To blanch, wince or recoil ever so slightly brings dishonour. So even when the glint of German steel - ground to the sharpness of a scalpel - began to scythe remorselessly into his peripheral vision, he didn’t flinch. And even when, a few seconds later, the blood dropped like a heavy velvet drape over the left side of his face, turning his clothing a violent crimson before pooling around his ankles while staining the pine wood floor, his features were still to remain glacially impassive.
Yet ten minutes earlier he probably hoped that he wouldn’t be the one scarred for life. On a damp, hot and grey June evening, around five dozen, young German men aged in their early twenties are jammed into a 19th century, mahogany paneled room. There’s a thick fugue of cigarette smoke as they jabber excitedly with each other and into Nokia mobile phones. In between they swig excitedly from large bottles of Gotha beer. Nearly all dress in neatly centre-creased chinos, Ralph Lauren shirts and, with their sensibly cut side partings, the affect is of a preppy, Young Conservative party meeting.
Apart, that is, from the acrid stench of surgical spirit seeping into the hub-hub and smoke-choked air from two stainless steel basins on the floor. Near them a tallish man in a black polo shirt checks his tools: suture needles, forceps and gauze pads. A box of non-powdered surgical gloves sits on a window ledge nearby.
On either side of the room are two huddles of men. Every so often you will hear a fiercely whispered "Waffenschwein" – good luck at arms – as they clap the object of their attentions on the back. Sitting on chairs in the centre of the groups, one now shaking so badly his leg bounces up and down like a rock drummer’s, are two men who will fight a duel, or ‘mensur’ as they are more correctly known, in the next few minutes.
Strapped tightly on to their sweating, pinkish faces are black, steel goggles, with discoloured, steel mesh for lenses. They also have a steel guard which protects the entire length of the nose. The garb maybe 200 years old but they look like cyborgs – with cold, steel infused with greasy, etiolated flesh. Wound so tightly round their necks that their veins pop out of their temples, is a kind of thick cotton bandage to protect the carotid artery. Underneath they wear chain mail shirts weighing around 15Ib’s and, on their right hands, chain mail gloves under leather gauntlets. And in turn their right arms are reinforced with leather padded arm guards. All this to protect against a blade that is so sharp you could almost split the atom with it – let alone skin and flesh.
Unsheathed from a glinting stainless steel scabbard which is hastily dropped to the floor under their chairs, is a Schlager, a sword based on the rapier and sabre – the foremost duelling weapons in Europe. Around 86cm long and, light, weighing only 260-360 grams, the coruscating blade gleams apart from where it has been sharpened. The edge on the front of the blade, 30 cm, has been honed to the clarity of a scalpel blade as has 15cm from the back. This they will use to try to slash, cut or whip open anything above their opponents eyeline – skull, forehead, ears are all fair game.
As the referee, a pinch-featured, blue-eyed, elfin looking character sucking on a bottle of beer, calls for silence the hub-hub quickly dies and the gaggles standing around the fighters dissipate. The combatants step up to face each other, making eye contact through the mesh. On the right is a slenderly tall fencer with an unruly shock of blonde/white hair. He is wearing duelling colours that indicates he has German aristocratic blood while on the left is a diminutive, but thickset Vietnamese duellist – both have faces like frozen granite statues.
The mood is electric. Gazing down fiercely from the walls are daguerreotypes of scowling, facially scarred duellists dating back 200 years. In this moment they seem to come alive. And standing at the back of the room, barely noticeable, is a fiftyish man, dressed all in black with a 1/2inch thick scar which stretches from just below his nose almost to his ear in a concave droop. Everyone here knows him as the fencing master – all here have been trained by him at some point. He too watches with an intense scowl. The atmosphere is so turgid with emotion you feel you will be bucked into some sort of vortex or worse, the fighters will fix their attentions on you, if you dare do anything other than stand there.
Yet as the two square up to each other, the German towers over the Vietnamese with daunting ease. Clumsily a wooden box is bought for the Vietnamese to stand so that he can fight his opponent on a more even level. They stand a sword length apart, feet planted squarely facing each other. Neither is allowed to move and only the right arm will move throughout the entire bout.
