Skip to content

COLUMN: A bleak, disturbing memory of red balloons

A show of support for firefighters shows the same imagery as found in a 1980s anti-war song
Images of red balloons were posted on social media as a way to show support for firefighters during this wildfire season. However, red balloons have not always had a positive message. (

The summer sky was a dingy grey.

Smoke from wildfires burning in British Columbia and beyond obscured the sky, reducing the visibility. Breathing became difficult and in August, the air quality in much of the Southern Interior was the worst anywhere on the planet.

This has been the reality during the worst wildfire season in British Columbia’s recorded history. It is also the worst wildfire season on record for Canada as a whole.

The scenes of smoky skies and limited visibility could have been used for the setting for a post-apocalyptic movie, telling the story of a dying or dead world.

While the terrible fire season was playing out, there was also an effort to bring a little colour into the dirty grey atmosphere. Posts circulating on social media read, “Share a red balloon in support of our firefighters out there doing an amazing job.”

Images of red balloons showed up in news feeds, adding a bit of brightness during the smoke and haze. The gesture was a way of showing thanks and appreciation to those working to reduce the spread of wildfires.

The purpose was impressive and inspiring. However, red balloons can have an uncomfortable message.

Four decades ago, in 1983, Nena, a new wave band from West Berlin, achieved international acclaim for the song, 99 Luftballons. In Canada, the song was better known by its English title, 99 Red Balloons. The lyrics of the version heard in Canada were sung in English, but are not a direct translation of the German lyrics.

The music had an upbeat sound, but the lyrics, in English and German, were anything but pleasant.

In both languages, the song tells about a war that begins when 99 balloons (the German lyrics do not specify the colour) are mistaken for UFOs. This results in a lengthy war, which eventually ends in complete devastation.

The English translation of the German lyrics includes the line, “99 years of war left no room for victors.”

The 1983 song came during the Cold War, the era from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. This was a time of uncomfortable political tensions between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. A nuclear arms race between the two superpowers had the potential to annihilate human life on the planet.

At that time, because of Cold War tensions, two countries formed what is now Germany. West Germany was a western bloc nation, while East Germany was an eastern bloc nation. The city of Berlin was also divided into West Berlin and East Berlin. German reunification, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was still several years away.

The same theme found in Nena’s 1983 song could also be found in music, books and movies of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a theme that had been explored, in chilling detail, since the first two atomic bombs were dropped over Japan in August 1945.

Nuclear annihilation has been averted at present, as has a decades-long global war. However, the threat of destruction continues.

Wars are being fought in Ukraine and other parts of the world, some lasting for years. And there are an increasing number of voices warning of the possibility of environmental catastrophes and devastating long-term effects of climate change.

The details in Canada today are not the same as in Europe four decades ago. Still, the possibility of destruction showed itself once again this summer.

The dirty grey skies in the British Columbia Interior and elsewhere can be seen as an image of a world gone horribly wrong.

The challenge is to ensure the glimpses seen this year do not become a permanent reality.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
Read more