J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.
Scars of Honor
We have all seen the World War Two movies where a Nazi officer in a leather coat and swastika armband sports a large facial scar on the left cheek. Some viewers might think the scar is only a Hollywood prop. In essence, a ruse to make the actor look tough and ruthless. However, the truth is facial scars were extremely common among Austrian and German soldiers going back to World War One.
They are called dueling scars (or “Schmisse” in German) and were seen as a badge of honor since as early as 1825. Alternatively referred to as “Mensur scars,” “smite,” “Schimitte,” or “Renommierschmiss,” they became popular among upper-class Austrians and Germans involved in academic fencing at the start of the 20th century. Consequently, many of these same upper-class men who fashioned them found themselves wearing German army uniforms in both World War One and Two.
Mensur Fencing and Mensuren
Mensur or academic fencing today, as it was in the past, is quite different from the sport practiced in the Olympics or at the club level. The fencing we normally think of uses specially developed swords and gear that minimizes injury. However, the “Mensurschläger” (mensur sword or hitter) used in these academic bouts can instead be deadly.
They are made in two versions: the Korbschläger, with a basket-type guard, and the Glockenschläger, equipped with a bell-shaped guard. Both exhibit sharp edges and tips able to slash through flesh or pierce a victim’s body causing severe injury, and even death.
In the past, individual duels between students, known as Mensuren, were somewhat ritualized. Protective gear was often worn which included padding on the arms, chest, and throat, and an eye guard. In many cases, however, duels would emerge spontaneously, in which case protective gear could be minimal.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, duels between students were considered an honorable distinction among fraternity members. This was also the case in taking a blow to the face which showed courage and a lasting reminder of the fraternal bond.
Mensur Fencing During the Third Reich
German military laws permitted men to wage duels of honor until shortly after World War I. During the Third Reich (January 1933 to May 1945) the Mensur was prohibited at all universities. The Nazi state had recognized that academic fencing was an integral part of the independently-minded Studentenverbindung, or fraternities, which still existed during the 1930s. The Nazis viewed these fraternities to be representative of the previous government and wanted to disband them.
With Nazi pressure increasing, fraternities were forced to officially suspend their activities — however, underground fight clubs were founded. These illicit organizations provided the means for organizing and practicing Mensur bouts among the former fraternities while remaining undetected by the Nazi secret police. After the war, many of these fraternities were reactivated and resumed the Mensur fencing tradition.
These duels were seen as an ideal way to show courage by being able to take a blow. This was in fact more desirable than inflicting the wound. While it was important to show one’s dueling ability, it was also as important to be capable of receiving a strike inflicted by an opponent.
Since World War Two Mensur’s popularity has declined substantially. It is only practiced in some 300 traditional fraternities in Germany, Poland and a few other European countries.
Within the elite social context of the time, gaining a mensur scar was associated with status in the prestigious academic institutions these duels took place. The scars not only showed courage but also “good husband material. ” Even Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire, once said that men’s bravery and courage could be judged “by the number of scars on their cheeks.”
Minority groups in Germany also viewed the practice of facial scarification as a way to aid their social situation. This included some members of the Jewish community who were said to have worn their scars with pride and were perceived by others as being “socially healthy individuals.”
Nature of the Scars
Since most Mensur duelists were right-handed, the scars they exacted on their opponents were mostly on the left side of their heads and faces. Hence, the right profile seemed mostly untouched. Experienced fencers, who had fought many bouts, often accumulated multiple scars. A New York Times article of March 18, 1877, titled “Dueling in Germany — The Bane of the Universities Burial of a Student Victim to the Brutal Practice,” reports on a duelist who died in 1877 and who had participated in at least thirteen duels sporting “137 scars on the head, face and neck.”
An article by the St. Louis Globe of August 15, 1887 titled “Scarred Dueling Heroes,” reported the scars not to be of a serious nature. A portion of the article reads:
“…wounds causing, as a rule, but temporary inconvenience and leaving in their traces a perpetual witness of a fight well fought. The hurts, save when inflicted in the nose, lip or ear, are not even necessarily painful, and unless the injured man indulges too freely in drink, causing them to swell and get red, very bad scars can be avoided. The swords used are so razor-like that they cut without bruising, so that the lips of the wounds can be closely pressed, leaving no great disfigurement, such, for examples, as is brought about by the loss of an ear.”
The adoration of these facial scars prompted many students who did not practice fencing to scar themselves with razors in imitation. Some would pull on their scabs in order to exacerbate the scars. In other cases, students paid doctors to slice their cheeks.
As BMEzine Enclypodia reports in one of its pages titled Dueling Scars:
“Students too afraid to actually duel would cut themselves with razors or contract doctors to form the wounds, and then would repeatedly tear open the wound to irritate them, as well as using salt, wine, and even sewing horse hair into them to ensure a prominently keloided scar.”
The custom of obtaining dueling scars, however, began to wane shortly after the Second World War.
Today, the European fencing fraternities that still exist include fencing scarring as a tradition. However, their fervor for facial scarification does not reach the fever pitch of earlier times.