Big tattoo

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Big tattoo on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Ramstein Air Base (2002)
Big tattoo on the grounds of the Federal Ministry of Defense in Bonn (2002)

The Great Tattoo is a solemn military ceremony held in the evening and performed by a special formation made up of military musicians , armed men and torchbearers. It is the highest-ranking military ceremony of the Bundeswehr in terms of protocol and is considered to be the highest distinction that the German armed forces can bestow on a civilian. The Federal President , the Federal Chancellor and the Federal Minister of Defense have a fundamental right to adoption by means of a major tattoo . all military personnel with the rank of general or lieutenant general (or admiral or vice admiral ) are also entitled to a tattoo when they retire from active service.

In its course it represents an art form of the original military tattoo and is held today in particular to honor personalities, occasionally at public vows , at association anniversaries and at the end of major maneuvers . The total duration is about 20 minutes.

The big tattoo on the farewell of the leading federal politicians who have left office regularly receive special public attention. In fact, the majority of the great tattooes held annually in Germany take place without any major media response. In Germany, the ceremony is performed around 20 to 30 times a year by the Bundeswehr.


When the mercenaries were to return to the camp at the appointed hour of the evening, an officer, accompanied by a piper or drummer, would go through the dining rooms and hit the barrel with his stick. After that, the innkeeper was no longer allowed to serve drinks and the soldiers had to go into the tents. The mercenaries called this musical command "Zapfenstreich". Those who resisted him were severely punished. The concept of the Zapfenstreich was first mentioned in 1596. The Saxon Lieutenant Colonel Johann Friedrich von Flemming described this military custom in detail for the first time in 1726 in his book “The Perfect German Soldier”.

The big tattoo in its present form originated in the first half of the 19th century. The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. During the Wars of Liberation in 1813, ordered the extension of the tattoo to include the presentation of the rifle, a silent prayer and the blowing of a military song. He followed the example of Russia, Austria and Sweden. It is not known which piece of music was originally played as a prayer; However, the chorale I pray to the power of love, which is still used today, soon prevailed .

The form of the Great Zap, which has changed several times since the expansion, with musical prayer and military music, was put together by Wilhelm Wieprecht , the music director of the music corps of the Prussian Guard Corps . His first performance was on May 12, 1838 in Berlin in honor of the Russian Tsar Nicholas I. instead. After the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 - with the presence of the monarch - the imperial hymn Heil dir was sung in the wreath before the prayer . Since 1922, the national anthem , the Deutschlandlied , was played at the end of the ceremony . In the meantime, their national anthem is played in the presence of high-ranking foreign guests or troops.

In 1938 the music inspector of the German Police Wilhelm Schierhorn composed the so-called Great Zapfenstreich of the German Police , which was published in 1939 and renamed the Great Evening Call of the German Police in 1940 . Under the last title, the composition went down in the history of German police music. This ceremony primarily served the new ideological character of the police service in the Third Reich and was intended to underpin the independence of the police in relation to the Wehrmacht, also in musical terms. In contrast to the Wieprecht ceremony, the entire work was designed and worked out by Schierhorn alone. The performance was only intended for the music corps of the police and the General SS .

The GDR also reintroduced the Great Zapfenstreich in 1962. In 1981 it was supplemented by "elements of the progressive military heritage", for example the song For Peace in the World by the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich ( see Great Tattoo of the National People's Army ).


The execution of the great Zapfenstreich is incumbent on at least one music corps with an attached marching band , two platoons of escort units under guns and an escort formation of torchbearers. Even before the march of the Great Zapfenstreich, the so-called “pearl necklace”, an additional line of torch-bearers that frames the Zapfenstreich in the background, was set up at the scene. The entire marching section is addressed by the commanding officer during the ceremony as a "great tattoo"; the term describes both the ceremony itself and the soldiers involved.

