In Berlin, the little illuminated red and green fellows who signal the all-clear for pedestrians are a beloved and fiercely protected symbol of the city. The Ampelmännchen (little traffic light man) and his iconic two-dimensional graphic pantomime is one of the few remnants of the former German Democratic Republic that has not only been tolerated since 1989 but has risen to near-universal acceptance—even love.
Perhaps the closest American analogue is “Rich Uncle Pennybags,” otherwise known as the Monopoly Man. From a political perspective, it’s difficult to argue that East Berlin’s more humble everyman, with his stocky gait and functional fedora, isn’t a preferable symbol than the moustachio’d plutocrat—who after all has been known to commit transgressions serious enough to land himself in the clink.
The Ampelmännchen was invented by Karl Peglau, a “traffic psychologist” who sought to create a visual icon that would be appealing and comprehensible to young and elderly Germans alike. For many years East Germany had its Ampelmännchen, while West Germany made do with a sleeker, more generic homunculus. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a lot of West German practices in signage and so forth, many of them endorsed by the EU, began to replace the old East German ways—and even the Ampelmännchen was threatened. The East Germans responded with a fierce public outcry to save the little dude, the force of which in 2005 even led to the adoption of the Ampelmännchen in West Berlin as well.
The widepsread impulse to save the Ampelmännchen became a primary exemplar of Ostalgie, a German portmanteau word combining the words for “nostalgia” and “East.” Another prominent example of Ostalgie is Wolfgang Becker’s engaging and internationally successful 2003 movie Good Bye Lenin!, which focused on the herculean efforts of a young man to create a kind of Potemkin GDR within the confines of the bedroom of his mother, recently awoken from a coma and therefore entirely unaware of the transformations of 1989.
As we move inexorably further from 1989, the Ampelmännchen’s political edge tends to dissipate, as his inherent distinctiveness and cuteness move to the foreground. Commenting on the “comeback” of the Ampelmännchen in 1997, its creator Peglau rather high-mindedly noted, “It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification, giving the Ampelmännchen the right to represent a positive aspect of a failed social order.”
The latest news is that the Ampelmännchen offers not only cozy feelings of nostalgia—it also boasts superior design, in a purely objective sense. Psychologist Claudia Peschke and her team at Jacobs University in the German city of Bremen recently conducted tests involving both the Ampelmännchen and the traditional, more anodyne figure seen in the rest of Europe, including versions with the “wrong” color imposed. It turns out that people respond more to the shape, or function, of the symbol than they do to the color, and it also emerged that the Ampelmännchen outperformed the regular, svelte figure in terms of identifying whether it’s time to walk or stand still.
As noted, the Ampelmännchen’s status as a beloved totem of nostalgia has also (paradoxically) meant big business, as this nearly wordless video featuring some of the industrial production shows:
As with any good icon, there are few contexts in which it looks truly out of place. As proof, we offer this reworking of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in which the Ampelmännchen and his politically correct counterpart, “Ampelfrau” (introduced in 2004), both do that galloping thing that swept the globe last year.
“Berlin Ampel Style”:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Waiting for the Communist Call: Propaganda and reflection as the Berlin Wall turns 49
‘Berlin Super 80’: Films from the German underground
East German soldier helps a little boy sneak across the Berlin Wall, August 1961