After a short time living in Nordrhein Westfalen I became curious about the regular sirens sounding. It was happening about once a week and often at around the same time: 2 pm. But, not always.

My German fiancée would say, ‘I don’t like this sound’. When I asked her about it she told me that it reminded her of the Cold War drills they would do in school to practise responding to an attack from East Germany or the Soviet Union. The Warnämter (Warning Authorities) of the time had taken over the ‘hot’ war air raid sirens from WWII to use for civil defence. In Berlin at the time they had even been called “Meier’s trumpets” or “Meier’s hunting horns” after Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering had assured everyone that: “If a single bomb ever falls on Berlin, you can call me Meier!”

Many of these Civil Defence sirens in Germany were shut down during the 1990s as the Cold War had cooled right off. The air raid sirens were then either dismantled or sold off to fire departments. The majority of firemen in Germany are voluntary, so the siren is actually used to call them in for work, whether that be for an actual fire, or the more common water-pipe bursting in the cellar, causing a flash flood and the submerging of all stored goods. 

It was only in the 2000s that some municipalities realised that such a system could be useful in the case of emergencies other than fires or nuclear holocausts, so many sirens that had been dismantled were then rebuilt or replaced. Naturally, then, since Germans are German and organised, we have different alarms for different purposes. The one I had been hearing had been for the Fire Station, either calling firemen in, or testing the equipment. Either way, non-firemen can ignore this siren: one minute of three continuous tones. 

The one to listen out for is the one that runs up and down in tone with no breaks for one minute; this indicates that a natural or unnatural disaster that might harm civilians is happening. How natural the disaster is … yeah, we don’t really need to know. They also have a well-advertised testing day for this once a year. If you’re confused, or want more information, there’s an app (there’s always an app…) called NINA created by the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance. It reminded me of the quite thematically appropriate song 99 Luftballons by Nena, but my German fiancée painstakingly pointed out the pronunciation difference between the ‘i’ in NINA and the ‘e’ in Nena and said that they were ‘completely different’. (Just a heads up: in Germany, things are either completely different or exactly the same.)

Interestingly though, Germany remains susceptible to cold war-survivalist thinking in general. In 2016 a 69-page German Interior Ministry document suggested that every German have a Civil Defence Plan and advising them to stockpile food and water in case of a national emergency … despite no actual threat being offered. Ten days of food and five days of water were recommended and the hashtag Hamsterkäufe was born, from the German verb hamstern: to hoard (the name for ‘hamsters’ comes from this root, from how hamsters stuff their cheeks with food). So, hoarding/hamster buying (or panic buying) like we have seen more recently in response to The Virus ensued and a whole new generation of children were being terrified. 

But if you want to learn German the smart way, without being terrified by the ‘disaster’ of case structures and grammar, then you must try smartergerman! You will be hamster-ing the language in no time at all.

This post was written by Jeremy Davies
15.05.2020

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