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Burning Issue

Berlin’s New Year’s Eve fireworks debate reignites

At the end of every year, arguments around fireworks in Berlin spark up again. But now, many believe it's time to stop pretending that a complete ban is ever going to happen and start implementing logical alternatives.

Photo: IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

New Year’s Eve in Berlin has a cultivated reputation of fantastic chaos, a night on which leaving your flat past 5 pm feels like taking your life into your hands. Throughout the rest of the year, fireworks of the kind that make a bang on NYE – such as firecrackers and rockets – are illegal in Germany, but there’s a small window between Dec 31 and Jan 1 when the ban is lifted nationwide, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. There’s a thrill to it, sure, but when the resulting destruction and injury sparks the same debate every January only to flicker and die by March, it begs the question: when will Berlin introduce measures that could actually reduce the harmful effects on the city?

Chaos Reigns

Last year’s slide into 2023 felt particularly apocalyptic: private balconies were set on fire, 15 responding firefighters were injured, and a three-year old sustained injuries to the leg and ear after fireworks were thrown at their family on Kiefholzstraße. The Accident Hospital Berlin in Marzahn reported treating 65 patients with firework-related injuries, many of them between the ages of six and 14. Several cases required full or partial finger amputations, numerous people were treated for burns, and in two separate cases, an eyeball had to be removed. Fireworks badly damaged a fire truck responding to an emergency in Kreuzberg, blew out the windows of a shop in the Gropiusstadt housing complex and struck a woman in the neck in Mitte. Police reported a total of 102 criminal complaints in connection with attacks against emergency services, and as the smoke cleared and local news coverage focused heavily on the NYE destruction, Berlin limped rather bleakly into the new year.

Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Safety – and the retaining of both your retinas – aside, there are plenty of other reasons to at least reduce the numbers of fireworks in private hands. Germany’s Federal Environment Agency reported last year that burning fireworks releases around 2,050 tonnes of fine particulate matter (PM10) into the air every year, and a whopping 75% of the annual amount comes from NYE. Fine particulate matter at PM10 includes inhalable particles so small that they can travel directly into your bloodstream when inhaled.

Leaving your flat past 5 pm feels like taking your life into your hands.

Unsurprisingly, the mix of gunpowder, lithium, potassium perchlorate, and plastic fibres that fireworks leave behind isn’t great for the environment either. After last NYE’s celebrations, 520 cubic metres of trash were cleared. Lukas Wallraff from the TAZ has suggested a deposit on fireworks, which might help with the fact that the city’s sanitation department has to pick up firework batteries by hand, making it a lengthy and labour-intensive process. Some fireworks have water soluble components which are extra toxic to humans and animals because they can easily enter the body and seep into soil. Sulphur is also sometimes used, and, when combusted, produces sulphur dioxide, which can lead to acid rain. 

Photo: IMAGO / Marius Schwarz

Then there’s the noise. House pets aren’t the only animals that can be driven temporarily manic by fireworks. Birds can lose their orientation and become so stunned by the booms that they literally rain from the sky. It also affects their sleep and winter survival, according to a study by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. Earth-bound animals like deer tend to hurtle themselves into oncoming traffic and horses can keel right over from heart attacks.

Unfortunately, an appeal to save people’s hearing, lungs and four-legged friends will likely fall on deaf ears (deafened from fireworks, probably!).

Battle of the Bans

Despite being a self-proclaimed “reliable partner for the police,” the CDU in Berlin has not acted on their past pleas for further firework restrictions since coming into power. Instead, mayor Kai Wenger said that this year, “law and order will apply on Berlin streets”, to be enforced by a “strong police force”. Not even the Berlin police union state chairman Stephan Weh agrees with Wegner’s vague Nixon-esque law-and-order approach: “The answer cannot be that we simply call more colleagues into service,” Weh told Tagesspiegel in October. This seems to be exactly what will end up happening, however, as Berlin’s Senator for Interior Iris Spranger said again in late November that the 1,300 police last year were not enough. 

Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Mayor Wegner has also proposed an ominous-sounding “standby court” for NYE with additional prosecutors to punish crimes as quickly as possible. Criminal charges were dropped in more than half of the 2,500 firework-related crime proceedings initiated last year, so while the motivation for a standby court is obvious, how exactly it’ll work is not.