Each fighter has on their left a figure in a full fencing mask, dressed almost head to toe in a black padded apron. He too wears chain mail and clutches a schlager. He is the duellist’s ‘second’ and will divide the swords, protecting his fighter, at the end of each round or if there is any foul play. All this is behind closed doors, away from the public and the media, but still the person on my left, can’t resists cracking a weird, gallows humour gag in my ear before the start, "So you’re here for the blood tourism then?" He grins innanely.
And the mensur begins. "Hoche Bitte!," bellows the referee. Swords are held aloft pointing to the ceiling. But the aristocrat’s seems to be quivering – it may be adrenaline – it may be fear. "Hoch!" the seconds respond. "Legen sie aus?" Sie liegen aus! "Los!"
Then, in deathly silence all that can be heard are blades snicking the air and a dull whump as they are blocked, hitting padded arms, before they slash and riposte. The blades move so fast their movement is almost not visible to the naked eye.
The first round completed, the seconds throw their Schalgers upward to block any more blows. The fighters swallow so hard you see their adams apples bob up and down. On the fighters right is an ally, also wearing a neck brace and a butcher’s steel mesh glove. In his hand is a yellow J-cloth soaked in surgical spirit. After each round, comprising four movements he will clean the sword with surgical spirit. This is to minimise the risk of infection anytime someone is cut. He will also look for nicks in the blade. Any blemishes in the blade mean it will cause a jagged cut which is difficult to stitch so a new one will be used instead.
And with the blade disinfected, the guignol continues. A cruel and unremitting tempo increases with each round. The shadows of the blades are thrown on the ceiling from up lighters around the walls. The movements are in the fractions of seconds, the measurements in the millimetres. To hit below the eyeline is to fight ‘deep’ the equivalent of punching below the belt as a boxer. The difference here that to do that – means a scar and injury for life.
And then in the 18 round it happens. A fluffed offence, where the fencer thinks better of it, hesitates and then withdraws, is punished mercilessly. Already the other has his blade swingeing in a windmill motion above his head. The schlager’s sharpened edge swings 360 degrees hits and then even faster he pulls the blade back to the resting position. At first it isn’t obvious anyone has been hit but then a small hairline crack is just visible, stretching from just below the temple round almost to the middle of the forehead. The fighter remains entirely immobile, his face a mask of serenity. And then a steady scarlet tear forms and then weeps: rolling down his face. A few more, and now the cut gushes warm blood which completely covers his cold, steel goggles. It’s a gaping wound and you can see right through to bone: the skull.
A cry goes up from the audience and the doctor in the black polo shirt rushes forward with a gauze pad. "Halt, Halt," shout the seconds and the referee. The doctor will now try to minimise the severity of the scar, with delicate stitching, that the loser will now carry for life.
It stands on Bürgerstraße, behind black gates, an imposing edifice of ochre stucco with a turret, looking right over the dreaming spires of Gottingen to the emerald-coloured, flat fields beyond. Deep in the heart of modern Germany, is the university town of Gottingen. Twenty-two Nobel peace prize winners have come from here: amid the leafy cobbled streets and wonky old buildings which is a bastion of Germany’s academic elite. It’s Germany’s answer to Oxford and Cambridge.
Yet one grand, old baronial house draws more unwanted attention than any others. Swastika’s have been daubed on the heavy front door and the cars in the car park systematically have their windows smashed. The red and blue flag fluttering from the top of the turret is unmistakable – this is the house of the Corps Hannovera.
One of 200 student Corps in Germany, their largely secret activities, one of which is fighting with sharpened blades, causes not only distrust but hatred. And not only in the left-leaning academic community but in Germany as a whole, particularly in the German media. Many claim they are little short of Nazis, who spend their time fighting and drinking, preaching for the far right and recruiting members to a furtive, elitist club whose sinister tentacles of influence stretch all the way to the corridors of power in modern Germany: through politics, business, law and medicine. Yet the corps claim that they are maligned – that they are politically neutral, merely clinging to a all-male sense of camaraderie and tradition. So where does the truth lie? And what are the riches of membership that it is worth being permanently disfigured for life for?
