Germany and Fireworks: How Not To Get Blown Up
As a child, there were many threats to my wellbeing. Most of these threats were centred on my three older brothers, who being older brothers, would exact Byzantine punishments upon me for even the most minor of indiscretions. Following them, there was school cafeteria food, stinging nettles and a terrifying maths teacher who, it was rumoured, had thrown a child out of a window. This was surely enough to be getting on with, but every November as Bonfire Night approached, my entire primary school was routinely mentally scarred by a stern looking policeman who would assemble us all in the school hall and describe in great detail why we shouldn’t play with fireworks. After a couple of years being told how difficult it was to write a test after you had blown your hands off with a bottle rocket, the BBC started to distribute videos to schools to further prevent firework accidents.
From that moment on, we not only had PC Stern & Angry to contend with, but we also had to sit through a terrifying 20-minute video that followed a child who stole a firework and then in typical eighties harrowing fashion, blew himself up to the sounds of jolting synth music. Although I have grown to love the synthesiser, I have not grown to love fireworks.
In retrospect, I guess all the fear inducing presentations I was subjected to have worked. I am currently unblown up and thankfully still have all my digits. I know to never return to a lit firework, that sparklers should be handled with gloves, extinguished in a bucket of sand, and that throwing fireworks may sound like good fun at the time, but will inevitably lead to a visit to Accident and Emergency. Who said a little fear was bad?
All this preparation and all this psychological torture has not prepared me for how Germans treat fireworks. Although Germany doesn’t celebrate Bonfire Night, they do enjoy fireworks, especially at New Year. Unlike in the UK, however, Germans seem to treat fireworks as harmless explosives and not as IEDs. For example, the process of buying fireworks in the UK is very restrictive. The purchaser must be 18 years or older and even if you are a wizened crone, you will still have to present ID. Once you have confirmed your age, you are then required to give your name and address, which is documented and stored. Once the paperwork is complete the fireworks, which are stored in a locked cabinet, can be sold to you.
Contrast this bureaucracy with Germany, where fireworks are divided into four age classes:
Class 1- low level bangers, with 3 grams of explosive, can be sold to children aged 12 and over.
Class 2- Slightly more powerful, fuse lit fireworks can be sold to children over 16.
Class 3- Rockets and larger fireworks, sold to those 18 and over.
Class 4- Professional fireworks, only sold to technicians and experts.
Of course, ID is required to purchase, but there is no logging of names and no locked cabinets. My mind was blown the first time I saw packets of rockets on sale in a German supermarket, in large bins next to the crates of beer.
Some might say that Germany is just more mature than the UK and its population can be trusted to not blow themselves up, the UK is a nanny state, where regulations prevent people from having fun. I might have agreed with this statement, until I experienced my first German New Years Eve. I was in Stuttgart, having been invited to a party. Germans, especially those in large cities, will often congregate in the central square or other space to ring in the new year together. As we left the party, I was confronted with, having never been near one, what I can only describe as a warzone. Children merrily hurled what appeared to be small sticks of dynamite at each other, as if they were snowballs. One industrious child had taped several bangers together and was throwing them at passers by. I can’t be sure, but I’m fairly certain he wasn’t conducting a scientific experiment on the nature of combustible material. Once we had manoeuvred are way through these amateur urban guerrillas, we entered the Hauptmarkt to find hundreds of people, all merrily firing rockets into the air. This being Germany, they had disregarded all standards of safety and were happily holding the rockets in their hands, lighting them with cigarettes as if they were all so many Clint Eastwoods. When they would explode, frequently into buildings and unnervingly close to other groups of people, they would hoot and laugh at the potential maiming that had been narrowly avoided. I was frankly dumbfounded.
Non-Germans are told that Germany is a land of rules, regulations and order, but as it turns out, New Years Eve is the exception to the rule. It is a liminal space, where rules exist but are ignored for the sake of a good time, if a good time can be had once you’ve had a firework explode in your hand. Things may change, but I imagine it will take a long time before anyone prevents the levels of chaos seen on the streets of Germany during New Year.
I am aware that for some, this kind of pearl clutching is odious and typical of people who want to spoil a good time. I’m not German and I would not have decided to live in Germany if all I wanted to do was complain or change everything to how I think it should be done. That would certainly be a ridiculous and frankly infuriating way to live my life. That’s why I usually avoid New Year’s celebrations here, if people feel so strongly about their freedom to maim themselves and others, so be it. I may well be clutching my pearls, but at least I can do it with all the fingers I was born with.