Berlin: New Year's Eve Insanity

I am still in shocked 24 hours after the insane New Year’s Eve celebration in Berlin.

My girlfriend warned me about a week in advance. But to be honest, I thought it sounded a bit ridiculous, though I did notice that strangely every store starting to sell mass amounts of fireworks to the public the week before New Years.

In Canada, it is illegal to launch fireworks within a city without a license. So, I imagined perhaps a few people setting off some minor fireworks, but nothing too crazy. Well, I was wrong. Really, Really, Really Wrong.

Firework Bandits

At 10am on New Year’s Eve day we headed to the nearby grocery store (as German grocery stores close for multiple days for any reason possible) and in the span of the 10-minute walk, we heard 20+ explosions.

These we not little firecrackers. 

They sounded like missiles going off in a war torn area of the world (at least that’s how I imagine it, never having actually been to a war torn area). Massive explosions in the distance echoing, in broad daylight - it really startled me! I didn’t expect to hear explosions going off constantly.

Then I had my first run-in with some firework bandits. A few homeless people were throwing illegal-looking Polish fireworks (distinctively large and extremely dangerous compared to the ones sold in stores) that made very loud explosions.  

The problem wasn’t necessarily the fireworks themselves, but the fact they were throwing them very close to the 20 or so people at the bus stop (which honestly scared the shit out of me while walking past).

I shook it off thinking surely this must be a bit of an anomaly.

A little later, we went for another walk and a random guy, standing in a doorway, lit a firework as we passed and threw it at RIGHT at our feet. With a sparkling fuse appearing below my feet, I decided to run and grabbed my girlfriend before a deafening blast ripped behind us. 

What in the F*** is going on here? 

The strangest part was no one really seemed to care, as if this was all of a sudden ‘normal’ and allowed. It was like the movie PURGE where all violence becomes legal for one day.    The atmosphere on the streets was a mixture of fear, excitement and expectation.

After our walk, I went to the gym so we parted ways. After the gym, I got on an empty bus. Hmmm, I thought, this is weird. This bus is never empty...UNLESS IT’S THE PURGE!!! 

I couldn’t help but feel like this was so similar to that film, except this time it was fireworks. As this strangely empty bus winded through the familiar turns, I could see local convenience stores turned into full blown firework armories - stocking the mischievous with an arsenal of explosive fireworks as well as the liquor to give them confidence to set them off.

It was insane!

People didn’t seem to want to wait for midnight - from about 5pm onwards it was a constant barrage of fireworks shot off balconies and in local parks. I thought it was pretty awesome, but then I realized we were planning to go to my girlfriend’s family’s place, which meant venturing outside again. However, thanks to some “questionable” takeout we both started to not feel so well and decided to stay in.

Start the insanity

What happened is probably one of Berlin’s best-kept secrets - partly because it was one of the most insane things I have ever witnessed, partly because no one told me about it and partly because of our 10th floor vantage point.

The entire city erupted into fireworks and I mean ENTIRE.  No, no, no. Not like a Canada Day fireworks – a 20-minute grand spectacle after which everyone waits in traffic for two hours trying to get home.

I am talking about THOUSANDS of fireworks going off at the same time in every direction, from everywhere you look. So intense, the city was covered in smoke for hours. AND THIS WAS JUST THE LEAD UP. 

Finally, at midnight the city just became unhinged. Watching fireworks at the same elevation that they are exploding at is equal parts awesome and terrifying, as the people below you shoot a roman candle that erupts right out front of your window – in your face!

I have no idea how the whole city didn’t get lit on fire. During the spectacle, there were ZERO cars on the road (and we live on a major road). I am convinced this is because of the danger of driving during the hour of insanity. Sorry, I did see one car drive and he was easily going 180 km/hr. in an attempt to avoid getting shot at by multiple roman candles.

This crazy zombie firework apocalypse was awesome.

(Canmore artist, Dan Hudson's 2012 video captures the insanity perfectly. Link Hudson's website which includes work from Berlin)

Last Word

If you ever have a chance to be in Berlin on New Years Eve, do not go clubbing. Go see the fireworks - and bring a posse with body armor and a few roman candles to protect yourself.

Oh, and despite the insanity, nobody got hurt that I am aware of, no buildings were burned down and there were no complaints in the media. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. 

Guest Blog by Gaelan Taylor, a Calgary millennial living in Berlin and immersing himself into that city’s electronic music scene.

Everyday Tourist’s Note

One has to wonder if this war-like celebration of New Year’s in Berlin is an extension of Germany’s past, which includes centuries of war.  Watching Dan Hudson’s 2012 New Year’s Eve video, it would be hard not to think Berlin was under attack.  This is a classic example of the important role of travel in fostering a better appreciation of the world we share - be that beauty, festivals, history, art, architecture, food, poverty or violence.

As a Canadian baby boomer, I have no understanding or appreciation for the culture of war or terrorism and how it can becomes part of the psyche of people, communities, cities and nations. 

And for that naiveté, I’m very grateful.

Gaelan’s Retort

I disagree on your culture of war thinking. It is something you can feel when you are in Berlin - this could quite possibly be the most peaceful society in Europe and even in the west. I say this because of how INSANE people get at the smallest mention of military. Even in the municipal elections, a right wing neo-conservative group got just a few votes and you could have almost sworn the German people were acting like Hitler 2.0 was coming. Extreme sensitivity.

From my perspective, there is different sense of liberty in Berlin compared to Canada. Yes, fireworks are free to use in the city for one day. However, not a ton of bad stuff happens at New Years, nothing more than other cities.

Berliners freak out a whole lot less about “what could go wrong” and lo’ and behold, almost every time it is much less a problem than people anticipate. The result is something really beautiful, something impossible for me to put in words.

FYI….On January 2nd Everyday Tourist booked a month in Berlin.  

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