To get permission to come here (there are also Corps in Switzerland and Austria) has taken me roughly 5000 miles of travelling, a personal letter of recommendation and some thorough vetting over around eight months. My first port of call was an impeccably mannered lawyer for a prominent German bank. We met in his well-appointed flat in Knightsbridge and he has asked me not to use his name in this piece. I told him of my love for fencing and, after several hours of conversation he agreed to help me to meet his Corps "brothers." "You will see that we are not Nazis – far from it," he said with a valedictory wave.
Next I met Corps brother J. Chris Amberger, author of The Secret History of the Sword a worldwide fencing and sword expert. He greeted me at his house in Baltimore, Maryland, USA with two parallel scars to his left temple. He was also quite literally scalped in a mensur. It took 90 stitches to sew on the top of his scalp. "I am not proud of my scars but I am not ashamed of them either," he told me. He wrote an official letter of introduction to the Corps after which I was called a few weeks later by a man with a strong German accent. Again, after another long conversation to divine my intentions, I was emailed an official letter of invitation on headed notepaper.
Not everybody gets in, but for all membership is for life. Kaiser Wilhem 11 said that duelling clubs were, "the best education which a young man can get for his future life." And many influential and powerful Germans are products of this theory. Karl Marx, the recently retired General of the German Police, judges on the supreme court, members of government like the chairman of the highly liberal green party, the president of the Hessian parliament and all the way through to captains of industry at Daimler-Chrysler, telecommunications giant Mannesmann AG and all the way back through history to Otto Von Bismarck, the iron chancellor who was also a mean duellist. He was also a member of the Corps Hannovera.
Resolutely trying to adhere to his guiding principles in the modern age is John Philip Niemann, 21, an economics student. The current senior of the Corps he greets me in the grand hall of the Corps house a few days before the Mensur. It’s a huge, darkly gothic house with tapestries and swords on the walls which served as a hospital for German soldiers in the Second World War. There is a palpable air of history mixed with a slight level of eeriness.
It is the end of the college year and I am here for Stiftungsfest – a round of parties, raucous drinking and celebration of not only Bismarcks birthday but the anniversary of the Corps. The son of a prominent German industrialist, he is flawlessly mannered and wears a neatly starched stripey shirt, slacks and leather sailing shoes. Like the other eight Corps brothers he leads, he has a US tinge to his accent – evidence of expensive exchange years spent in the US. "It is absolutely no problem," he will say eagerly in MTV German – at pains to make visitors feel welcome and at home.
Incongruous against his preppy clothes he wears a blue and red sash – signifying his full-blown membership of the Corps. "I would never wear it in the town though," he says, somewhat downcast. "I’d end up either in the gutter or the hospital. We would never take the risk." With their house a constant target from local left wing zealots among the town’s 33 000 other students it would be suicide to publicise allegiance to any corps on campus.
In the grand hall, where there is a bust of Bismarck, black and white pictures of the entire 384 members – both dead and alive are arranged in frames. These are the old boys, known as alte Herren, and many have savage duelling scars on their faces – particularly from the 1930’s and before.
Corps "brothers" are normally, like John Philip, from good, solid bankable families of a higher German caste. Although John Philip’s face is so far unblemished, a duelling scar – called a schmiss - was meant to show that you were "a man of honour" and is a sort of tattoo of breeding in Germany. Nearly always on the left side, conferred by a right hand duellist, it certified the owner’s claim to manly stature and cultivated rank in society – a badge of courage which showed virility and breeding. Therefore the mensur is an integral part of Corps activity to this day for, as Bismarck said, the corps student should "not only be educated in his special field but should simultaneously receive the foundation for his whole future destiny."
