From the Corporation to the Motherland

The Honor of the Göttingen Students in World War I Germany
By Marie-Bénédicte Vincent

Göttingen University provides a privileged prism for the observation of German student corporations at the end of the Empire. Their social recruitment was exclusive and they were characterized by a certain ethics. They aimed at making their members true men of honor. One of the foundations of “corporate education” was more particularly the necessity of a duel in case of offense. Given that they put forth the patronage of the younger by the senior boys, and paved the way to professional and social life, the student corporations could be seen as a whole recruitment system, which shaped the German elite. The celebration of the centenary of the battle of Leipzig in 1913 commemorated the victory of the German people against Napoleon and generated a revival of the students' patriotism. They therefore massively volunteered to join the army in August 1914. World War I was an opportunity for them to put into practice the values of their corporate commitment. The war appeared to be an international duel, in which the point was to re-establish the allegedly insulted honor of Germany. The way they lived through the conflict can be reconstituted thanks to the letters from the front line and the war journals published within the corporations. The necessity of being exemplary on the front line seemed to be considered by the students as a duty towards their corporation, with which most of them kept contact. However, they experienced harsh disillusion as they had to face the stark reality of the conflict. From 1916, their traditional vision of martial heroism seemed to be archaic in the context of the trenches. Indeed, the students still felt they belong to an elite in their military divisions, but this could only be acknowledged from an ethical point of view. The trauma of a defeat which was largely attributed to “the non-operational zone” led them to reject the Weimar Republic as early as 1918. They thus saw the student corporations as the spear-head of a restoration of the “true German patriotism”.

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