Fraternities at American colleges and universities are, for the most part, non-political drinking and partying clubs. Not so in Germany. The Burschenschaften - or student duelling clubs - have a long tradition of ultra-nationalist extremism dating back to the 19th century. Along the way they have adopted the racial ideology espoused by the Nazis and today seek to remain a pure "Aryan" organization:
The antiquated world of Germany's student duelling clubs faced disintegration after nearly half of their members threatened to quit their national umbrella organisation because of row about Nazi-style "Aryan" identity cards and a decision to label an opponent of Adolf Hitler a "traitor".
Germany has more than a hundred conservative and liberal-nationalist student duelling clubs or Burschenschaften. They claim an almost exclusively male following of about 10,000. Members wear 19th century uniforms, and take part in torch-lit processions, ritualised fencing and beer drinking competitions.
The Ariernachweis or "Aryan Certificate" was required by all public sector employees in Nazi Germany beginning in 1933. To obtain the Nachweis one had to present 7 birth certificates (employee, parents and grandparents) proving racially-pure German heritage. This is what the Burschenschaften want to require of all members.
Just as disturbing as the embrace of Nazi ideology is Burschenschaften's revisionist understanding of history. One of the student leaders - Norbert Weidner - published a letter recently accusing the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer - who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 - of treason (Landesverrat). You can read the entire letter (pdf warning) here. For Norbert Weidner, Bonhoeffer's sentence and execution was "legally justified."
Rein juristisch halte ich die Verurteilung für gerechtfertigt. … wenn ich den Verrat in Kriegszeiten beurteile, der dazu führt, daß Deutsche an der Front zu Tausenden hingemetzelt werden, ist ein solches Urteil nachvollziehbar. Auf Landesverrat hat zu allen Zeiten und vor allem während des Krieges im schlimmsten Fall der Tod gestanden, ganz gleich, welche Staatsform regierte.
(From a purely legal standpoint I consider the conviction justified. When I condemn treason in times of war - treason that results in the slaughter of thousands of German on the front, then such a verdict is understandable. Treason against one's country has always - but especially in wartime - been a capital crime - regardless which type of government was in power.)
Why should we care about about a bunch of right-wing students wearing funny hats? The Burschenschaftler may be relatively small in numbers, but they are well-connected in government and business. The groups are a highly effective networking engine. When I worked at Deutsche Bank in the 1980s and 1990s I encountered a number of managers who got their positions through their membership in a Burschenschaft.