“99 Luftballons” and the Grim Fairy Tales of ’80s West Germany

A souvenir shop in Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 1985. Photo by: Wolfgang Eilmes/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In a personal essay at Catapult, Adrian Daub (a prolific Longreads contibutor) weaves together memories of his childhood in West Germany under a sky constanly beset by ominous objects and memories. From the sonic booms of American military planes to the threat of nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, he describes the inescapable presence of invisible threats — the stuff of which more or less all childhoods are made, but with the particular weight of German rain, German fairy tales (both modern and old), and German history.

It was this experience that drew me to the children’s book author Gudrun Pausewang, who dominated our bookshelves and our minds in those years with a grimness and joylessness that today strikes me as particularly German. In 1982 Pausewang published The Last Children of Schevenborn (published as Fallout in English), a young adult book about a group of friends separated from their families during a nuclear attack, who end up dying one after the other. In 1987 she published The Cloud, which repeated the hijinks of Schevenborn with a nuclear power plant filling in for ICBMs.

The books were gripping, moralistic, and deeply disturbing. I hated the way they robbed me of sleep, but to not read them felt like closing my eyes to something important. I think my parents gave them to me in the same spirit. Pausewang wrote one more dystopian novel in which the Nazis had come back to power, and that in some way made explicit what these books had been about all along. Never again were young Germans to close their eyes before some change in the macroclimate. Pausewang was turning the children of the 1980s into little Geiger counters ready to register the faintest contaminants. And so I lay awake each night, eyes wide open, letting the potential horrors of this world stream through me.

During those years, even the cheeriest pop songs were about potential horrors. One result of the English version of Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” becoming a hit is that few Americans realize the song is actually about a scenario not unlike one of Pausewang’s cautionary tales. The titular balloons drift across the sky, are mistaken for a Soviet incursion, and trigger “99 years of war.” And in the end, the singer, surveying a world of rubble, lets fly another balloon — and this time, because the world has ended, because there are no more fighter wings, no more Pershing missiles, no more generals, she can let it go without anyone mistaking its meaning. It’s a wild song precisely because it seems to be about so little and is about so much.

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