Thoughts on the Renommierschmiss

9 Apr 2014, 12:16 a.m.

I recently posted a collection of links about, and pictures of, German university duelling societies — and specifically the Renommierschmiss, or bragging scar, that was the frequent result of their duels. It was a conversation with Lucian last autumn that brought them back to my mind (my blogging practice has a wide turning circle). He and I got quite excited about the Schmiss; his boyfriend N was sympathetic but had to insist, to Lucian's disappointment, that N could not get one. There are certain things you should avoid when you are a historian of fascism.

Anyway, during this conversation I remembered having seen a bunch of pictures of these young men, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, dressed for their fencing matches. Since it's possible to kill or severely maim someone with an academic sabre, they wore neck-to-toe armour made of leather and cotton batting, gloves, and steel goggles with beaks over the nose. The rest of the face, the cheeks and chin and brow, was left exposed. With their mobility restricted, their swords long and heavy, and their sport refined by centuries of tradition, the duellists fought in a stylised and highly controlled fashion. The aim was to draw first blood, parrying the other's attacks without dodging or retreating, while stoically bearing the pain of any hits received. Or, to put it another way, they dressed up like the Michelin man before taking it in turns to hack at one another's faces and deliver the fashionable scars that would attract all the girls.

The embarrassing part is that even seeing these boys in their defensive gear, I still find the Schmiss, uh, kind of sexy, and I'd still rather like one myself.

The immediate reason it was considered desirable, and to mark its wearer as a man, after all, was that it showed his bravery and resilience, his tolerance for pain — if not his seeking it out. No matter their goggles and ear protectors, the experience of fighting a duel must have been terrifying. Deaths were fairly common in places where the thrusting style of fencing was favoured over the cutting style. Even in cut-fencing duels, the combatants were often so full of adrenaline that they didn't realise until the end of the duel that they had been injured. The thought of keeping one's nerve through such a trial of resolve and, yes, skill, of taking pain and shedding blood to prove it, and even of enduring the healing process, has a resonance for me that maybe doesn't need to be explained any further. Especially since my mother reads this blog. If you get all of that and an aesthetically interesting scar into the bargain? Sign me up for a Schmiss or an ex-duellist immediately.

Unfortunately, and of course, the bragging scar carried/carries with it a host of other connotations as well as the ritual of its creation. Membership in a duelling society signified that a young man belonged to a wealthy, educated social elite. The societies were comparatively politically radical when they first came into being, but calcified predictably into conservatism. Members considered one another brothers for life, and perhaps still do. From the outside, though, this kind of old boys' club looks sexist and racist as hell. Accounts of the societies' treatment by the Nazis differ; N the historian presumably knows a lot more about this than I do, but a lot of Nazi officers certainly bore duelling scars on their cheeks, and to British people that's probably their first association. Furthermore, since these were/are societies of university-aged men, drinking beer to the point of near death also belongs to their gilded traditions.

Given all this, no matter how much I admire them in themselves, I can't really get a Renommierschmiss either. I shall be digging through Wikipedia's engravings of duellists, though, and daydreaming about the whistle of a sword past my ear.