The Accident Hospital Berlin in Marzahn reported treating 65 patients…many of them between the ages of six and 14.

In preparation for this year’s festivities, Weh also commented that although a nationwide ban of private fireworks is needed and desired, a ban within the Ringbahn is at least “conceivable” and “halfway realisable”. Berlin’s Police Chief Barbara Slowik has sided with Wegner regarding ban zones, however, saying that police will be “agile” in reacting to ongoing incidents. The police department intends to focus their efforts on areas of the city where the firework criminality was particularly high last year, posting flyers to “address those at risk” and monitoring fireworks sales. But despite the 106 million euros made available for these efforts for this year and the next, the Berlin Senate has decided to stick with existing projects rather than new ones, which appear to be mostly changing-hearts-and-minds initiatives with lots of sports classes for young men and boys. If the kids are the problem, then how about the adults make some effective decisions to avoid this mess again instead of increasing police presence, which we know doesn’t work to reduce crime (as most recently evidenced by the Kottbusser Tor Polizeiwache), and putting up flyers? 

Photo: IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

Brandenbugers love Böllern

Fireworks evoke an emotional response and they are, objectively, cool as hell. Green politician Werner Graf proposed in January that we try more centralised firework shows in the city’s individual Bezirke as an alternative to extending the annual ban to its current exception period over NYE. Graf suggested organising six to twelve large fireworks shows throughout the city so that Berliners can celebrate together safely. While there is currently no word on whether this proposal has been taken seriously, even police union chairman Weh has endorsed a version of this, calling for more centralised displays for easier policing.

Photo: IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

In October, the Greens released a position paper calling for a change in the national law to allow cities and municipalities to decide how they want to handle fireworks, whether with a large show or outright ban. As it currently stands, municipalities can only limit private fireworks on NYE in the vicinity of buildings or structures “particularly sensitive to fire”. This change in law would give local governments the power to fine-tune their regulations of private fireworks and respond to violations as needed.

If Berliners are anything like our Brandenburg neighbours, decentralising large fireworks shows is just more realistic than an outright ban on private fireworks. A poll conducted by the Brandenburg Consumer Centre in October showed that the majority of Brandenburg residents are against a ban – only 33% want pyrotechnics to stay in the hands of trained pyrotechnicians and just 12% support a complete ban. This contrasts to the 59% of Germans overall who are in support of either a general ban or restricting fireworks to professional shows, according to the poll.

This Just In: Less Fireworks, Less Injuries

Of course, Berliners have gone without Böllern before: during the Covid lockdown New Year’s Eves of 2020 and 2021, the annual ban was not lifted to reduce stress on emergency room capacity. Did it work?

According to a fact-checking project by the Bayrischer Rundfunk, it’s hard to calculate the effect of lockdown measures because the exact numbers of how many people landed in the hospital during those periods do not exist. Independent research done by the German Society for Ophthalmology and Ear-Nose-Throat doctor Veronika Flockerzi, however, did show a marked decrease in firework-related eye injuries and inner-ear trauma. Careful to not overestimate the existing numbers without a comprehensive study, the German Hospital Association also reported that on the days with a ban on the sale of fireworks there were less serious injuries and a two-thirds reduction in people admitted to the hospital.

Photo: IMAGO / Marius Schwarz

The current system does somewhat regulate what fireworks are available on NYE; with an outright ban, illegal fireworks bought elsewhere could potentially be even more dangerous. As the lockdown era also demonstrated, asking for restrictions based on the notion of “common good” only goes so far. “Sacrifice is politically very difficult to convey,” an ethnologist told the Washington Post after last year’s NYE.

So if appeals for the sanity of beloved pets won’t work and a year-round general ban could lead to more dramatic injuries, it’d be nice if conservative politicians could stop pretending that adding police is going to solve anything and enact some of the very reasonable celebratory alternatives that have already been put forward. Adopting Graf’s proposal to have regulated firework shows around the city could be a happy midway point. Take the money intended to fund this small army of policy officers and instead hire trained pyrotechnicians to run shows that would be free to attend and safer for everybody. Add some eco-friendly drone alternatives, why not. Incentives like Wallraf’s deposit idea could also at least help reduce the massive amount of waste that piles up in the city. But until any such reasonable measures take place, it’s time to take cover or get out of town.