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Saturday, August 12, 2017


In December 1891, Maurice Baring left Eton early, having shown a talent for languages that had won him the Prince Consort's French prize, and was sent the following January to a German family in Hildesheim, near Hanover. At that time he couldn't speak  the language at all, but soon picked it up.

He would go drinking with boys from the two local schools, the Gymnasium (grammar school) and Real Gymnasium (the British equivalent in recent times was the "grammar tech" or "secondary tech", which never really took off as it did on the Continent).

The German tripartite school system was abolished only a few years ago but it's worth noting that the historian Correlli Barnett says Britain's economic decline is partly attributable to the failure to modify its education system to train people who could turn scientific and technological discoveries into profitable commercial enterprises. Too many classical scholars, not enough engineers. Even now, in Britain engineering is a white-collar job, whereas in Germany it's a profession and you put letters before (not after) your name, e.g. "Dr.-Ing".

Drinking culture and customs are a vast area and perhaps readers will offer some thoughts. In the meantime here is how youngsters socialised and learned habits of social adjustment, mutuality and conformity in North Germany in the late nineteenth century. (I have broken the prose into more paragraphs for ease of reading.)
From Maurice Baring’s “The Puppet Show of Memory” (1932)

The boys from both schools used to meet in the evening before supper at a restaurant called Hasse, where a special room was kept for them. Braun was an earnest and extremely well-educated youth, a student of geology. Before I was taken to Hasse, he said I must be instructed in the rules of the Bierkomment [I don't know the correct spelling of this word and it is not in the dictionary], that is to say, the rules for drinking beer in company, which were, as I found out afterwards, the basis of the social system. These rules were intricate, and when Braun explained them to me, which he did with the utmost thoroughness, the explanation taking nearly two hours, I did not know what it was all about. I did not know it had anything to do with drinking beer. I afterwards learned, by the evidence of my senses and by experience, the numerous and various points of this complicated ritual, but the first evening I was introduced to Hasse I was bewildered by finding a crowd of grown-up boys seated at a table ; each one introduced himself to me by standing to attention and saying his name (" Mein Name ist So-and-so "). After which they sat down and seemed to be engaged in a game of cross-purposes.

The main principles which underlay this form of social intercourse were these. You first of all ordered a half-litre of beer, stating whether you wanted light or dark beer (dunkles or helles). It was given to you in a glass mug with a metal top. This mug had to remain closed whatever happened, otherwise the others put this mug on yours, and you had to pay for every mug which was piled on your own.

Having received your beer, you must not drink it quietly by yourself, when you were thirsty ; but every single draught had to be taken with a purpose, and directed towards someone else, and accompanied by a formula. The formula was an opening, and called for the correct answer, which was either final and ended the matter, or which was of a kind to provoke a counter-move, in the form of a further formula, which, in its turn, necessitated a final answer. You were, in fact, engaged in toasting each other according to system.

When you had a fresh mug, with foam on the top of it, that was called die Blume, and you had to choose someone who was in the same situation ; someone who had a Blume. You then said his name, not his real name but his beer name, which was generally a monosyllable like Pfiff (my beer name was Hash, pronounced Hush), and you said to him: "Prosit Blume." His answer to this was: "Prosit," and you both drank. To pretend to drink and not drink was an infringement of the rules. If he had no beer at the time he would say so (" Ich habe keinen Stoff"), but would be careful to return you your Blume as soon as he received it, saying : " Ich komme die Blume nach " ("I drink back to you your Blume ").

Then, perhaps, having disposed of the Blume, you singled out someone else, or someone perhaps singled you out, and said: "Ich komme Ihnen Etwas" ("I drink something to you ").

When you got to know someone well, he suggested that you should drink Bruderschaft with him. This you did by entwining your arm under his arm, draining a whole glass, and then saying : " Prosit Bruder." After that you called each other " Du." Very well.

