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Germany's unenlightened fireworks fixation

Joel Dullroy
Joel Dullroy
December 29, 2020

German leaders' failure to ban New Year's Eve fireworks shows the coronavirus pandemic response is not evidence-based, argues DW's Joel Dullroy.

Fireworks strewn across a street in Berlin
Politicians plans to ban New Year's Eve fireworks in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic have gone up in smoke.Image: Reuters/M. Tantussi

Every New Year's Eve, Germany's emergency rooms fill up with fireworks victims. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, hospitals have little capacity to handle blown-off fingers. Yet politicians have decided that the freedom to fire rockets cannot be curtailed.

Under the latest lockdown measures, federal and state leaders have banned the sale of fireworks. But existing stockpiles can still be detonated. People are merely "advised" not to use explosives due to the vulnerability of the health system — as if logic could counter pyromania.

Police say the half-ban is useless. "Anyone who wants fireworks can drive to Poland and get them," Police Union spokesman Benjamin Jendro said. The German doctors's association has pleaded for a fireworks-free New Year's Eve, saying they can't cope with the inevitable limb, eye and respiratory injuries.

Yet leading politicians remain resolute. "Fireworks on New Year's Eve must be allowed despite the coronavirus," Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer declared.

It's not rocket science

If anything undermines Germany's image as a science-driven polity, it's this. Leaders are failing to follow the advice of first responders. They've forbidden outdoor alcohol consumption, shuttered Christmas markets and canceled demonstrations — but fireworks remain sacred.

In an emotional appeal for stricter lockdown measures, Angela Merkel told the Bundestag her government was guided by the Enlightenment and "the belief that there are scientific findings which are real and should be followed."

What's so enlightened about allowing dangerous incendiaries ever, and especially in the middle of a pandemic?

Gone up in smoke

DW's Joel Dullroy
DW's Joel Dullroy

Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy introduced the term "feuertrunken" — fire drunk. It aptly describes a portion of the people who live in Germany on New Year's Eve. The rest of us cower in fear as explosions persist from dusk until dawn. Rockets are aimed at passers-by, set balconies ablaze and leave the footpaths filthy. Some fire guns in the street — ostensibly less-lethal gas pistols, but who knows if they're not real?

Last year in Berlin alone firefighters were called to more than 600 fires, and 15 people received serious injuries requiring operations. The lung-clogging fine particles released on just one night represent 2% of the whole years' national particulate exhaust.

Despite the danger, many Germans cling to their fireworks like US gun enthusiasts to their rifles. Two years ago a YouGov poll found 55% of respondents thought pyrotechnics were essential on the night they call Silvester. That's changing: now 64% tell pollsters they support a ban during the pandemic.

Given the shifting public opinion, it's hard to see who's happy with the current half-ban. Not the fireworks lobby, which says it will lose 90% of its usual €130 million ($158 million) trade and put 3,000 jobs at risk. Pyromaniacs will be outraged at having to furtively fill their stockpiles. With no winners, politicians have set themselves up as everyone's enemy.

In their defense, Germany's leaders have done what they can under current laws. Fireworks sales can be stopped, but their usage is enshrined in federal statutes. Local governments may declare some fireworks-free zones, but can't order a blanket ban. A court recently struck down an attempted state-wide ban in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Bavarian city of Nuremberg has decreed a general ban, but a legal challenge is expected. This shows that some pyrotechnic fans are willing to lawyer up to defend their personal rights, no matter the public detriment.

Lighten up

But changing existing law isn't impossible. In this epoch of the unprecedented, everything is achievable. Leaders need only to honor their claims of prioritizing pandemic reduction ahead of populism.

As New Year's Eve approaches, some municipalities are using their limited right to exclude fireworks from specific zones: 56 such areas have been designated in Berlin. This won’t stop the chaos, just push it elsewhere.

There are glimmers of sense: the city of Cologne is showing foresight by telling residents to stay in this Silvester and flash their house lights at midnight, creating the "biggest light-fireworks in the world."

Other countries have seen the light. Belgium has this year prohibited pyrotechnics. So too the Netherlands, which has also criminalized transporting them. Australia has long outlawed personal fireworks, but permits public displays by licensed operators. We can still be wowed by the sparkles without fearing for our lives. Such public gatherings wouldn't be appropriate this year. But in the future, surely an enlightened nation would choose such an approach, and finally end its fireworks fixation.