At the big tattoos to say goodbye to the leading federal politicians or high-ranking military, the turtle formation is usually provided by the guard battalion , as its particularly high level of training in formal service and the historical drill handles with the rifle that are only used there are particularly attractive. A large part of the tattoo performed by the Bundeswehr, however, is also carried out by regular units (especially in the case of dissolution, relocation or anniversary of the association) - this requires time-consuming preparatory exercises in advance, as the complex process of a tattoo with the special commands and processes is not necessary Part of the general formal training of the Bundeswehr. In these cases, training support is often provided by the guard battalion.

The ceremony carried out today by the Bundeswehr includes a so-called serenade before the actual tattoo begins (see below), which does not belong to the process of the actual great tattoo, but especially in the case of a performance to honor an individual, the process has an individual character should lend.


The elements of the Great Tattoo are as follows:

  • The march of the Great Zapfenstreich with the Yorck march and the report to the person to be honored or the highest-ranking present in terms of protocol by the leader.
  • After the command “Serenade!” The serenade, a performance of up to four pieces of music, which the person to be honored may choose. If the great tattoo is not performed in honor of an individual but on the occasion of a special event, the pieces of the serenade are determined by the head of the music corps and should be appropriate to the respective event in terms of their title or significance.
  • After the command “Big tattoo stopped! Big Zapfenstreich! "Follows the actual Big Zapfenstreich, which consists of the following components:
  • Lure to the big tattoo by the marching band; this is reminiscent of the drum signals that heralded the impending tattoo in the camp
  • Prussian Zapfenstreichmarsch as a traditional element of the foot troops
  • Retreat with three posts ( fanfare calls ) as a traditional element of the mounted troops ; the three posts differ in their lecture with increasing solitude and melancholy and symbolically recall the scattered and wounded one after the other after the battle, the third and last post is a musical greeting to the dead who do not return
  • Call to prayer through the marching band
  • After the command “Take off your helmet for prayer!” The musical prayer, the chorale verse composed by Dmitri Bortnjanski , which was later underlaid by Gerhard Tersteegen with the text “ I pray to the power of love ” . The soldiers involved hold the helmet in front of their chest with their left hand; present soldiers in uniform informally take off their headgear.
  • The command “helmet on!”, Cutting off after prayer and calling after prayer.
  • After the command "Attention, present!" (Or guard battalion: "The rifle over! Attention, present the rifle!") The German national anthem ,
  • Deregistration of the Great Zapfenstreich and march out of the formation to the sounds of the Prussian Zapfenstreichmarsch.

The curls to grand tattoo, the signal for prayer and the cutting off after the prayer are as musical commands only from the game people (Spielmann drum and -pfeife) under the direction of drum major carried out, the other pieces of music from the entire music corps. The call for prayer is musically linked to the retreat and thus frames the prayer part. The marching up and down and the reports are linked to further commands.

Due to the special tradition of the Bavarian Army up to 1919, a modified form of the tattoo described above can be performed in Bavaria. In it, the Bavarian Zapfenstreichmarsch is played instead of the Prussian Zapfenstreichmarsch and the Bavarian military prayer by Johann Kaspar Aiblinger instead of the chorale I pray to the power of love .

Events since 1949

On the evening of May 20, 1992, Defense Minister Volker Rühe ordered a tattoo to remove the outgoing Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher from office. This was the first time that a Federal Foreign Minister was honored in this way.

Probably the largest and most publicly effective major tattoos after the fall of the Wall were performed on September 8, 1994 in front of the Brandenburg Gate to bid farewell to the Western Allies from Berlin and in front of the Speyer Cathedral on October 17, 1998 to bid Helmut Kohl from the office of Federal Chancellor . His wish songs were an ode to joy , Now all thank God and the Great Elector's march .

