Heidelberg - A Week Among The Students
( Originally Published 1889 )
Receiving a letter from my cousin one bright December morning, the idea of visiting him struck me, and so, within an hour, B- and I were on our way to Heidelberg. It was delightful weather; the air was mild as the early days of spring, the pine forests around wore a softer green, and though the sun was but a hand's breadth high, even at noon, it was quite warm on the open road. We stopped for the night at Bensheim; the next morning was as dark as a cloudy day in the north can be, wearing a heavy gloom I never saw elsewhere. The wind blew the snow down from the summits upon us, but being warm from walking, we did not heed it. The mountains looked higher than in summer, and the old castles more grim and frowning. From the hard roads and freezing wind, my feet be-came very sore, and after limping along in exscruciating pain for a league or two, I filled my boots with brandy, which deadened the wounds so much, that I was enabled to go on in a. kind of trot, which I kept up, only stopping ten minutes to dinner, till we reached Heidelberg. The same evening there was to be a general commers, or meeting of the societies among the students, and I determined not to emit witnessing one of the most interesting and characteristic features of student-life. So borrowing a cap and coat, I looked the student well enough to pass for one of them, though the former article was somewhat of a Philister form. Baader, a young poet of some note, and president of the " "Palatia " Society, having promised to take us there, we met at eight o'clock at an inn frequented by the students, and went to the rendezvous, near the Markt Platz.
A confused sound of voices came from the inn, as we drew near ; groups of students were standing around the door. In the entry we saw the Red Fisherman, one of the most conspicuous characters about the University. He is a small, stout man, with bare neck and breast, red hair, whence his name, and a strange mixture of roughness and benevolence in his countenance. He has saved many persons at the risk of his own life, from drowning in the Neckar, and on that account is leniently dealt with by the faculty whenever he is arrested for assisting the students in any of their unlawful proceedings. Entering the room I could scarcely see at first, on account of the smoke that ascended from a hundred pipes. All was noise and confusion. Near the door sat some half dozen musicians who were getting their instruments ready for action, and the long room was filled with tables, all of which seemed to be full and the students were still pressing in. The tables were covered with great stone jugs and long beer glasses; the students were talking and shouting and drinking.-One who appeared to have the arrangement of the meeting, found seats for us together, and having made a slight acquaintance with those sitting next us, we felt more at liberty to witness their proceedings. They were all talking is a sociable, friendly way, and I saw no one who appeared to be intoxicated. The beer was a weak mixture, which I should think would make one fall over from its weight before it would intoxicate him. Those sitting near me drank but little, and that principally to make or return compliments. One or two at the other end of the table were more boisterous, and more than one glass was overturned on the legs below it. Leaves containing the songs for the evening lay at each seat, and at the head, where the President sat, were two swords crossed, with which he occasionally struck upon the table to preserve order. Our President was a fine, romantic-looking young man, dressed in the old German costume, which is far handsomer than the modern. I never saw in any company of young men, so many handsome, manly countenances. If their faces were any index of their characters, there were many noble, free souls among them. Nearly opposite to me sat a young poet, whose dark eyes flashed with feeling as he spoke to those near him. After some time passed in talking and drinking together, varied by an occasional air from the musicians, the President beat order with the sword, and the whole company joined in one of their glorious songs, to a melody at the same time joyous and solemn. Swelled by so many manly voices it rose up like a hymn of triumph-all other sounds were stilled. Three times during the singing all rose up, clashed their glasses together around the tables and drank to their Fatherland, a health and blessing to the patriot, and honor to those who struggle in the cause of freedom, at the close thundering out their motto :
" Fearless in strife, to the banner still true!"
After this song the same order as before was continued, except that students from the different societies made short speeches, accompanied by some toast or sentiment. One spoke of Germany-predicting that all her dissensions would be overcome, and she would rise up at last, like a phoenix among the nations of Europe; and at the close gave " strong, united, regenerated Ger-many!" Instantly all sprang to their feet, and clashing the glasses together, gave a thundering "hoch!" This enthusiasm for their country is one of the strongest characteristics of the Ger-man students; they have ever been first in the field for her freedom, and on them mainly de-pends her future redemption.
