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German gun clubs fending off the far-right AfD

Rebecca Staudenmaier
March 12, 2020

With flyers and suspicious donations, the far-right AfD has been trying to make inroads into Germany's traditional shooting clubs. One association is taking a stand, and fighting to defend their vision of "home."

A recreational marksman in Poppelsdorf, Bonn, Germany
Image: DW/R. Staudenmaier

The clubhouse for the St. Sebastianus Shooting Fraternity in Poppelsdorf may be small, but it is hard to miss the hometown pride bursting from the walls.

Plaques and trophies with engravings of the local church cover the walls of the clubhouse, which is tucked off a busy street in this neighborhood of the western German city of Bonn.

Several members pull on custom jackets with the club's logo as they head to the modest shooting range at the back of the room, walking past a picture on a wall of a child in Brazil whose education is currently being sponsored by the club.

"Our shooting range is open to everyone, just not the AfD," Dieter Spilles, the head of the club tells DW.

Read more: Gun control and firearms possession in Germany

The club in Bonn is part of the Association of Historic German Shooting Fraternities (BHDS) — a Catholic organization which includes 1,300 shooting clubs located primarily in western Germany. Clubs like these are mainstays in many German towns, often responsible for organizing local festivals and shooting competitions.

Tradition and history are the bones of the association — that's why members are particularly proud of BHDS motto: "Für Glaube, Sitte und Heimat" or "For faith, custom and homeland."

But this motto — particularly the "homeland" part — is under threat of appropriation from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

A wall displaying trophies at the St. Sebastianus shooting fraternity in Bonn, Germany
The walls of the St. Sebastianus Shooting Fraternity in Bonn's Poppelsdorf neighborhood are a display of local prideImage: DW/H. Kaschel

Gun clubs targeted by AfD

Emil Vogt, an executive board member at the BHDS, which has some 400,000 members, has been issuing warnings for months about the AfD's attempts to infiltrate shooting clubs.

During the association's annual members' meeting on March 8, Vogt strongly criticized the AfD's "appropriation attempts" and distanced the Catholic organization from the far-right party.

"For our association, I stand for political neutrality and would like to prevent that even the impression arises that there is a close relationship between the shooting clubs and the AfD," Vogt told DW in a telephone interview.

In recent weeks, the BHDS flagged suspicious donation offers from people living in German states where there aren't any local BHDS local club chapters, Vogt told DW.

Read more: Beginner's guide to Germany's shooting festivals

Emil Vogt, the head of the Association of Historic German Shooting Fraternities (BHDS)
Emil Vogt, the head of the Association of Historic German Shooting Fraternities (BHDS), strongly distances such organizations from the AfD's far-right politics Image: Tobias Herbst

After doing some digging, the association discovered that the donation stemmed from a former AfD campaign manager, who said that he wanted to support the group's charity work with hospice and palliative care — but immediately asked if the group issues donation receipts.

"Of course we cut off contact," Vogt says, adding that the donation was a likely attempt by the AfD to do damage to the marksman association's reputation, which has repeatedly spoken out against the far-right party.

"The AfD could then say: 'See? If it's about money, then they will gladly accept our donations.'"

He added that the amount of money that was offered was a "higher amount of money that is not in the normal range" of their usual donations.

At the end of last year, the BHDS was sent a flyer from the AfD criticizing changes to Germany's gun control laws. In the flyer, the AfD offered to serve as a political lobbying group on behalf of shooting clubs and hunting associations. DW reached out to the AfD for comment, but has yet to receive a response.

'This is a sport and not a political matter'

At the gun club in Bonn, Spilles and other members say that so far, no one in the AfD has contacted them — but if they were to do so, they would be turned away.

"This is a sport and not a political matter," Spilles says. "Although every club needs money, they don't need it from the AfD."

He admits, however, that they clubs are not allowed ask whether someone is a member of a political party and that one can never be sure if a new member has ulterior motives. Still, many in the club say that they would be immediately wary of any new member who started espousing far-right beliefs.

Achim Lubbers, a 78-year-old who just finished his practice round in the shooting range, says that far-right supporters would not fit in with the atmosphere at the club.

"If you're contemptuous of other people, you can't be a good member of a shooting club," Lubbers says.

Dieter Spilles, the head of the shooting club, stands at the the St. Sebastianus Schützenbruderschaft Poppelsdorf in Bonn, Germany
"Although every club needs money, they don't need it from the AfD," says Dieter Spilles, the head of a local gun club in BonnImage: DW/R. Staudenmaier

The fight for 'Heimat'

The gun clubs are particularly passionate about protecting the concept of Heimat from appropriation by the far-right.

The term is notoriously difficult to translate, but roughly amounts to a combination of home, homeland, a sense of belonging and regional or local identity. For decades, the word was considered taboo in German society due to its use by the Nazis.

With the rise of far-right populism — and attempts by other parties to view the term more positively to counteract the AfD — Heimat has seen a resurgence in German politics.

"Our concept of Heimat is much broader than the AfD's concept of Heimat," Vogt says. "Home is not defined by origin, nationality, skin color or religion."

Read more: 'Heimat' finds a homecoming in German politics

At the clubhouse in Bonn, members across the room chimed in with their own definitions of the term, ranging from: "Wherever your feet are under the table" to "Where you feel comfortable."

Spilles smiles and says: "You just have to join a shooting club — then you'll know what Heimat is. Because Heimat is wherever you belong."

Klaus Opitz, who has been a member of the club for 20 years, says that the AfD is attempting to use the term to shut out people rather than bring them in.

"Everybody associates something positive with Heimat. No matter where you are in the world," Opitz emphasizes. "It's a positive term and if you use it and say: 'Yes we want to protect the homeland' or 'We are being overrun by foreigners' and so on — this is of course polemic."

Air rifle pellets sit on top of shooting target papers at the St. Sebastianus marksmens' association in Poppelsdorf, Bonn, Germany
Gun club members emphasized that their main task is to train people in the discipline of target shooting — a responsibility they do not take lightlyImage: DW/R. Staudenmaier

The far-right's bid for the middle

The flyers and donations to the shooting association are part of a larger AfD strategy to make the far-right party more palatable for those more in the middle of the political spectrum — and an attempt to align themselves with in Germany's civil society.

Last year, AfD party leaders reportedly signed off on an internal strategy paper outlining plans to firmly establish the party as a regular fixture in German politics.

According to media reports, the paper specifically called on members to reach out to traditional organizations like hunting and sport shooting associations as well as gun clubs. These clubs tend to lean conservative, making it possibly easier to convince members to listen to the far-right's platform.

"The strategy is part of a march to the middle — not to make themselves more moderate, but to pull the center to the right," Johannes Hillje, a political and communications consultant, wrote in Der Tagespiegel newspaper in November when the paper was revealed.

Following recent right-wing extremist attacks in Germany, particularly the racist shooting in Hanau, in which a shooter killed nine people and his mother, concerns are high about the possibility of the far-right infiltrating gun clubs.

"Our task as a Christian association is therefore to clearly stand up to a party that has nothing to do with Christian values of loving your neighbor, tolerance and respect," Vogt told DW.

"Resistance against the far-right must come from society — and we're sending a clear signal."

DW's Helena Kaschel contributed reporting.

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