Uses for Horsehair

David Blackbourn

  • Duelling: The Cult of Honour in Fin-de-Siècle Germany by Kevin McAleer
    Princeton, 268 pp, £19.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 691 03462 1

Goethe, Heine and Wilhelm von Humboldt did it, although not Wagner; Clemenceau did it on 22 different occasions; characters in Maupassant, Turgenev, Fontane and Schnitzler did it. In 19th-century Europe practically everyone was doing it, except the English. We are talking about fighting duels.

The subject has recently attracted some fine historians. In 1988, Victor Kiernan published The Duel in European History, a thoughtful account that drew mainly on British and French evidence from the Early Modern period and presented the modern duel as an aristocratic residue. Five years later, Friedhelm Guttandin offered a variant on the same theme. Incorporating much more German material, his book used the duel to argue that changing concepts of aristocratic honour strengthened the centralised monarchical state in Europe. Recent years have also seen two outstanding single-country studies of the 19th-century duel: Robert Nye’s Masculinity and Male Codes of Honour in Modern France nicely complements Ute Frevert’s Ehrenmänner (‘Men of Honour’) of 1991, a book that is close in subject-matter – although not in interpretation – to the one reviewed here.

The duel derived from the French medieval cult of chivalry, with its tournament, joust and pas d’ armes. The private duel emerged in the 16th century, after the end of the royally sanctioned public kind, and spread across Europe. Fencing had already become an important part of the German university curriculum by 1600, boosted by contacts with Spain and Italy, as well as France. In the 17th century, thanks to frequent encounters with Richelieu’s armies in the Thirty Years’ War, the duel established itself in the Holy Roman Empire. Later, German abolitionists liked to point out these foreign origins. The duel was ‘a chapter in the history of this pitiful German copying of French fashions’, wrote Georg von Below in 1896. From the beginning, anti-duelling edicts had been issued by the Emperor and by individual German rulers, without much effect. By the 18th century they had learned to live with the practice. The enlightened part of Frederick the Great denounced ‘this misplaced sense of honour’, but the practical prince recognised the duel’s importance for the aristocratic officers of the Prussian Army.

Like many institutions that bien-pensant opinion of the late 18th century found offensive, the duel triumphantly survived both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It flourished in the age of liberalism, science and the steam engine. This should not surprise us too much. The staying power of the old regime has become an established trope of 19th-century history. Monarchy, nobility, the Catholic Church – all persisted, or re-invented themselves. The duel was as much at home in the century of industrialisation as monarchical display, neo-Gothic architecture or the cult of the Virgin Mary. Even the joust made a stylised come-back. In the 1840s, on the present-day site of James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. Swabian aristocrats dressed up as crusading knights and Saracens to stage a tourney using original weapons, complete with pages, squires and a back-drop of lemon trees especially imported for the occasion. This was life imitating Sir Walter Scott, an outcrop of Romanticism and the desire of rulers to establish their legitimacy in a revolutionary age. I wish that McAleer, who races through the first two-thirds of the 19th century, had said something about this background of invented traditions, especially given the importance of ‘neo-chivalry’ to his argument.

Duelling was abolished in England in 1844: the Queensberry Rules codified boxing, not exchanges with swords or pistols. Elsewhere in Europe it went on. It was commonplace in Russia. McAleer even suggests, rather disconcertingly, that the story ‘which depicts better than any other the psychological underpinnings of German honour’ was written by Pushkin (who died duelling). Austria-Hungary provided equally fertile soil. He draws on the works of the Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler more than any other literary source, with the result that recognisably Habsburg types keep wandering into his German narrative. Most of the German codifications he cites also turn out to have been published in Vienna – except when they were published in Budapest. Studies of Russian and Austrian duelling would obviously be useful, but the practice was also alive in Spain, Italy, Switzerland – and France, where there was a veritable duelling mania under the Third Republic. The tireless Clemenceau was not the only leading politician to take up a challenge. So did the nationalist Déroulàde, the archetypal Republican Gambetta and the socialist Jauràs. In the 1890s, four to five hundred duels took place each year in France.