After having said " Ich komme Ihnen " or " Ich komme Dir etwas," he, in the space of three beer minutes, which were equivalent to four ordinary minutes, was obliged to answer. He might either say : " Ich komme Dir nach " or " Ich komme nach " ("I drink back "). That settled that proceeding. Or he might prolong the interchange of toasts by saying : " Uebers Kreuz," in which case you had to wait a little and say : " Unters Kreuz," and every time the one said this, the other in drinking had to say : "Prosit." Then the person who had said " Uebers Kreuz " had the last word, and had to say: "Ich komme definitiv nach" ("I drink back to you finally "), and that ended the matter.

If you had very little beer left in your mug you chose someone else who was in the same predicament, and said : "Prosit Rest." It was uncivil if you had a rest to choose someone who had plenty of beer left.

If you wanted to honour someone or to pay him a compliment, you said " Speziell" after your toast, which meant the other person was not obliged to drink back. You could also say : " Ich komme Dir einen halben " ("I drink you a half glass "), or even " einen Ganzen " (" a whole glass ") . The other person could then double you by saying : " Prosit doppelt." In which case he drank back a whole glass to you and you then drank back a whole glass to him.

Any infringement of these rules, or any levity in the manner the ritual was performed, was punished by your being told to " Einsteigen " [or " Spinnen"]  (or by the words, " In die Kanne "), which meant you had to go on drinking till the offended party said " Geschenkt." If you disobeyed this rule or did anything else equally grave, you were declared by whoever was in authority to be in B.V., which meant in a state of Beer ostracism. Nobody might then drink to you or talk to you. To emerge from this state of exile, you had to stand up, and someone else stood up and declared that " Der in einfacher B.V. sich befindender" ("The in-simple-beer-banishment-finding-himself so-and-so ") will now drink himself back into Bierehrlichkeit (beer-honourability) once again. He does it. At the words, " Er thut es" you set a glass to your lips and drank it all. The other man then said : " So-and-so ist wieder bierehrlich " (" So-and-so is once more beer honourable ").

Any dispute on a point of ritual was settled by what was called a Bierjunge. An umpire was appointed, and three glasses of beer were brought. The umpire saw that the quantity in each of the glasses was exactly equal, pouring a little beer perhaps from one or the other into his own glass. A word was then chosen, for choice a long and difficult word. The umpire then said : " Stosst an," and on these words the rivals clinked glasses; he then said : "Setzt an," and they set the glasses to their lips. He then said : "Loss," and the rivals drained the glasses as fast as they could, and the man who finished first said : " Bierjunge," or whatever word had been chosen. The umpire then declared the winner.

All these proceedings, as can be imagined, would be a little difficult to understand if one didn't know that they involved drinking beer. Such had been my plight when the ritual was explained to me by Mr. Braun. I found the first evening extremely bewildering, but I soon became an expert in the ritual, and took much pleasure in raising difficult points.

 These gatherings used to happen every evening. If you wished to celebrate a special occasion you ordered what was called a Tunnemann, which was a huge glass as big as a small barrel which was circulated round the table, everyone drinking in turn as out of a loving-cup. A record was kept of these ceremonies in a book. The boys who attended these gatherings were mostly eighteen or nineteen years old, and belonged to the first two classes of the school, the Prima and the Secunda. They belonged to a Turnverein, a gymnastic association, and were divided into two classes the juniors who were called Füchse and the seniors who were not. The Füchse had to obey the others.


wiggiatlarge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wiggiatlarge said...

Apologies for the removed comment , my fault.

I was in Germany back in the late fifties in a representative cycling meet on the local velodrome, I stayed with a local family and one night when after dinner the lady of the house said her husband was late back from work I asked what her husband did for a living.
She told me "he was an engineer" but it was the way she told me that stuck with me to this day, her face lit up with pride at what he did.
Not something you are likely to see in this country either then or now.

Paddington said...

If you haven't read C.P. Snow's 'The Two Cultures', you should. That battle over the feeling that the sciences and engineering are not 'true' academic pursuits is alive and well.