The original song is 99 Luftballons (German) and was preformed by Nena in 1984. The song and lyrics are by Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen and Carlo Karges.

While the lyrics are very similar between the two, many people who speak both English and German assert that the imagery in the German form is much richer and the lyrics match the music much more closely. The German version has a very clear "Neunundneunzig (three syllables)" at the start of each verse:

  • Neunundneunzig luftballons
  • Neunundneunzig Dusenflieger
  • Neunundneunzig Kriegsminister
  • Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg
This is compared to the 3-4 pattern in English (sometimes necessitating a pause to get the correct meter)
  • ninety-nine (pause) red balloons
  • ninety-nine (pause) decision street
  • ninety-nine knights of the air
  • ninety-nine dreams I have had


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.

99 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 99 red balloons go by.

99 Decision Street,
99 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 99 red balloons go by.

99 Knights of the air
ride super-high-tech jet fighters
Everyone's a Superhero
Everyone's a Captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
As 99 red balloons go by.

99 dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It's all over and I'm standin' 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.


Realizing that I am working off of a bablefish translation and other translations (and thus far from perfect and likely missing much of the undertones and color of the original German) I will try to point out a few of the places where the imagery is different.

The first, and most obvious is the first verse. In the German, the singer is telling the listener that if you have some time, he will sing you a song - of 99 balloons that are sailing on their way to the horizon. There is no mention of going into a shop and buying a bag of balloons - though the idea of "set them free at the break of dawn, 'till one by one, they are gone" is still there.

From this point on, the both instances of the song tell of the government getting alarmed (English: "panic bells, it's red alert"). In both cases they were perceived as a UFO. The story diverges a bit with the general being sent for in verse 2 German while the English version does not mention a general. The German version makes no mention of any "software bugs" that show up in the English (verse 1).

The German lyrics continue with the military jet planes and makes tribute to Captain Kirk (verse 3 German, verse 4 English). The German instances tells fireworks and a shot on the horizon while the English verse three deals with the 99 decision street (a suggestion of 10 Downing Street or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) where 99 ministers meet (the German version has the ministers in verse 4). The descriptions of the ministers differs - the English version using "worry worry" while the German version has "Hielten sich fuer schlaue Leute" meaning about "regarded themselves as smart people".

In verse four English, we are told of the jets (mentioned in verse 3 German) where everyone is a super hero and Captain Kirk - acting out their boyhood fantasies. Personally, I do regard the "Knights of the air" as being more artistic.

The last verse has the most striking difference between the two songs:

ninety-nine years of war
doesn't leave a place for victors
there are no ministers any more
no jet engines, either
today I'm doing my rounds
seeing the world lying in ruins
found a balloon
think of you and let it fly
(translation from http://inthe80s.com/)


Since its original, this song has been covered many times by numerous bands. To computer gamers, the most recognizable version of this cover is that by Goldfinger found in Gran Turismo 3 or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. It has also been covered by:

Some of the English versions include a verse of German.


http://www.216colors.com/luft/

I like this song for all its cheeziness, and I'm going to engage in a little interpretation.

I think the difference in the description of the ministers is even more than m_turner lets on. In the English, "99 ministers meet" to "worry worry, super scurry". Then, "This is what we've waited for. This is it, boys, this is war." So how do we describe these ministers? Well, clearly they're very much put upon. But they're also enthusiastic to play the big boys' game. Which is a nasty fault, but one so stereotypical of politicians that you can almost forgive it.

So how do things go in the German? We're introduced to the "99 Kriegsminister", and immediately it's "Streichholz und Benzinkanister" -- matches and gascans. The ministers "hielten sich für schlaue Leute", which I would translate as "thought they were so clever". The German allows for an ironic interpretation of "they mistook themselves for clever people" and I think that's the sense that belongs. The ministers "witterten schon fette Beute" -- already smelled the fat (or rich, or greasy) loot, the spoils of war. And yes, Beute is a distant relative to "booty". The last statement about the ministers: "Riefen 'Krieg!' und wollten Macht" -- they shouted "war!" and they wanted power. So, these are real warmongers then.

I think on the whole the German is more effective, then -- besides the fact that it just sounds better, which is worth something, it has much more effectively negative portrayal of the war ministers, and the description of the aftermath -- arguably more poetic in the English -- is more direct in the German. And for a condemnation of war, I think that's just right.

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