The scar would guarantee a student an ‘active love life’ for the rest of their days, women seeing the scar as a sign of a wealthy man with a good future ahead of him. In fact it was so prized that students who didn’t make it into the Corps would resort to doing it themselves with a razor or pay a doctor to do it for them. To make it more pronounced, some would pull it apart, irritate it by pouring in wine or, commonly, sew a horse hair into the gash.
Today, the rules of joining the Corps are pretty much unchanged from century’s past. New members are often, but not always, introduced by the alte Herren who are fathers, uncles or grandfathers - much like co-senior Michael Gonel 111,23. He is a ram rod straight, corps member who rose to the rank of Lieutenant in the German navy while there on national service recently. At times he seems crushed by the weight of his own duty to etiquette and decorum and he puts one in mind of the family in the Sound of Music.
He has joined the Corps just like his father, grandfather and elder brother before him. He started coming to the house in his mid-teens. He has joined a male tradition which is taken so seriously that women are not allowed beyond the first floor of the house. "We have to live in a completely open way so we don’t want women in the rooms and doors closed," says Michael. Philip used to have a girlfriend of three years before joining the Corps, in what sounded like a serious relationship. "But once I joined the Corps I had no time so we broke up," he says without any trace of remorse. "It was better that way. We have to go out if we want to see a woman." Not only that there isn’t even a TV in the house to alleviate the sexual frustrations of a young male at college.
Even if there was there wouldn’t be time enough to watch it. Each year new recruits to the corps will spend a year living at the house, paid for by former members, living as a corps community. They will spend an hour a day on fencing practice and further study time learning about the Corps esoteric history. These members are known as ‘actives’ and in those three semesters they will fight three mensurs and, hopefully, survive a dizzying round of parties and social events. Studying is pretty much dropped in that year. They will also drink more beer than the entire annual output of Stella Artois.
New members have a few weeks to see if Corps life appeals, if their housemates like them and if they like their housemates. If so they become a "Fucsch" or ‘fox’.
They have to submit to the discipline of older Corps members, which is much like the English fagging system. Throughout our stay one of the two Fuchs had obviously disgraced himself (no-one would tell us wheat he did) and wasn’t allowed to speak, except to the three seniors, and cannot be in a room with more than three people unless he is serving them food or beer. Over dinner he is jeered at occasionaly and called ‘Suzy’ which people find raucously hilarious. He is willing to submit just in the hope of winning his coloured sash and becoming a Corps member for life. To get his sash he will have to do answer questions on Corps history and fence his first mensur at just 24 hours notice anytime in the next few weeks. "The first is the hardest and we don’t want people worrying about it," says Philip. "I know when it will be and I will tell him just before."
Yet while some parents are pleased their sons are carrying on the family tradition, others are horrified they have joined a Corps. Indicative of these is Sebastian Duong,22, a dentistry student who represents the new wave of Corps students who differ slightly from the white norm. Many Corps now have members from ethnic backgrounds. His father is a Vietnamese computer programmer who emigrated to Germany and married his mother, a German housewife in nearby Hannover. "They thought I had joined the Nazis," he says. "And to be honest my mother wasn’t too happy about it. I didn’t tell my mother about the fencing. She found out but I always tell her it is not too dangerous. Even my ‘normal’ friends think I am crazy to fence with sharp blades." He allows himself a wry smile. But why join an organisation like this? "I didn’t want to be like the other students sitting in their rooms, smoking and doing nothing," he says. The strong camaraderie, the tradition and perhaps contacts for life are the draw. But why the constant Nazi tag?
Corps can trace their history back as far as the 1400’s when students would club together, armed, when travelling bandit-infested roads. The Corps slowly evolved and over hundreds of years the movement split. On the right was the Burschenschaft, who become avowedly political and nationalistic. The Corps on the other hand, like the Hannovera, were decidedly non-political and tolerant of both race and religion. The Corps were more interested in drinking, duelling and partying than austere party politics.
