games and a club four that won the European championships in 1961. ARV Westfalen Münster had a bronze medallist in the four at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and Angaria Hannover’s Elke Hipler won the title in the women’s eight at the 2003 world championships in Milan as well as several other international medals.
Nowadays the aforementioned problems persist, coupled with a continuous professionalisation of the sport, making it almost impossible for the small academic clubs to develop top-level crews. The focus is hence more on touring or attending international, student and long-distance regattas such as the Head of the River Race, Henley Royal Regatta, Heineken Roeivierkamp or the German University Championships.
The academic rowing clubs have historically shared most of the rich traditional heritage of German student clubs and fraternities. Amongst others, these comprise having a coat of arms and an individual cypher used by members to indicate their club, for examples in signatures.
A quintessential component of German fraternity culture is a traditional and ceremonial event called “Kneipe”; the (male) members gather by candlelight to cheerfully celebrate new admissions, inaugurate lifetime members, make speeches, sing traditional German student songs, and drink notable amounts of beer. These events are a cornerstone of every academic club’s or fraternity’s social life and a perfect chance for the old boys to return to their university city, maintain bonds with their club and most importantly, get to know the student members.
Another quite peculiar element of German academic tradition is fencing. In former times, officers and scholars were expected to grant satisfaction if demanded by someone offended by them. Traditional weapons for such duels were pistols for officers and normal citizens and sabres or the lighter “Schläger” with a straight blade in the academic environment. As these duels could result in serious injuries, the academic rowing clubs did not allow any duels during the summer in order not to risk training efforts or the participation in regattas. Such duels were banned after the Second World War, but fencing matches with the lighter “Schläger” and better protective gear, but yet exposed heads and sharp blades, still persist amongst certain German fraternities.
The situation today
After the Second World War, the various academic clubs have developed quite differently. Those located in the former eastern territories of Germany such as Königsberg, Breslau, Danzig and Leipzig have completely ceased as any academic or presumably elitist institutions were not well-liked in the communist system. Most of the clubs in former West Germany such as Rhenus Bonn, Angaria Hannover or ARV Kiel have developed into student rowing clubs which have given-up most of their traditional student heritage during or after the 1968 movement, but have preserved their traditional organisational structure, i.e. are run by the students, as well as selected traditions like celebrating Kneipen. ARV Westfalen Münster is the only out of the formerly 20 academic clubs and fraternities that has preserved the entirety of its traditions and heritage, including the uniforms for its officers, student caps and bands, the student fencing and lifetime membership as well as being exclusively male and the only German club represented in Jack Carlson’s fabulous book Rowing Blazers.