Nuclear Friday: Listening to Luftballons

I’ve mentioned a few times in earlier NF posts that Nena’s 99 Luftballons is the most accurate song about nuclear war. This is because it is about accidental nuclear war. By late 1983 when I first heard Nena’s song, my teenage self had concluded that nobody was ever going to launch The Big One, a bolt from the blue first strike. Not even Ronald Reagan. But I had also learned that nuclear command and control systems operate on a hair trigger. They have to, or else stable deterrence fails. Accepting a small, but serious in proportion to the horror of the outcome, risk of accidental war is the price of preventing intentional nuclear attack. The Cold War may be over (is it really?), but the world still faces the risk of a limited accidental exchange even today.

I have claimed that 99 Lutfballons is based on two false alerts, the 1956 Suez Crisis, and a series of false alarms at NORAD in 1979-80. As I’ve done some research into the differences between the German and English language versions of the song I’m not so sure about the first, though I am almost certain the widely publicized 1979 false alert was an influence on the song and is explicitly referenced in the English version. I will explain how later in this post, but I do feel kind of silly that I allowed my interpretation of the English version to cloud my perceptions of the original for so many years.

Here’s the 1983 German version in a video made several months after the song came out when it was already becoming an international hit in 1984:

I love the clarity and confidence in Nena’s singing. By comparison the lyrics in the English version are thin and strained. This may partly be the fault of the mixing engineer, but I think mostly Nena was having trouble in a less familiar language. It’s also difficult to try to keep in sync with instrumental tracks that are almost a year old compared to laying down fresh tracks when you are in studio with the band. And the public agreed. The German version climbed the charts to #2 in the US, and #1 in the UK and Australia. The English version was a flop. MTV played it, but they eventually switched to the German version.


There are some important differences between the two versions. Here’s how the original starts:


Hast du etwas Zeit für mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Denkst du vielleicht g’rad an mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Und dass so was von so was kommt

Literal translation into English:

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.

English lyrics written by Kevin McAlea

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
99 red balloons go by

Notice the German version is all sentimental and “Once Upon a Time”? The English version  clearly references a series of false alerts in 1979-80 right from the start with “bugs in the software”. BTW, I’m pretty sure this is the first time the term “software” ever appeared in a popular song.

The two versions of the song become more similar in the middle and end. But in the German original the balloons are perceived as a possible UFO from outer space, and are intercepted by planes from an unspecified nation, while in the English version all forces are  on alert from the first verse.

Later on in the German version when the interceptors find out it’s just balloons, they decide to have a little fun by shooting at them. This provokes a response by some power “over the horizon” firing a surface-to-air missile, presumably nuclear armed, at a perceived threat, which then provokes a larger nuclear exchange.

The English version has all powers going to a war footing from the beginning. The German version is more whimsical, and you can tell from the music. The English version is too grim .

And the songwriters agree with me on this. Here are links to the German original, a literal translation of the German, and the English version of the song. Nena herself stated in a 1984 Rolling Stone article that she thought English version sounded too much like a protest song and she never performed the English version of the song when her band went on tour outside Germany.

The 1956 Suez Crisis:

I have long thought that the Suez crisis was part of the of the inspiration for 99 Luftballons. I’m not so sure anymore. In 1956 a large flock of swans flying a bit lower than the President of Syria with his military escort was interpreted on radar as a huge flight of planes coming from the Soviet Union to bomb Egypt. UK and US forces went on nuclear alert.

This might have got lyricist Uwe Petersen thinking about false radar contacts, but Uwe  and Nena grew  up in Cold War West Germany. They probably had false alerts all the time triggered by all sorts of things.

Doomsday in 1979:

If you were alive in November 1979, you might owe your life to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser. If you weren’t born yet, the possible worlds you could be born in to were created in three phone calls. This seemed like The Big One, and the US was just minutes from from blowing the shit out of the whole world. 

NORAD got a signal that 250 missiles were launched at US assets. Brzezinski got a call about at three AM and was advised to call the President to get the nuclear codes for a retaliatory strike. Brzezinski asked for further confirmation. He got a call a few minutes later saying that over 2,200 missiles were heading in. The third phone call told him that actual radar operators on site could not confirm the launches. 

Air Guard squadrons were already activated without any command from civilian authorities, Ten interceptors were up, perhaps armed with Genie, more were warming up on the ground . SAC bombers were lined up for minimum interval takeoff.

The USAF command plane designed to carry the President and Secretary of Defense took off from Andrews AFB without the President or Sec Def on board. I do not think this was a mistake. The plan always was to have the President or Sec Def authorize a strike before they died on the ground in a first strike.

Brzezinski got a third phone call that said no one at the actual monitoring sites that reported missile launches had reported missile launches. He was just minutes away from calling Carter to either get launch codes or to get Carter to launch a second strike.

What happened was that a tape reel that contained simulated data for a perfect Soviet first strike that had been run a few times on the backup computers at NORAD in a training exercise somehow found its way to the main NORAD computers. The data of a simulated attack put all US forces on alert. Bombers lined up for MITO and missile command centers were on alert.

This event leaked out to the American public. There’s no way to hide activation of the Air Guard and a near bomber scramble.


99 Luftballons is still a cool and accurate song about accidental nuclear war, though it isn’t as closely linked to the Suez Crisis as I thought it was. I still think even the original German version is probably partly about the 1979 false alert, but only indirectly, unlike the English version which refers to it more clearly.

Reference Links: 

My main source for what happened in 1979.

Balloons on ballons.

Rammstein covers it.  Not as cool as I expected.






One thought on “Nuclear Friday: Listening to Luftballons

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