Nobody was supposed to get hurt in these encounters; the mortality rate was a (relatively) low 1 to 3 per cent. The French duelled with the épée and stopped at first blood: balletic grace was the objective, not butchery. When pistols were used the exchanges were long-distance. Sometimes the affair was rigged, by substituting mercury balls or reducing the amount of the charge. German duels were less frequent, but more deadly. One in five ended with loss of life, making them easily the most lethal in Europe. The immediate reason for this was the choice of weaponry. Germans occasionally duelled with swords (typically the sabre), but most German duels were fought with pistols at close range. Firing over the opponent’s head was frowned on; so was the practice of simultaneous firing on command, because it reduced the opportunity to demonstrate poise and personal courage. When a German and a Spanish diplomat duelled at The Hague in 1892, the Marquis de Vallarda fired in the air, only to be hit in the hip by Freiherr von Gärtner-Griebenow.

The preference for pistols explains why German duellists so often inflicted death or serious injury, but not why they were so remorseless in the first place. McAleer offers three reasons. One is the role played by a distinctively German institution, the student duel or Mensur. Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome were among the foreigners who described this blood-drenched ritual with horrified fascination. Few students actually duelled: Catholics refused on principle, and there was never any question of extending the dubious privilege to the flood of petty-bourgeois students at the turn of the century. The Mensur was the preserve of the student corporations, the upper-middle-class élite of the future. It taught them how to give satisfaction like a man and bequeathed a lifetime badge of honour, the scarred cheeks so familiar from contemporary cartoons. (It was important to have the cuts stitched as crudely as possible; sewing a horsehair into the wound also had the desired effect.) McAleer neatly explicates the differences between the Mensur and the duel of later life, but shows how the first was an apprenticeship for the second. Fuelled by pathos, caste spirit and alcohol, at once brutal and formalised, the Mensur was ideal training for the time when students put away childish things and picked up their pistols.

Secondly, and inevitably, we need to look at the Prussian Army. It had a special place in German society, and its officer corps had an exceptionally rigid code of honour. From the 1840s, officers duelled more frequently and military ‘honour courts’ did as much to encourage as discourage the practice. The outlines of this are familiar, but McAleer has some fresh and appalling stories about military high-handedness and brutality. More than that, the soldierly ethos spread into civilian life through the reserve officer corps, and because (as Frevert has pointed out) the officer was regarded as an expert on duelling etiquette. Ironically, regular officers duelled much less after an 1897 edict of the Kaiser. But the slack was taken up by reservists, the second-lieutenants endlessly satirised by contemporaries. Here was one source of that special sensitivity displayed by upper-middle-class Germans, not just to slaps and insults, but to an ill-judged stare. Even the choice of entrée or a game of lawn tennis could provoke a challenge. So especially, could any hint of impropriety towards one’s womenfolk, whose honour was upheld precisely to the degree that their independence was denied. Female honour was a man’s business. Like other recent historians, McAleer has valuable things to say about how ideas of manliness are constructed and sustained – a riposte, it one is still needed, to those who fear that the gender category, once admitted, will turn history into herstory.

This jaunty book leaves many questions. There is, first, the problem of authorial stance and tone. McAleer chides Frevert for taking her men of honour too seriously. But by trying to recover their mentality – and the pathos of their code – she brings us closer to understanding them than does McAleer, whose facetious mockery soon becomes tiresome. One wonders also about the non-duellers and anti-duellers. What about a man like Max Weber, who is not mentioned by McAleer: a student duellist whose scarred face was slapped by his mother when she saw it, and a reserve officer, yet a fierce critic of ‘duel bravado’ and ‘loathsome duel bragging’? One of the points about the satirists and cartoonists McAleer cites is how active they were in Wilhelmine Germany, which (as he must know) was not an ‘autocracy’. Duelling, like militarism, was a plump target. McAleer mentions, but never writes systematically about, its opponents, who included not just socialists and Catholics, but many liberals, some conservatives and (in certain moods) the Kaiser. Did the opposition have any effect on the decline in duelling around 1900, a European phenomenon that remains something of a mystery?

