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The Association of German Students: Leipzig Students Remember the First Ten Years (1881-1891)

A wide variety of student fraternities and associations existed at German universities. Some emphasized religious affiliation (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish); some were traditional, typically stressing dueling and aristocratic connections; and some espoused more liberal ideals. The Association of German Students [Verein deutscher Studenten or V Dt. St.] was founded in 1881. Its first branches were at the universities of Berlin, Halle, Leipzig, and Breslau. The association adopted a strongly nationalist tone, pledging to defend Germandom, the monarchy, and Christianity. Antisemitism was prominent from the outset, not least because the new association was founded at the height of anti-Jewish agitation in 1881. The association also contributed substantially to the cult of Bismarck. The following reflections from two members of the association mirror the nationalist temperament of its founding generation. They include a reference to Diederich Hahn (1859-1918), a founding member of the Leipzig branch and one of the association’s most prominent speakers. Hahn was susceptible to Bismarckian hero-worship and later became a leading member of the Agrarian League [Bund der Landwirte]; he is believed to have been the inspiration for Diederich Hessling, the chauvinistic protagonist of Heinrich Mann’s satirical novel The Loyal Subject [Der Untertan] (1918). In the last line of the recollections excerpted here, Hahn is said “to have something Siegfried-like about him.”

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I. One Hundred Semesters of the Association of German Students in Leipzig

By A. H. Dr. R. P. Oßwald (Potsdam)
(member from 1903-07)

“Young people must take sides; partisanship means enthusiasm, and what would youth be without enthusiasm?”

These words were uttered by the president of Leipzig University, the theologian Luthardt, on January 18, 1881, at the general evening drinking session for students [Studentenkommers], which was being held for the first time in commemoration of German unification. His words met with enthusiastic response at other German universities far beyond Leipzig.

“The dream of the Wars of Liberation has been realized. Through the heroic struggle of the years 1870/71, Kaiser and Reich have been regained for the German people. On new ground, new goals will arise. Today it is not the external enemy who threatens: What is at stake today is standing up for German ways and German customs, for German loyalty, and German belief. The sinister powers of naked selfishness and unpatriotic cosmopolitan attitudes, depravation and de-Christianization are undermining the firm old ground of our popular customs and traditions. Our youth faces enormous tasks. Duty demands that we prepare ourselves for the noble and hallowed calling to serve the fatherland with heart and hand.”

Thus read the manifesto of July 17, 1881, which urged German students to attend the Kyffhäuser Festival [Kyffhäuserfest] on August 6; the essential part of it had been written by the law student Diederich Hahn, founder of the Leipzig Association of German Students (V. D. St. Leipzig).

“The spirit emanating from your words affords me a look into the future of our German fatherland, and in this I find consolation for the injuries the present has taken on from the past.”

With these words, dated August 2, 1881, Bismarck thanked the V. D. St. Leipzig for a telegram conveying greetings from the last student drinking session of the first summer semester.

In these remarks by the founder of the Reich, the head of the university, and the leader of the youth, we find both the substance and the direction of the V. D. St. Leipzig in outline form: enthusiasm for the resurrected German Kaiserreich and preparation for service to the fatherland, so that injuries bestowed upon the present by the past could be healed. With youthful enthusiasm, one took sides, not for a “party” but for a sacred cause, for the fatherland that one saw embodied in the Reich; not in particularism, not in the agitation of parties, not in economic competitiveness and materialistic inclinations but in national sentiment and the desire of a German national traditional that was aware of its individuality and proud of its history. For this reason, one began to observe the anniversary of the founding of the German Reich as a national day of celebration, whereas hitherto this day had passed without ceremony, with neither song nor echo. From the very outset, celebrating national days of commemoration to awaken national consciousness has been part of the program of all German student associations and has been spreading gradually to the rest of the student body. The Reich was a dominant focus in the thoughts of the new generation, which therefore chose the founder of the Reich, Prince Bismarck, as its hero from the very beginning. Empathizing sensibly with the young people’s world of ideas, he welcomed the new movement with delight, despite all the hostility it faced from the public, and despite all the difficulties mounted against it by the academic authorities. Bismarck’s recognition helped the movement overcome those impediments.

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