All corps use specific colours to denote what values they hold most strongly. Blue signifies societal and gregarious values, white aristocracy, green a certain bullish behaviour, red is tolerance and black means a strong fencing tradition. They will form alliances with others in Germany with the same colours. But for the Hannoveraners, with blue and red as their watchword colours, and Bismarck, one of the great social reformers of Germany as an ex-member they ring their hands when people accuse them of right wing ideology. "We all get tarred with the same brush," says Sebastian, somewhat angrily.
In 1933 with the establishment of the Third Reich, Hitler found the unswerving loyalty among Corps brothers a threat. He told them to split with their Jewish members but as Corps membership is for life and fealty among the "brothers" unbreakable they refused. He banned Corps and made Corps meetings illegal. It is alleged five members of the Corps Saxonia tried to assassinate Hitler, failed and were executed.
Although undoubtedly with the war many Corps brothers were drafted to the army, giving rise to the scarred faces of German officers always so evident in World War 11 films. Indeed so worried were the Americans by sword-wielding German officers that they included an illustrated unarmed defence strategy on how to beat a sword carrying German in the Basic Field Manual.
After WW11, the Corps started to meet again to carry on their traditions but duelling was banned by the American and British interim governments and one Gottingen Student from the Bremensia Corps prosecuted for an illegal duel. This was challenged in the West German Federal Court, by Michael Gonel’s father, a lawyer in 1953. He won after a year long battle and the court ruled that the Mensur did not constitute a form of combat with lethal weapons and was neither a legally punishable offence nor a socially unacceptable custom. Only one person has died in a mensur, back in the 50’s, and this was due to infection.
Today, there are six other Corps in Gottingen who will fence each other – the definition of a Corps is that they must fence. Corps differ as to how many mensurs they make their members fight but the Hannovera Corps make them fight three levels. Fencers are matched according to technique, speed and the force of how hard they hit.
Co-seniors will all meet up and match up their guys against other corps’ combatants much like matching up Roman gladiators. "It’s like a meat market," says Michael Gonel. He went to a meeting a few weeks ago and Sebastian, fighting his third mensur and Philip, fighting his second, are selected to fight members from Corps Saxonia. Both are nervous, but try to act as nonchalant as possible. "I don’t want to feel the blade on my face," admits Sebastian Duong, when pressed over a quiet beer a day before. The fight was originally scheduled for two weeks before but Sebastian’s opponent claimed he wasn’t ready and the fight date was put back.
The mensur is a crucible for a Corps member. It draws all of its elements, no matter how ritualised and stylised these days, from the duel. Back then combatants either fought to the death or the winner would be whoever drew first blood. The mensur reflects the honour of the duel. "But nobody really likes it," confides Sebastian. "But its just one of those things you have to do. It’s like you are facing your fears there, not fencing against someone else. The idea is that whatever you face in life after that – nothing will scare you as much." And thus to show any fear, to even flinch is instant disqualification. To do so more than twice in a row means you are out of the Corps. "You see there is no winner or loser," says Sebastian. And to make sure it is an aggressive fight too, instant disqualification also comes if you have your blade stationary for more than two seconds.
"We are interested in the constitution of the mind here," says Pieter Pieper, a stooped figure with a savage facial scar, Svengali to all young would-be duellists in Gottingen as the fencing master. Yet while he trains for the mensur he also trains those who "demand satisfaction" from others. Real duels still take place here and while all Corps have a rule that just to get physical with a rival Corps member means instant expulsion from the Corps, you can still challenge to a duel by handing over your card, slightly torn or with a feather in it. Renowened in his youth as the best fencer at the university, he was Tyson-like, the one to beat. He was challenged to a duel, where fighters can make mulitple hits and fight "deep." During a break between rounds, the other fencer slashed the right side of his face with splitting it open from nose to ear. "He may have been kicked out of the fraternity for it but I will have this for the rest of my life," says Pieper who also suffered some facial paralysis. "It is always a question of honour but he had none."
Deciding ‘honour’ is what Philip and Sebastian will do in an hour after they load up a blue VW transporter with enough sharp weaponry to restart the French revolution. The entire Corps are dressed in dark grey suits, looking as though they all have business assignations, rather than a meeting with fate and the sharp edge of a Schalger.
