Brothers, Boats, Blades and Beer – Academic Rowing Clubs in Germany

The title page of the first issue of the German water-sports magazine “Der Wassersport” from 1883.

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 boathouse of ARV zu Berlin-Grünau which was partially financed by Emperor Wilhelm II, which allowed the club to build such an impressive structure only ten years after its establishment.
The boathouse of ARC Bonn around the turn of the last century. The house was demolished in the 1960s as the land was needed for the construction of governmental buildings when Bonn was the capital of West Germany during the Cold War.

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).

A member of ARV Westfalen Münster receiving his lifetime membership. He is being “knighted” with a light sabre and receives a band in the club’s colours as a symbol.
All members, regardless if alive or dead, have their pictures displayed in a gallery, which demonstrates the idea of lifetime bonds and friendship (here pictured in the ARV Westfalen boathouse). Typically, everyone knows everyone including families.

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.

Members of ARV Westfalen in the traditional uniforms worn by officers of German student fraternities in 1905. These uniforms are still worn today.
Meeting of the Academic Rowing Association at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial at the Hohensyburg near Dortmund in 1927. These meetings were held annually until the Second World War.
Title page of the internal magazine of the Academic Rowing Association published in the 1920s, which also alludes to the dualism between serious rowing and fraternity traditions.

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:

One of the many trophies for academic races donated by Wilhelm II.

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).

Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jäger from ARV zu Berlin-Grünau training for the 1896 Olympic Regatta in the double in the port of Piraeus. In their memories, they report of having been attacked by a shark whilst rowing and only escaping marginally in a fierce race to the shore.

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.

The brothers Kraft and Frank Schepke of ARV Dithmarsia Kiel in the 1960 German eight.

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.

Touring in wider and stable boats is an important element of rowing in Germany. This often involves one or another drink and lots of nonsense on people’s minds. This group photo was titled “South-Seas Islanders on tour” in a photo album dating from 1922.
ARV Westfalen Münster competing in Henley. Their light- and dark-blue colours are a homage to the Boat Race.

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.

Some of the coats of arms and boat flags (typically displayed at the stern of each boat on rowing tours) of the academic clubs associated in the Academic Rowing Association.
A nice tradition is to send postcards carrying the club’s coat of arms to members who cannot attend certain social events – they are signed by their friends which are present. The postcard on the picture is from the other of the two clubs based in Berlin, ARC Berlin, and was sent in 1923.

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.

A “Kneipe” at the boathouse of ARV Westfalen Münster. Their members wear traditional German student caps in blue and bands in the club’s colours and the event is conducted by the student officers in their distinctive uniforms.

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.

Fencing practice in front of the boathouse of ARV Berlin-Grünau in the 1920s. During practice, protective clothes and helmets were worn whilst in a real duel the opponents had only very limited protection with upper bodies and heads almost fully exposed. Quaintly, Adolf Davids of Angaria Hannover participated in the Olympic Fencing competition in Stockholm in 1912.
A group of Rhenus Bonn members around 1910 with white student caps, German beer-Steins, musical instruments and the “Hip, hip, hurra” motto common amongst rowers all over the world.

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.

The boathouse of ARV Westfalen dating from 1949. Its predecessor was destroyed during an air raid in 1945.
A group of ARV Westfalen supporters in Henley. Westfalen is one out of only a handful of German rowing clubs wearing rowing blazers.
The old boathouse of ARV Berlin-Grünau (also see contemporary postcard above) as it stands today. It is still owned by ARV Berlin, but rented out to another rowing club (Turbine Grünau) as the club moved to West Berlin after the war.

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