31 December, 11h25. Erfurt.

For a younger version of himself, this was like a war, Moritz explains as we are assaulted by the gunpowder, cold, and noise. I’ve learned not to make war jokes with Germans, so defer to his authority on the matter. When he was smaller, Moritz continues, he’d pretend with friends that the artillery of fireworks heralding the German New Year were actually the battle of Verdun (World War I, in case you’re checking). Which fits the explosive chaos that’s raining debris onto us as…

BangFuckEeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

11h29

Someone’s planted a small, firework-based IED three feet to my left and timed it perfectly enough to give me a headful of post-explosion tinnitus. Having already jumped and squealed a little, I shift out into the street to regain my dignity. I’d rather get hit by a tram than be jumped by another fat-as-a-hand-grenade firework. Or worse — one of the rockets that hoodied psychopaths occasionally unleash out of the blue at street traffic.

I’d joked on the way to the New Year’s party about how I’d heard of protestors using firework rockets against the police in places like Tahrir Square. How utterly ineffective they must be. Except for the part where they actually connect.

Or the exploding bit.

Photo: Author

Back home in South Africa, the SPCA has mostly won the war on fireworks, after a long war of attrition in the media against teenagers, outdoor fireworks companies, and anyone with a yen for an explosive Diwali. Some fireworking still remains each year, but mostly small amounts in the hands of kids, or the occasional public show. Once every other year someone will blow up a postbox. That’s about the extent of it. Compared to the Germans, South Africa is the French army on a bad morning after defence cuts and too much red wine.

The fireworks, Moritz grins, are a national obsession. Some folk appear to have stockpiled for days, and feel nothing for regularly tossing explosives into the street traffic. For said traffic, simply surviving becomes a matter of internalising one of those yes/no decision trees every time you see a spark. Whether it moves, and whether it’s going to explode are the big decisions. The rest is left to adrenalin and aesthetics.

Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the phenomenon of carnival, in which all of the pent-up frustrations of ordered social systems are allowed to completely fall apart in a temporary period of reckless abandon. Order to be replaced by chaos, rules by total freedom, the routine of daily life in Germany with kilos and kilos of explosives. Tomorrow, I will discover that somewhere near the border with France, someone is in fact busy blowing themselves up with the stuff.

Citadels, Moritz tells me just before we ascend, are not a German thing. But are useful nonetheless. Keeping your city safe, providing novelty to the coffeeshop that sits atop it, and letting you survey the starbursts popping up from the alleys and plazas below. Midnight is five minutes out, and one in every dozen of the thousand or more people standing up here with us unpacks champagne and more bags of rockets. In an enlightened don’t-kill-people-when-you-can’t-make-a-getaway kind of logic, rockets are aimed away from the citadel, down at the people in the city, or — for the uninspired — up at the sky.

Someone’s even brought a large, red flare.

Moritz passes out the champagne. A hundred people ready their lighters, rockets, jumpers, flashers, catherine wheels, bangers, flares, or liquor. And all begin the countdown to midnight.

Everything explodes.