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A tattoo in Bonn
Tattoo by the NVA in East Berlin

Zapfenstreich is a traditional military term for the point in time from which a soldier has to remain in his quarters. In addition, the Great Zapfenstreich is a military ceremony in the evening with which in Germany outgoing Federal Presidents, Federal Chancellors, Defense Ministers and Generals in particular are honored.


The term comes from the time of the mercenaries and was the symbol for the beginning of the night's rest in the quarters . In 1596 an evening signal was first mentioned in connection with the "cone strike". The Saxon forest and game master Johann Friedrich von Flemming documented the custom of the tattoo for the first time in his book “The Perfect German Soldier” in 1726.

The tattoo, known as retreat by the cavalry , was a signal to rest at night, which was given with the drum , the horn or the trumpet . From the tattoo to the wake-up call, soldiers were no longer allowed to stay outside their quarters, in bivouacs outside their company quarters, without special permission .

The name is supposed to be derived from the fact that a chalk line was originally made over the spigot of the barrels at a certain hour in order to be able to control the ban on the further sale of drinks. Another explanation is that the saber of the guard was struck (painted) on the beer kegs to mark the end of the day. According to Kluge and Duden dictionary of origin, the Zapfenstreich is a "stroke" (= blow) on the spigot of the barrel, with which the end of the serving was announced. The expression "tattoo" used in the Anglo-American language area for Zapfenstreich goes back to a corresponding custom (from Dutch (Doe den) tap toe , German about "(Tu den) Zapfen zu"), also Low German tap tō , Swedish tap to (ie: "To [make] the cones"). The most internationally known tattoo in the United Kingdom is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo , which has been carried out since 1950 and is also the largest music festival in Scotland , and the Basel Tattoo in Switzerland.

Later it was understood to mean the music accompanying this ritual or the military evening signal to return to the accommodation. The tattoo was usually only struck and played by the guards' musicians, but on special occasions it was struck and played by the musicians of the entire garrison , with the music corps usually being led through different streets of the town. In extensive camps, the signal was given by a cannon shot .

Today this traditional term is still used in the army and air force (here in the sense of bed rest) and in the Austrian armed forces . In the German Navy , the term "rest in the ship" is common. The soldiers of the Bundeswehr are only subject to the tattoo for the duration of their general basic training, as long as they have no night or weekend exit. It's set at 11 p.m.

In addition, the tattoo can now also be ordered in special situations by the disciplinary superior. This is generally the case during stays at the training site and can also take place before particularly stressful work days. In both cases, the arrangement of the tattoo serves to ensure the operational readiness and the maintenance of the duty of care acc. §10 SG . Traditionally, only the crews and NCOs without portepee are subject to this form of tattoo. NCOs with portepee and officers are required to keep quiet after the tattoo and to keep the night's sleep, but unlike the lower ranks do not have to retire to their accommodations. The ban on alcohol after the tattoo has been declared also traditionally only applies to soldiers below the ranks of sergeants or ensigns. The proclamation of the Zapfenstreich is not made musically, but by the NCO on duty with the loud call "Company - Zapfenstreich!"

Big tattoo on special occasions


The big tattoo is part of the military tradition cultivated in the Bundeswehr and is carried out today in particular to honor personalities, but also on special occasions. In its current form, it goes back to the Great Zapfenstreich, which was performed in Berlin on May 12, 1838 in honor of the Russian Tsar Nicholas I.

After the Battle of Großgörschen in 1813, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. together with the Russian Tsar Alexander I. the Russian camp in the evening. As was customary in the Russian army , the soldiers sang a chorale after the tattoo. Impressed and moved, Friedrich Wilhelm III ordered. with cabinet order of August 10, 1813 for the Prussian troops to introduce a prayer after the tattoo. This gave the tattoo - albeit initially only in Prussia - its first ceremonial significance.


In Austria, too, the so-called Great Austrian Zapfenstreich is performed at solemn events such as swearing- in ceremonies through the military music of the armed forces or other music bands . In Tyrol it is customary to hold a tattoo on the day before Corpus Christi and other processions, for example in Nassereith in the Tyrolean Oberland.


Swiss military tradition has a specific march known as the Zapfenstreich. Together with the national anthem and the flag march, it is one of the three pieces that military musicians have to learn by heart and master. Intentional cheat in the "Zapfenstreich" was punished several times with a fine in the past.

At the Carnival in Solothurn there is also a tattoo at the end of the hustle and bustle.


  • Markus Euskirchen: Military rituals. Analysis and criticism of an instrument of rule. PapyRossa, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-89438-329-1

Web links

Wiktionary: Zapfenstreich  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b ZDv 10/5 “Life in the Military Community”, No. 220
  2. ^ Friedrich Kluge : Etymological Dictionary of the German Language , 23rd Edition, 1999, p. 903
  3. a b c Central Service Regulation (ZDv) 37/10 “Military Forms and Celebrations of the Bundeswehr”, No. 208 and 213 Annex 2/2
  4. Disciplinary punishment for military musicians. In: Aargau Music Association. September 27, 2017. Retrieved November 27, 2019 .