The Society of the Crossed Keys

The Society of the Crossed Keys by Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson

Book: The Society of the Crossed Keys by Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson
else, among millions, was good enough to have the honour of crossing swords with one of those stupid, beardless boys. Then again, to be considered a real student you had to have proved your courage, meaning you had fought as many duels as possible, and even showed the signs of those heroic deeds on your face in the form ofduelling scars; unscarred cheeks and a nose without a nick in it were unworthy of an academic in the genuine German tradition. This meant that the students who wore fraternity colours, showing that they belonged to a particular student body, felt obliged to go in for mutual provocation, also insulting other perfectly peaceful students and officers so that they could fight more duels. In the fraternities, every new student had his aptitude for this worthy occupation tested on the fencing floor, and he was also initiated into other fraternity customs. Every ‘fox’, the term for a novice, was assigned to an older fraternity member whom he had to serve with slavish obedience, and who in turn instructed him in the noble arts required by the student code of conduct, which amounted to drinking until you threw up. The acid test was to empty a heavy tankard of beer in a single draught, proving in this glorious manner that you were no weakling, or to bawl student songs in chorus and defy the police by going on the rampage and goose-stepping through the streets by night. All this was considered manly, proper student behaviour, suitably German, and when the fraternities went out on a Saturday, waving their banners and wearing their colourful caps and ribbons, these simple-minded young men, with senseless arrogance fostered by their own activities, felt that they were the true representatives of intellectual youth. They looked down with contempt on the common herd who did not know enough to pay proper tribute to this academic culture of German manliness.
    To a boy still wet behind the ears, coming to Vienna straight from a provincial grammar school, such dashing, merry student days may well have seemed the epitome of all that wasromantic. For decades to come, indeed, when village notaries and physicians now getting on in years were in their cups, they would look up with much emotion at the crossed swords and colourful student ribbons hanging on the walls of their rooms, and proudly bore their duelling scars as the marks of their ‘academic’ status. To us, however, this stupid, brutish way of life was nothing short of abhorrent, and if we met a member of those beribboned hordes we sensibly kept out of his way. We saw individual freedom as the greatest good, and to us this urge for aggression, combined with a tendency towards servility en masse, was only too clearly evidence of the worst and most dangerous aspects of the German mind. We also knew that this artificially mummified romanticism hid some very cleverly calculated and practical aims, for membership of a duelling fraternity ensured a young man the patronage of its former members who now held high office, and would smooth the path for his subsequent career. Joining the Borussia fraternity in Bonn was the one sure way into the German Diplomatic Service; membership of the Catholic fraternities in Austria led to well-endowed benefices in the gift of the ruling Catholic Socialist party, and most of these ‘heroes’ knew very well that in future their coloured student ribbons would have to make up for the serious studies they had neglected, and that a couple of duelling scars on their faces could be much more useful in a job application than anything they had inside their heads. The mere sight of those uncouth, militarised gangs, those scarred and boldly provocative faces, spoilt my visits to the university halls, and when other students who genuinely wanted to study went to the university library they, too, avoidedgoing through the main hall, opting for an inconspicuous back door so as not to meet these pathetic heroes.
    It had been decided long ago by my

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