Mensur is a specific type of manly entertainment. Practiced by members of student fraternities it is a strongly ritualized and codified method of fencing – an initiation ritual, a means of polishing personality and character. It is a method, accompanied by a sudden rush of adrenaline, of bringing back the suppressed patriarchal spiritual ideals. It is a place where what is seemingly idealistic meets the physiological.
The combatants stand opposite each other and cannot change their positions; they cannot move from the designated ground, they cannot dodge. It is exactly from this fixed spatial relation, indicated by the length of the arm, that Mensur took its name. The students cover only their noses, eyes (with characteristic steel goggles, Mensurbrille) and their throats (with Krawatten) – all the rest is the battlefield. The main idea of this sort of fencing is to cut exactly those parts of the face that remain unprotected. One cannot shield oneself, for Mensur is an exercise in stoic calmness, endurance and ability to sustain pain.
The visual and physical sign of this stoicism, but also a kind of honourable reward, is a Schmiss, an often nasty scar that marks the forehead, cheeks or chin forever.
Although established for several hundred years, Mensur flourished most spectacularly at the end of the19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. It coincided with a time of prosperity in academic fraternities, saturated with the ideals of Kant and Fichte, but also with burgeoning nationalistic visions. The country’s crème de la crème, assembled in these elite societies, was slowly elaborating an idea of a unified, indivisible Germany, and after 1918 and the humiliation of Versailles, it became the avant-garde of thoughts about rebuilding the spiritual Germanic might, racial purity and the historic mission of German Reich. In the 20s and 30s, unlike their uncompromising peers (such as, for instance, the descendants of the national writer Thomas Mann), they started to reinforce the ranks of the NSDAP, and sometimes, from the very beginning, the SS and SD. Those, who as adolescents hardened themselves in the fraternal ritual of fencing or devoted their bodies to the toil of academic alpine hiking, those lawyers, historians, philosophers were soon to avail themselves of the steadfastness of their national socialist beliefs, enriched with the visual symptoms of the scars gained in duels, in the woods of Belarus or on the Ukrainian steppes, becoming leaders of the gruesome squads of Einsatzkommandos.
Young Germans and Austrians still gather in the Studentenverbindungen. In some of these, the Mensur is prohibited, but some of the fraternities continue to practice this type of rivalry saturated with the myth of masculinity. Some of them frequently establish relations with the radical political movements of the far right wing. Mensur could be understood as a forge for nationalist beliefs and chauvinistic pertinacity; a forge for the cult of the body and of ruthless character. Not only as an historically conditioned proving ground of beliefs, but, understood more broadly, as an emblem of the marriage between the intellect and frenzy, the ideals and their decay.