Berlin, in the 1980s, was divided and had been for over 20 years by a 96-mile, 13-foot wall. The Berlin Wall girdled the German city and separated the East from the West where the former was under strict Soviet rule and the latter was a free city, an island in a sea of Cold War regime.

West Berlin throbbed with life in the ’80s, a half-city of blinding technicolor compared to its somber counterpart in the East. It was also a city that echoed the latest craze, Neue Deutsche Welle, a genre of West German rock music that derived from a collision of post-punk, new wave, and electronic music. The band Nena was born from this new sound and used it to chronicle urban life in West Berlin during a time of great tension and division.

In 1983, Nena found their platform, giving the world a glimpse into Cold War Germany with the international hit “99 Luftballons.”

Behind the Meaning of the Original Lyrics

The idea for the song came to Nena’s guitarist, Carlo Karges. While at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, the band released a bunch of balloons during their set. He remarked that they floated and shifted like strange spacecraft. Karges watched as one balloon escaped the show, drifting toward the horizon and over the wall into East Berlin.

Imagining what would happen if that one balloon was picked up on radar and mistaken for an enemy plane, Karges wrote the lyrics, creating “99 Luftballons” to tell that story.

Hast du etwas Zeit für mich?
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von neunundneunzig Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Denkst du vielleicht grad an mich?
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von neunundneunzig Luftballons
Und dass sowas von sowas kommt

The German lyrics tell of 99 balloons mistaken for UFOS. The lines Hielt man für Ufos aus dem All Darum schickte ein General ‘Ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher Alarm zu geben below loosely translate to “They were thought to be UFOs from space that’s why a general sent a squadron to sound the alarm.”

Neunundneunzig Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man für Ufos aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General
‘Ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn’s so wär’
Dabei war’n dort am Horizont

Nur neunundneunzig Luftballons

Pilots were sent to investigate, and in finding nothing but balloons, they put on a great display of force anyway, launching nuclear missiles. Jeder war ein großer Krieger, Everyone was a great warrior. Hielten sich für Captain Kirk, Thought they were Captain Krik.

Neunundneunzig Düsenflieger
Jeder war ein großer Krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk
Das gab ein großes Feuerwerk
Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft
Und fühlten sich gleich angemacht

Dabei schoss man am Horizont
Auf neunundneunzig Luftballons

Along the borders, nations are worried about the enormous show of firepower. War mongers begin to encourage conflict on all sides in order to take control. Mann, wer hätte das gedacht Dass es einmal so weit kommt, translates to Man, who would have thought that it would come to this?

Neunundneunzig Kriegsminister
Streichholz und Benzinkanister
Hielten sich für schlaue Leute
Witterten schon fette Beute
Riefen: “Krieg!” und wollten Macht
Mann, wer hätte das gedacht
Dass es einmal so weit kommt

Wegen neunundneunzig Luftballons
Wegen neunundneunzig Luftballons
Neunundneunzig Luftballons

War breaks out over the balloons’ harmless flight, causing mass destruction with no winner in sight. Making a point of the hysteria and senselessness of war, Nena sings Neunundneunzig Jahre Kriegs Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger, which means 99 years of war leaves no room for victors. The song closes on a war-ravaged scene, a world devastated and in ruins. A single balloon is found and: Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen means, I think of you and let it go.

Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger
Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh’ die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab’ ‘n Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

The English Translation

What would have translated to “99 Air Balloons,” the song in English became “99 Red Balloons.” Translated poetically rather than directly from the original, the English version—while still holding true to the spirit of the anti-war song—contains lyrics with a slightly altered meaning.

The story is similar but tells of the singer with her unnamed friend releasing red helium balloons into the sky for fun. The loose balloons then get mistakenly registered as enemy contacts by a faulty early warning system.

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one they were gone
Back at base bugs in the software
Flash the message: “something’s out there!”
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

This results in mass panic with nuclear war eventually breaking out.

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine Decision Street
Ninety-nine ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a Super Hero
Everyone’s a Captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

As ninety-nine red balloons go by

A little gets lost in translation, but the song’s sentiment and its ending are near-identical.

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you, and let it g
o

One Hit Wonder

Many international audiences preferred the original version of “99 Luftballons.” The song became one of the most successful non-English-language tracks in US Billboard chart history, but it would be Nena’s only US hit. The English remake did not even chart in the States.

While the band was unable to follow up their international success, Nena saw plenty of love at home, however short-lived. Their final album was released in 1986 and the group disbanded in 1987, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Luftballons or Red Balloons? Which version do you prefer?

(Photo by Scherhaufer / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

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