The English version was not a direct translation and took some liberties to be able to adjust for correct phrasing and rhyming in the context of the same tune. In fact, “red” in the title was added because “luftballoon” is simply translated as “balloon” in English and a word was needed for the additional syllable.
Interestingly enough in America, the German version was the preferred variation. While the English version did get airplay, most airtime was credited to the original recording. While Australia’s preference was similar, the Brits, Irish, and Canadians preferred the English version. Nena, by the way, was the name of the group and not the lead singer; her name is Gabriele Kerner.
The song originated as an anti-nuclear war protest song. The idea was that someone released a number of helium balloons which were subsequently spotted on West German RADAR. Thinking that it was a Soviet attack, a subsequent retaliation led to a nuclear war. Thank goodness that never happened. On this date in 1990 both East and West Germany were reunited – thus giving rise to today’s national holiday in Germany.
“99 Luftballoons” did quite well in the US, as it charted on four separate Billboard charts. It peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, #22 on the dance chart, #23 on the rock chart, and #42 on the adult contemporary chart. “99 Luftballoons”/”99 Red Balloons” was a #1 record in eleven countries. Two newer versions of the tune were subsequently released in 2002 and 2009. The original flip side, “Just a Dream,” was later released as a single in its own right during spring 1984; however, its second time around peaked with a dismal showing at #102.