Paranoia in the Cold War: 99 Luftballons – Nena

“99 Luftballons” (99 air balloons) is an anti-war protest song by the German band Nena from their 1983 self-titled album. The background of this Nena’s one-hit-wonder is quite unique: we...

99 Luftballons” (99 air balloons) is an anti-war protest song by the German band Nena from their 1983 self-titled album.

The background of this Nena’s one-hit-wonder is quite unique: we are in Cold War years, during a Rolling Stones concert in June 1982 in West Berlin, Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges was looking at balloons being released in the arena. As he watched them move toward the horizon, he noticed them shifting and changing shapes. To him, they looked like strange spacecrafts (referred to in the German lyrics as a “UFO”). He wondered off and thought of what might happen if these balloons had flown over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet sector.

Hence a story was born: 99 balloons flying over the sky are mistaken for UFOs, causing a General to send pilots to investigate. Finding nothing but children’s balloons, the pilots decide to put on a show and shoot them down. The display of force worries the nations along the borders, and the war ministers on each side bang the ‘drums of conflict’ to grab power for themselves. In the end, a 99-year war results from the harmless flight of balloons, causing devastation on all sides, and no winner. At the end, the singer walks through the devastated ruins, and lets loose a balloon, watching it fly away.

The story might sound ridiculous to some, but it was one of the few  songs in the ’80s to make a point about the brinkmanship and paranoia/hysteria surrounding the issue of Cold War, especially in Germany. The balloons represent the dreams of the German people, also those who were lost after World War II.  At the end of the song, the singer  finds a balloon, representing a dream, and lets it go. This is meant to reinforce the message that German people actually did have dreams.

An English version of the song was also released after widespread success of the original in Europe and Japan. The English version is not a direct translation of the German and contains a somewhat different set of lyrics. So we prefer to present to you the translation of the original German lyrics:

Have you some time for me,
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
on their way to the horizon.
If you’re perhaps thinking about me right now
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
and that such a thing comes from such a thing.

99 balloons
on their way to the horizon
People think they’re UFO’s from space
so a general sent up
a fighter squadron after them
Sound the alarm if it’s so
but there on the horizon were
only 99 balloons.

99 fighter jets
Each one’s a great warrior
Thought they were Captain Kirk
then came a lot of fireworks
the neighbors didn’t understand anything
and felt like they were being provoked
so they shot at the horizon
at 99 balloons.

99 war ministers
matches and gasoline canisters
They thought they were clever people
already smelled a nice bounty
Called for war and wanted power.
Man, who would’ve thought
that things would someday go so far
because of 99 balloons.

99 years of war
left no room for victors.
There are no more war ministers
nor any jet fighters.
Today I’m making my rounds
see the world lying in ruins.
I found a balloon,
think of you and let it fly (away).

Sounds from the Bucket
Marco Principia

Born in Rome, his beloved city. Graduated with honors in Political Science and International Relations at Università degli Studi "Roma Tre". Currently employed at CIES - ONLUS as Fundraising Manager. Huge fan of A.S. Roma.
7 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    28 November 2017 at 8:25 am
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    Thanks interesting read !!

  • Avatar
    21 January 2018 at 7:04 am
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    11 June 2018 at 3:16 pm
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    It’s supposed to be 99 red balloons.

    • Marco Principia
      Marco Principia
      11 June 2018 at 6:04 pm
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      Hello Robyn! Thank you for commenting. What do you mean?

    • Avatar
      22 June 2018 at 8:13 am
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      ’99 Red Balloons’ is the English Version, whereas the original (German) version is called ’99 Luftballons’, which means 99 Balloons in German.

      • Avatar
        25 January 2019 at 1:47 am
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        No luftballons means AIR Balloons -Luft in German is Air not red.

        Red balloons is the American version because it wasn’t written literally it was not a direct translation

        But not sure what the original person meant when she said it’s supposed to be 99 red balloons unless she doesn’t know luftballoons exists.

    • Avatar
      13 June 2019 at 7:58 am
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      No it is actually a German song and Luftballon is German. Luft balloon means red balloon

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