Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been called on to stand up for its Christian values by a prank from the political artists' group Peng! Kollektiv. The joke briefly fooled journalists at the Associated Press news agency, whose story was picked up by "Fox News," the "New York Times," and "Vatican Radio."
The activists launched a website and online petition on Tuesday posted by a non-existent grassroots CDU branch in the small town of Schwenke, North Rhine-Westphalia, calling on Merkel's party to ban the export of small arms abroad. The CDU is the only major German party that has consistently resisted a policy of reducing Germany's arms sales.
On the campaign website, entitled "CDU. Mit. Gefühl." (CDU. With. Feeling.), the fictional CDU members pleaded, "following Jesus Christ, we should find the courage" to question the logic of exporting weapons. "If we hold up compassion and charity as maxims of our life, we must resist the export of small arms," the site said.
Vicious circle of death and violence
Along with an online petition that has collected around 1,000 signatures at the time of writing, the group also posted a video featuring an actor from the Schauspielhaus Dortmund theater posing as "Brigitte Ebersbach," chairwoman of the local CDU branch.
Backed by a sentimental piano tune, Ebersbach explains how Germany, as one of the world's largest arms exporters, is part of a "vicious circle" of death and violence that leads to growing conflicts and ensuing refugee movements. Small arms account for the vast majority of conflict deaths globally, and German manufacturers like Heckler & Koch and Sig Sauer are among the world's biggest gun makers.
"As a staunch CDU politician, mother of two children, and Christian before God, I can no longer carry part responsibility for this action," the actor says, before appealing personally to Merkel, who, through her "unswerving belief in the principles of human togetherness during the refugee crisis," had "made a name for herself as a Christian chancellor."
Peng! themselves were quick to debunk their own prank on Tuesday evening with a public statement. "We didn't want to do fake news," spokeswoman Jessica Gräber told DW.
"The idea was to imagine criticism of the CDU from inside the CDU," Gräber said. "We thought this was a good issue that we could bring up ahead of the general election (in September), because the entire population, regardless of party affiliation, has a relatively clear opinion against it." (An Emnid poll in 2016 found that 83 percent of Germans are against all weapons exports.)
"But still the weapons lobby is so strong that all these exports are still approved, even to crisis regions," said Gräber.
Joking - not joking
The German government approves arms exports in a secret security council - the Bundessicherheitsrat (BSR) - consisting of Merkel and her chief ministers. Though the government says that it has among the strictest export guidelines in the world, which is true, these are not legally binding. The BSR relies heavily on "end user certificates" - promises from buyers saying they will not use German military equipment for war crimes, against civilians, or for human rights abuses.
There is consistent evidence that these end user certificates have no effect. A case in point emerged last week when leftist blog outlet "Lower Class Magazine" published videos showing German military Dingo vehicles being used by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in an assault on the Yazidi town of Khanasor in northern Iraq.
The Dingos were part of a vast tranche of weapons approved and delivered to the Peshmerga in 2014, which was justified by the German government on the grounds that the Kurdish militia had promised only to use the arms to fight the so-called "Islamic State" militant group.
That sale also included a number of small arms, including 4,000 Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles, as well as 20 MG3 heavy machine guns.
In a statement supporting the Peng! campaign, Jürgen Grässlin, spokesman for the German Peace Society (DFG-VK), said, "The BSR aids and abets serious human rights abuses through its approval of weapons exports to states that harm human rights, and aids and abets murder by approving deals with countries at war."
The Peng! collective has gained a reputation for political pranks: sometimes in real life, such as when a member threw a cake at prominent Alternative for Germany (AfD) politician Beatrix von Storch, and sometimes online - such as when the group set up a website purportedly from the German Labor Ministry apologizing for the "Agenda 2010" welfare reforms that substantially cut benefits for some of Germany's poorest people.
The group also performed a "Call A Spy" game show, during which they contacted employees of the German secret services live on stage.
The CDU press office did not respond to a request for comment.Ben Knight