It’s Thursday night and there is a sickly tension in the van as we drive to the Brunsviga Corps house with some 80’s style house seeping out of the stereo. All tap their fingers nervously apart from Philip and Sebastian – who make jokes which people laugh at far too easily. On arrival, at a large well-appointed house, the Corps is ushered into an upstairs room to prepare. Philip first – it takes a good three quarters of an hour for him to don his equipment, which is also duck-taped into place to make it snug.
He knows nothing about his opponent, just that he met him once a while back and he seemed a little nervous of the encounter. Philip has a few practice swipes at a target with Bjorn, a respected fencer who is an alte Herren. He needs to guard a little better. The goggles, called Paukbrille, go on last and with a few drags on a last Marlboro light before combat Philip is led down the stairs by his second. Is he nervous? "I have a good doctor why should I worry," he says, with a nervous smirk.
His second mensur, the chance of being hurt is slightly increased than his first. The more experienced you get the more risk there is. On the first mensur the basic strokes are to the top and left side of the head, on the second the fencers may also slash at the face and on the third almost anything goes. Philip stands to face his foe and his leather sailing shoes and chinos look strangely incongruous with chain mail and the basket-handle Schalger. The outside world, media, friends, family are not allowed in here – its just him, his fears and someone armed with a razor sharp sabre trying to split his head open. The sweat rolls of his face as corps members kiss him on the cheeks trying to inspire solidarity.
Blades clash, but the first rounds pass swiftly and the tempo retains a steady pace. But in the 18th and 19th rounds a little tuft of Philip’s hair falls to the ground. The mensur intensifies. In the 22nd Philip takes a sideways swipe – it looks to be on target. His opponent makes the ultimate mistake – he ducks. The referee calls a halt and both fencers are led out of the room.
Upstairs in the Corps Hannovera room the mood is electric. Philip sits in a chair in the middle of the room, is passed a beer and a packet of cigarettes. Then in turn each go round and say what they thought of Philip’s performance. Then they vote. Like ancient Rome and the days of the gladiators he will either get thumbs up or down. All stick their thumbs up in his face and everyone breaks into raucous laughter. His challenger has been entirely vanquished and will have to fence the mensur all over again with someone else.
Sebastian fights next – his last mensur and one where the risks are highest. "I think there will be blood in this one," confides Philip as we enter the hall, after he has removed the fencing garb. The other fighter looks nervous and as the rounds progress on, Sebastian has to be held back by the second each time.
In the 18th his opponent tries to fight back with a move called a Horizontalquart – a 360 degree windmill attack. He loses faith in his own ability but is too late. Sebastian launches the same when he withdraws. It’s like a sapling branch being sprung back as the Schlager flashes in a glint of steel before coming back to the resting position like a Preying Mantis. It’s like he has been hit by an invisible and fine laser. The blood starts to run, before dripping over chain mail and soaking his clothes to the skin. He may be aristocratic but the blood is red, not blue. Sebastian too is impassive after the hit. There is no punching the air in triumph. He is just led upstairs calmly.
But once the door closes the mood explodes. He is hugged and kissed – thumbs up almost without preamble. Yet when I query the fact that I thought there was meant to be no winner a Corps brothers answers: "Well if the other guy really tries to fuck you can get him back." For Sebastian who has just scarred someone for life he is unrepentant. "It was me or him," he says flatly. "I don’t have a bad conscience because they put someone up who is bad at fencing." And with that he cracks a huge grin.
Downstairs it’s a different scene. The loser, his face now a mask of blood, smiles in a dazed and punch drunk way as his Corps brothers stand round offering him gentle words of encouragement. He winces as the doctor, probably a medical student busies himself with needle and thread. Each time the needle is pushed into the wound he winces. His only anaesthetic is a bottle of Jever beer. And along with tradition Sebastian, comes over and hands him a bottle of beer too. They shake hands smile and drink each others health. "We’ll be friends," says Sebastian later. And with that he calls his mother to say that he is OK.
