A group of German activists worked for months on an elaborate campaign to troll the weapons industry — financed by taxpayers as part of a federal culture grant program.
The activist collective Peng! teamed up with a Dortmund theater group to present a fake "German-French peace prize" to the weapons industry at a tony Berlin hotel on April 29.
A BuzzFeed News reporter was invited to attend under the condition he also come in disguise, as one "Daniel Schmidt," employed by Rheinmetall Defence.
Only one non-actor actually showed up for the ceremony: Christian Stuve, head of ThyssenKrupp's Berlin office, who was told he'd be honored with the golden Ares prize, named for the Greek god of war.
The idea was to catch the weapons industry trying to spruce up its image.
This elaborate act of political theater was paid for by the German state cultural fund.
Peng! and the Dortmund Theater, who staged the fake awards ceremony, are partly funded by a two-year, 150,000-euro grant from Germany's federal cultural foundation.
"It is part of practically applied artistic freedom to deal with political positions and measures of state institutions," Friederike Tappe-Hornbostel, the communications manager for the cultural foundation, told BuzzFeed News by email.
To make the stunt look credible, the activists set up websites for the fake award, the fake "stability" initiative that would supposedly be giving it, and the fake communications agency organizing the ceremony.
In February, they sent out invitations to politicians, scientists, and corporate executives at Daimler, Airbus, and Rolls-Royce, among others. The activists asked former defense minister Franz-Josef Jung to give the keynote speech, but he declined a few days later. Nearly a dozen federal politicians received invitations — but in the end, they all canceled.
Stuve of ThyssenKrupp was the only arms industry guest the activists managed to reel in. At the ceremony, he sat in the corner of the room, avoided the cameras, and looked skeptical. Then he made a brief phone call. Shortly before he was due to receive the prize for ThyssenKrupp, Stuve got up and left. One of the activists chased him into the elevator, trying to get him to stay.
The master of ceremonies still announced the prize, despite the absence of the guest of honor.
The actors continued on without their audience, and released a white dove in the conference room.
Next, Peng! sent a letter to hundreds of American intermediaries of Heckler & Koch — and announced a recall of all the company's small arms sold in the US:
"Owing to the rise of firearm-related deaths in your country in conjunction with the threat of ongoing civil unrest and a highly volatile foreign policy under the administration of President Donald Trump, the German headquarters no longer deem the USA a safe destination country for weapons exports."
The distributors were supposed to report back on how many arms they sold in order to prepare for the recall. There was, of course, a fake recall website, and some weapons dealers got in touch.