Serenade wishes of the Federal Presidents

Table 1: Serenades by the Federal Presidents
Surname Political party period of service Wishes Remarks
Theodor Heuss FDP 1949-1959 unknown
Heinrich Luebke CDU 1959-1969 unknown
Gustav Heinemann SPD 1969-1974 - Boat trip on the Rhine
Walter Scheel FDP 1974-1979 unknown
Karl Carstens CDU 1979-1984 unknown
Richard von Weizsäcker CDU 1984-1994 unknown
Roman Duke CDU 1994-1999 unknown
Johannes Rau SPD 1999-2004 -
Horst Koehler CDU 2004-2010 -
Christian Wulff CDU 2010–2012 -
Joachim Gauck Non-party 2012-2017 -
Frank-Walter Steinmeier SPD 2017- in office

In 1974, Gustav Heinemann preferred a boat trip on the Rhine with invited guests to the military-religious ritual .

Johannes Rau was the first Federal President to emerge from the SPD , who said goodbye with a big tattoo on June 29, 2004. He chose Pomp and Circumstance Marches ( Edward Elgar ), Jesus remains my joy ( Bach ) and Abendlied (Gerhard Scholz).

Horst Köhler was bid farewell on June 15, 2010 with the Great Zapfenstreich and the self-chosen songs Geschwindmarsch ( Strauss ), Slow March according to Friedrich II. And St. Louis Blues ( WC Handy ).

The big tattoo on March 8, 2012 for the resigned Christian Wulff  - who wanted the Alexander March , Over the Rainbow , Heaven and Earth Touch ( Christoph Lehmann ) and the European anthem Ode to Joy - left the public discussion about the claim Revive honor for all departed officials. In Berlin, a few hundred citizens demonstrated against Wulff's honor , including with vuvuzelas .

On March 17, 2017 was Joachim Gauck as part of a Great curfew with the desire titles Over seven bridges you must go to the East German rock band carat , with the folk song of freedom that I mean as well as the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God of Martin Luther from adopted by the Office.

Serenade wishes from the Federal Chancellor

As Federal Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder was last retired from office on November 19, 2005 in his hometown of Hanover with a big tattoo in which the song My Way was played in the version by Frank Sinatra .

Serenade requests from the Federal Defense Minister

After his resignation on November 30, 1962, Franz Josef Strauss was the first defense minister to be honored with the tattoo. On the grounds of the Luftwaffenkaserne Wahn , the marches of the armed forces army ( Bavarian parade march ), air force ( starfighter march ) and navy ( armored ship Germany ) were played for him.

In 2002, Rudolf Scharping , who wished for Stars and Stripes Forever , and in 2005 Peter Struck , for whom, in addition to military marches, when we walk from 'to side' was played, said goodbye with the traditional ceremony. Franz Josef Jung was bid farewell in 2009 with Time to say goodbye as part of the Great Zapfenstreich.

In March 2011, Federal Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned. The big tattoo on his farewell received media attention, among other things because zu Guttenberg had the song Smoke on the Water played by the British hard rock band Deep Purple from the staff music corps of the German Armed Forces for the serenade - so far rather unusual for the occasion .

To bid farewell to his successor Thomas de Maizière on January 8, 2014, the music corps played the title Live Is Life by the Austrian rock band Opus .

On August 15, 2019, Ursula von der Leyen was adopted as Minister of Defense with the big tattoo. At her request, the music corps played Mozart's Ave Verum , the song Wind of Change by the band Scorpions and the European anthem Ode to Joy .


  • All music corps of the German Armed Forces are prohibited from performing parts of the actual Great Zap on other occasions. This is intended to emphasize the special rank of the Great Zap as the highest military ceremony. Exceptions to this rule require at least the approval of the responsible division commander and are only granted for special occasions. For example, the Prussian Zapfenstreichmarsch was performed when the Bundeswehr Music Corps performed at a military music festival in Moscow in 2007 in order to emphasize the close historical ties between German and Russian military music.
  • In addition to the burial with military honors, the Great Zapfenstreich is the only military ceremony in Germany in which it is mandatory to wear a combat helmet with a great service suit .
  • The Great Zapfenstreich is also used in Germany by civil music bands such as the Volkswache Mengen , marching bands and club orchestras on special occasions such as B. Fire brigade anniversaries, city or rifle festivals listed.