We take pictures of the injured fencer but our film is confiscated – the Corps Saxonia say they will decide if we can use the pictures or not. We never hear back. And when overtures are made for an interview we are told that we would be "stepping on his integrity," according to a Hannovera brother. The Corps Saxonia did not want to co-operate.
The next few days are a ceaseless melee of drinking, parties, etiquette and entertaining. That night drinking goes into overdrive. Corps members drink ‘bierjunge’ which is a drinking challenge to drink 3/4 of a pint down in one. At various times in the evening people slink off to vomit all the beer up in special basins in the toilets called ‘papst’ – meaning pope – as you bend over and make a "donation to the church." One alte Herren a smart forty year old in advertising, had to train himself to drink fast enough when he joined the Corps by unscrewing the showerhead in the morning and opening his throat under it.
A party is thrown, called a keniepe. Men ranging from 30 to 80, all in Hannover corps sashes, line long tables with a seemingly limitless supply of beer as toast after toast is drunk. Many are in expensively tailored suits and finely manicured hands grip Prince and Dunhill cigarettes. Candles on the tables flicker over lineaments of faces in the darkness and the tell tale scars of mensur past are all too evident. Songs about honour, Germany and women are sung from green books with studs on the corners so that they don’t get soaked in beer when left on the tables. With a twinkling eyes and a scar from his chin to his bottom lip and various others on his visage, Michael Eggers tells of the appeal of being a Corps "brother." He was General of the entire German police before retiring recently. "I fought four mensur and how you say," he says searching for English words in a strong German accent. "The force flew."
"We only take men who are honourable," he says. "You learn to tell the truth and you face danger. And I like women of course, but I think it is good for all men to have a time when they don’t feel erotic dreaming. Later of course you meet nice girls from good fathers who are well educated and on the right level."
He is unabashed when asked if Corps brothers give each other preference in business. "Yes a little bit," he says candidly. "But not all the time. As general of the police I had to deal with the Secretary of State who was a Corps brother but we didn’t get on so well."
And Philip, now with only one Mensur left will soon be a full-blown corps brother, the contacts he will make are important. He wants to work in a bank or something to do with economics. "I will try to make it on my own first and if not, well, I see what the Corps has."
Yet the duelling scar is unlikely to help him these days either in business or love. Dr Bernd Bessau an alte Herren from Emden admits the Corps does help people in their careers – hence the need for duelling. "If someone joins the Corps they know they will have very good connections for the rest of their lives," he says. "So we need something to provide a level to stop people just joining for that – but something that binds all Corps members together." Yet as the years wear on the scars get ever more discreet as rules are tightened up and the duel ever more stylized and sanitized. Ten years ago fencers could slash to the face and fight "deep."
Yet the Corps in Germany are in bad state. As Michael Eggers, says forlornly, "It is not so easy to find the right people these days." To be a corps you have to fence mensur but now some are starting to sell out. One Corps has taken up horseriding instead of fencing which doesn’t technically count.
And the rigorous etiquette and emphasis on honour is a hard road to follow. Throughout our five days with the Corps we were treated with the utmost respect, deference and general kindness. There was never any indication of anything untoward or right wing tendencies and the behaviour was no different from any rugby club – just that manners and etiquette were the watchwords.
Yet the absolutes by which they live and are willing to get scarred for mean there is no compromise with integrity. In one drinking game the Observer photographer tried to pour half his beer away midway through. He was spotted and the Corps brothers were genuinely appalled. As he tried to make light of it the Corps brothers frowned. "You never, ever cheat," one said.
The Corps brothers have chosen rebellion not by MTV, cannabis and crotch-stretched jeans but rebellion by tradition, by following honour codes 200 years old. As Bernd Bessau spits angrily, "The French have their history, the British have theirs why can’t we have ours? Yes, we have a darkness from the Nazis but why does it have to cover all the other areas?"
For Sebastian Duong he enters the world as full-blown Corps brother – his membership for life. And for now he is happy. But as he says, gazing into the middle distance and exhaling heavily: "I never want to pick up another sword again."