Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

Although the Inner German border had been closed throughout the country since 1952, from Czechoslovakia to the Baltic Sea, Berlin itself was still administered by the post-war occupying powers.  With no barriers and a still-active subway system throughout the city,  East Germans continued to find a portal to the West. In fact by 1961 fully 20 percent of the East German (GDR) population had emigrated, with a disproportionate amount being professionals and skilled workers.

And then…as the clock struck midnight on Sunday 13 August, GDR troops sealed-off the East/West border while pavement was torn up and barbed wire entanglements installed along it’s entire 43 kilometer length through the city.  The same happened along the 156 kilometers of border that separated the three western sectors of the city from the surrounding GDR.

Next came improved wire fencing and a second, parallel fence that created a 100 meter No Man’s Land, blithely called the “Death Strip.”  Covered with raked sand, to reveal footprints, and eventually incorporating anti-vehicle trenches, guard dogs, watchtowers and bunkers, the Death Strip also offered clear lines of fire.

Through the years the Wall itself, or the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart as GDR authorities called it, continued to evolve until it consisted of 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 12 feet high, with strategically placed “break through” points for Warsaw Pact armored vehicles in the event of war.   Not that they didn’t welcome visitors and their money.

By the spring of 1984, when I took this picture near the sadly positioned Brandenburg Gate, NATO citizens could purchase a day visa, along with a requisite minimum of 25 East German Marks at Checkpoint “Charlie” for a venturesome stroll through the Iron Curtain.   And while the airwaves reverberated with separate versions of today’s selection back in the West, here in the Soviet Sector there was a grand opportunity to put that currency to good use at an Alexanderplatz café.

Herr Ober, Ein bier bitte” (Waiter, a beer please). 

Born in 1960 in the West German city of Hagen, Gabriele Susanne Kerner acquired her nickname, “Nena” (German pronunciation for “niña’) while on a family holiday in Spain.  After moving to Berlin in 1981 she and some friends formed a New Wave band, also dubbed Nena, and it quickly became popular throughout the country.

However the group’s international breakthrough (rare for a German band) came the following year after guitarist Carlo Karges attended a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin.  At one point a bunch of balloons had been released and Karges watched them as they floated away in slowly shifting clusters.  When they began to look a lot like aircraft he wondered what might happen if the wind were to change and they floated into the Soviet Sector.

Recorded and released in Germany in 1983 (with music by keyboardist Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen) the resulting “99 Luftballoons” shot to the top of the domestic charts and received a great deal of airplay throughout Europe.  In 1984 an English version, “99 Red Balloons” using the same music but with lyrics written by Belfast-born Kevin McAlea, topped the UK Singles Chart while in the US, where the original German version resonated most, “99 Luftballoons” hit Number 2 on the Billboard Charts.

Both versions follow below. Although not direct translations, each describes the advent of a nuclear war, triggered by faulty GDR radar equipment that registers 99 balloons as incoming weapons. Intriguingly, it was later documented that after the song’s initial release in 1983, a Soviet early-warning system operator willfully disregarded a false attack alarm (from shining clouds, rather than balloons) and is roundly credited with preventing a nuclear holocaust.

Hmmm, what’s the German word for another?  Oh right, it’s “noch”…. “Herr Ober! Noch ein bier bitte!!”


99 Luftballoons

 Hast Du etwas Zeit für mich

Dann singe ich ein Lied fuer Dich

Von 99 Luftballons

Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont

Denkst Du vielleicht grad’ an mich

Dann singe ich ein Lied fuer Dich

Von 99 Luftballons

Und dass sowas von sowas kommt

 99 Luftballons

Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont

Hielt man fuer UFOs aus dem All

Darum schickte ein General

Eine Fliegerstaffel hinterher

Alarm zu geben, wenn es so war

Dabei war da am Horizont

Nur 99 Luftballons

 99 Duesenjaeger

Jeder war ein grosser Krieger

Hielten sich fuer Captain Kirk

Das gab ein grosses Feuerwerk

Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft

Und fuehlten sich gleich angemacht

Dabei schoss man am Horizont

Auf 99 Luftballons

 99 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 soweit kommt

Wegen 99 Luftballons

 99 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’ ‘nen Luftballon gefunden

Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen


99 Red Balloons

 You and I, and a little toyshop

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, “Some thing’s out there”

Floating in the summer sky

Ninety-nine red balloons go by

 Ninety-nine red balloons

Floating in the summer sky

Panic lads, it’s a 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

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 waiting 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

Riding super high-tech jet fighters

Everyone’s a super hero

Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

With orders to identify, to clarify and classify

Scrambling in the summer sky

As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine red balloons go by

 Ninety-nine dreams I have had

Every one a red balloon

Now 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 go

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