The Schützenfest: a popular tradition and a great reason to celebrate
It is a Tuesday in May, seven o’clock in the evening. Thousands of people line the decorated streets in the small North German town of Wildeshausen. The newly crowned Schützenkönig, or King of the Marksmen, strides with pomp and ceremony through the town, accompanied by a retinue of musicians and marching bands wearing colourful costumes.
Another high point of the parade are the scores of men in black suits with funny wooden rifles on their shoulders – these are the marksmen from the shooting clubs, proudly strutting their stuff in front of the ordinary townsfolk. Scenes from a Schützenfest, the town’s event of the year – every year.
The Schützenfest is a very German institution. It is celebrated in many towns and villages throughout the land, and its high season is between May and early autumn. ‘It is impossible to say exactly how many of them take place,’ says historian Professor Barbara Stambolis from Paderborn University. The strongholds are very definitely in the North rather than the South of the country and more likely to be in villages than in towns and cities. There are, however, two main regions: the state of Lower Saxony and the Sauerland region between Dortmund and Kassel. Lower Saxony’s capital, Hannover, claims to put on the largest Schützenfest in the world.
Shooting clubs: Germany’s last male domain
Germans are quite simply proud of their long tradition of Schützenfests. ‘Some festivals even pretend to be older than they are,’ says Professor Stambolis. ‘They claim to go back to the times of Charlemagne.’ In actual fact, shooting clubs originated in early modern times. They were probably initiated in the 15th century by honourable citizens, who took up crossbows and rifles to keep order in their town. This went on until around the time of the French Revolution, when their function of keeping order was replaced by today’s popular festival character with lots of dancing and the excuse for a beer or two among the many members of the shooting club – men only, of course.
To date, the shooting clubs that organise the Schützenfests have been almost exclusively male domains. A woman as Schützenkönigin or ‘Queen of the Markspeople’? Inconceivable! Many German shooting clubs put up staunch resistance to admitting women into their ranks. However, in the long term their resistance will be in vain: in the last 30 years or so, Stambolis says, there have been more and more women who have hit the bullseye and therefore earned the right to become Queen of the Markspeople. This is a trend, Stambolis believes, that will become more widespread in the future.
A rosy future
Generally speaking, the historian predicts a rosy future for Germany’s Schützenfests. They will continue to be the major festivals of the year, she says – especially in the villages. With their solid structures, the shooting clubs also have an important social significance, she points out. Concerns about recruiting young members? No worries there! The young generation gets acquainted with the traditions from an early age, playing in the village marching band or trumpet and kettledrum band. And who can tell – maybe the female members will be marching at the head of the parade before long as Queen of the Markspeople!
What do you think of the German Schützenfest tradition? Have you ever been to a Schützenfest? What did you particularly like about it? What did you find off-putting? And what do you think: should women be able to become Queen of the Markspeople? Or should the honour of King of the Markspeople be an exclusively male preserve? Tell us what you think in our forum: >> to the community