The decline in German duels fought by regular officers deserves particular attention. McAleer settles for a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t judgment. Before 1900 officers set a bad example by duelling; but by stopping at the Kaiser’s behest they proved themselves ‘docile’ lackeys who put duty before honour, a dress-rehearsal for their capitulation to Hitler. The deceptively easy slide of the argument towards Nazism (there are other examples in the book) is one reason to worry. Beyond that, I wonder whether the decline in regular officer duelling did not have something to do with the technocratic mentality of the General Staff under Schlieffen and Moltke, with its emphasis on logistics, weapon procurement and hygienic barracks. Many serious army men thought duels inefficient and anachronistic, like gambling and horse-racing. What, then, of McAleers ‘neo-chivalry’?

Similar questions arise over the treatment of manliness. Schopenhauer and Wagner are invoked to suggest a peculiar neo-chivalric cult of masculinity in Germany. But Frevert, using a broader range of sources over a longer period, has argued persuasively that male honour was less ‘feudal’ and more bourgeois. Heine, we recall, was a duellist. Prussia, clearly, was no Camelot. On McAleer’s own evidence, German duellists broke the rules when it suited them, and their exchanges were brutal, robotic and lethal – a french critic complained that Germans duelled more like machines than men. All of this puts one in mind of the coming war, about which McAleer, remarkably, has nothing to say. His many remarks about the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of duellists suggest an awareness that neo-chivalry is an insufficient explanation for their behaviour.

There is a larger issue here. References to duelling have long had a place in historical arguments about a German ‘special path’, or Sonderweg. Briefly rehearsed: the downward glide of German history resulted from the persistence of old élites; then persistence was the obverse of bourgeois weakness; and that weakness was manifested in a preference for titles, landed estates, intermarriage with the nobility – and duelling. These assumptions have all been questioned by the work of the last fifteen years. We are now more inclined to recognise what Nazism (and febrile pre-1914 Germany) owed to the contradictions of modernity, rather than blame everything on the Junkers. Historians have also tacitly dropped that once-familiar tag, the ‘feudalised bourgeoisie’. To the extent that bourgeois Germany was star-struck, the state was more an object of veneration than the aristocracy.

McAleer’s introduction promises a welcome engagement with this debate. He wants to reclaim duelling as neither aristocratic residue nor bourgeois appropriation. His evidence does indeed suggest the contradictory qualities of the German duel. But his conclusion, by some distance the least persuasive part of the book, breezily restates the old Sonderweg argument. It is hard to believe that he would, on reflection, really want to defend the caricature presented here, where Hitler is pressed into service as a symbol of neo-chivalric wrong-headedness. It is only honourable to point out that I am mentioned critically in these pages, so that the Mandy Rice-Davies response applies to my criticisms. McAleer suggests I am guilty of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose arguments. I think he sees sleights (just as his duellists saw slights) where none exist. Perhaps I should send my seconds to the author with a proposal: I will continue to keep an open mind on the Sonderweg if he will stop writing phrases like the ‘jackboot-licking German bourgeoisie’.

That this book is rhetorical will already be clear. The publishers are also desperate to let you know that it is amusing. Well, try these jocular examples. How would you describe a duellist whose arm is lopped off? A ‘farewell to arm’. Or the partially sighted professor declining to duel? A ‘blind refusal’ (geddit?). Bouncing through McAleer’s book are also puns that would be turned down by most self-respecting Christmas crackers. Our author is, to put it simply, a bit of a clown. The publishers refer to his ‘personal voice’, but there are really two voices, and the reader is never quite sure which McAleer will turn up. There is the dandified one who refers in the second line of the acknowledgments to his ‘sweet rondo sense of closure’ and tells us that ‘the fortitude of the Prussian officer was held a deathless verity transcending validation’. Pardon me? He competes for our attention with the one whose historical actors are snazzed up and busted down, who clobber, zap and jimmy, show guts, play dumb, put the bite on, get their jollies and take it on the lam. Welcome to the world of modern academic publishing.

All of this is a shame, because the book has many virtues. It contains excellent material on the mechanics of the duel, and penetrating passages on every subject it deals with. McAleer is often clever and always spirited. Why does he perpetrate such over-caffeinated prose?