There were repeated calls to abolish the great tattoo. Antimilitarist and pacifist groups have opposed this ceremony in the past. Other groups pointed to the importance of the tattoo in the Nazi regime .

Critics reject the formal continuation of Prussian military tradition, which is seen as antiquated, outdated and martial. The topic itself and the occasion of the celebration are not fundamentally questioned. Often only a more modern and contemporary form of staging is required. A more in-depth form of criticism is aimed directly at the message conveyed by the ritual or the Bundeswehr institution itself or its currently performed military tasks. Among other things, a commitment to the remilitarization of society and national power fantasies are assumed.

In 1996 the PDS and Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen failed in the petitions committee of the Bundestag with their demand to abolish the performance of the tattoo and / or the religious rites in it.


  • Erwin B. Boldt; Martin Graf: Life and musical work of Wilhelm Schierhorn. A contribution to the music history of the German police . Frankfurt 2010, ISBN 978-3-86676-132-2 .
  • Markus Euskirchen: Military rituals. Analysis and criticism of an instrument of rule . PapyRossa-Verlag, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-89438-329-1 , p. 135 ff., P. 152.
  • Bernhard Höfele: Military Music - Notes and History of the Great Zapfenstreich . Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2005, ISBN 3-8334-2822-8 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Großer Zapfenstreich  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Big Zap  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Erwin B. Boldt, Martin Graf: Life and musical work of Wilhelm Schierhorn. A contribution to the music history of the German police . Frankfurt 2010, pp. 93–95.
  2. Hans-Dietrich Genscher: Memories ; Siedler Verlag Berlin 1995, p. 1021
  3. a b c Best of Zapfenstreich - who wanted to hear what? In: Bayerischer Rundfunk , August 15, 2019, accessed on August 15, 2019 .
  4. Dieter E. Kilian: Politics and the military in Germany: the Federal Presidents and Federal Chancellors and their relationship to the soldiery and the Bundeswehr . BoD - Books on Demand, 2011, ISBN 978-3-937885-36-0 ( [accessed August 19, 2019]).
  5. Merscheider Männergesangverein 1861: 150 Years of Festschrift and Program Merscheider Merscheider Männergesangverein 1861 eV Accessed on August 20, 2019 .
  6. Bundeswehr adopted von der Leyen: What does “Big Zapfenstreich” actually mean? August 16, 2019, accessed on August 19, 2019 (German).
  7. ^ BZ Large Zapfenstreich Johannes Rau
  8. ^ FAZ Great Zapfenstreich Horst Koehler
  9. ^ Tattoo for Wulff: Farewell without dignity. on: Spiegel Online. March 8, 2012.
  11. ^ Chancellor Schröder adopted with a big tattoo. , November 19, 2005, accessed on March 17, 2018 .
  12. a b With tears and trumpets. In: Der Spiegel , March 8, 2012, accessed August 15, 2019 .
  13. ^ Ralf Klassen: Smoke on the Bendlerblock. Stern, March 10, 2011, accessed March 6, 2012 .
  14. ^ Zapfenstreich for de Maizière ,, news from January 8, 2014
  15. ^ Bundeswehr: adopted by von der Leyen with a big tattoo . In: Spiegel Online . August 15, 2019 ( [accessed August 15, 2019]).
  16. Instructions from the Baden-Württemberg State Fire Brigade Association for the organization of a major tattoo (including history, events, framework conditions) ( Memento from September 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 58 kB)
  17. Ulrich Steuten: The great Zapfenstreich / A sociological analysis of a controversial ritual. Duisburg Contributions to Sociological Research No. 2/1999, Gerhard Mercator University Duisburg Comprehensive University, Duisburg 1999, DNB 957851820 , p. 30 ff.