Cloths were passed around, the tables wiped off, and preparations made to sing the "Lands-father" or consecration song. This is one of the most important and solemn of their ceremonies, since by performing it the new students are made bursehen, and the bands of brotherhood continually kept fresh and sacred. All became still a moment, then they commenced the lofty song:
" Silent bending, each one lending
Hear it, German brothers, hear!
" Take the beaker, pleasure seeker,
With the first line of the last stanza, the Presidents sitting at the head of the table, take their glasses in their right hands, and at the third line, the sword in their left, at the end striking their glasses together and drinking.
" In left hand gleaming, thou art beaming,
They clash their swords together till the third line is sung, when each takes his cap, and piercing the point of the sword through the crown, draws it down to the guard. Leaving their caps on the swords, the Presidents stand behind the two next students, who go through the same ceremony, receiving the swords at the appropriate time, and giving it back loaded with their caps also. This ceremony is going on at every table at the same time. These two stanzas are repeated for every pair of students, till all have gone through with it, and the Presidents have arrived at the bottom of the table, with their swords strung full of caps. Here they exchange swords, while all sing :
" Come thou bright sword, now made holy,
"Up ye feast companions! ever
Then each President, taking a cap off his sword, reached it to the student opposite, and they crossed their swords, the ends resting on the two students' heads, while they sang the next stanza :
" So take it back; thy head I now will cover
This ceremony was repeated till all the caps were given back, and they then concluded with the following :
" Rest, the Burschen-feast is over,
The Landsfather being over, the students were less orderly ; the smoking and drinking began again and we left, as it was already eleven o'clock, glad to breathe the pure cold air.
In the University I heard Gervinus, who was formerly professor in Gottingen, but was obliged to leave on account of his liberal principles. He is much liked by the students and his lectures are very well attended. They had this winter a torchlight procession in honor of him. He is a stout, round-faced man, speaks very fast, and makes them laugh continually with his witty remarks. In the room I saw a son of Rüçkert, the poet, with a face strikingly like his father's. The next evening I went to hear Schlos-, ser, the great historian. Among his pupils are the two princes of Baden, who are now at the University. He came hurriedly in, threw down his portfolio and began instantly to speak. He is an old, gray-headed man, but still active and full of energy. The Germans find him exceedingly difficult to understand, as he is said to use the English construction almost entirely ; for this reason, perhaps, I understood him quite easily. He lectures on the French Revolution, but is engaged in writing a Universal History, the first numbers of which are published.
Two or three days after, we heard that a duel was to take place at Neuenheim, on the opposite side of the Neckar, where the students have a house hired for that purpose. In order to witness the spectacle, we started immediately with two or three students. Along the road were stationed old women, at intervals, as guards, to give notice of the approach of the police, and from these we learned that one duel had already been fought, and they were preparing for the other. The Red Fisherman was busy in an outer room grinding the swords, which are made as sharp as razors. In the large room some forty or fifty students were walking about, while the parties were preparing. This was done by taking off the coat and vest and binding a great thick leather garment on, which reached from the breast to the knees, completely protecting the body. They then put on a leather love reaching nearly to the shoulder, tied a thick cravat around the throat, and drew on a cap with a large vizor. This done, they were walked about the room a short time, the seconds holding out their arms to strengthen them ; their faces all this time betrayed considerable anxiety.
All being ready, the seconds took their stations immediately behind them, each armed with a sword, and gave the words: "ready-hind your weapons-loose I" They instantly sprang at each other, exchanged two or three blows, when the seconds cried "halt!" and struck their swords up. Twenty-four rounds of this kind ended the duel; without either being hurt, though the cap of-one of them was cut through and his forehead grazed. All their duels do not end so fortunately, however, as the frightful scars on the faces of many of those present, testified. It is a gratification to know that but a small portion of the students keep up this barbarous custom. The great body is opposed to it; in Heidelberg, four societies, comprising more than one half the students, have been formed against it. A strong desire for such a reform seems to prevail, and the custom will probably be totally discontinued in a short time.
This view of the student-life was very interesting to it appeared in a much better light than I had been accustomed to view it. Their peculiar customs, except duelling and drinking, of course, may be the better tolerated when we consider their effect on the liberty of Germany. It is principally through them that a free spirit is kept alive; they have ever been foremost to rise up for their Fatherland, and bravest in its defence. And though many of their customs have so often been held up to ridicule, among no other class can one find warmer, truer or braver hearts.