Thursday, June 16, 2005



How many ironies in the change of a traffic light?

[Part II of IV on reunified Germany]

Ampelman, signaling "don't walk," on Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin. This street
was designed to be the great Stalinist boulevard, extending
east of Alexanderplatz (and was formerly called "Josef Stalin Allee").

Meet “Ampelmann.” (English translation: “Traffic Light Man.”) Designed in 1961 by an East German “traffic psychologist” named Karl Peglau, Ampelmann may have been one of the first, if not the first, pictographic pedestrian crossing symbols. Peglau wanted a symbol that would be readily understood, particularly by children.


With his broad-brimmed, flat-topped hat and vigorous stride, the green Ampelmann is cute and cartoonish. Compare the relatively bland west German version and the generic stick figure used as the pan-European default.


Above: West (left) and East (right) German "traffic light mans" on the streets.
Below: textbook comparisons.


In 1994, after reunification, West German engineers began pulling down all the Ampelmanns and replaced them with the boring West German version. Though the decision was based on the outdated electronics of the GDR’s traffic signals rather than aesthetics, the move quickly came to symbolize the overarching flaw in the reunification process – its tendency to heedlessly discard the good with the bad from East German society.

A sort of cult protest movement coalesced around Ampelmann. The figure has been restored at many Berlin intersections and here and there elsewhere in Germany.

Naturally, Germany having a free-market economy, the protest quickly morphed into a merchandizing fad.

ampelmann store

Above: The main Ampelmann Shop, at Hackesher Hof, one of three in Berlin.
Below: Some (not all) of the Ampelmann swag, arranged in our hotel room.


As you can see (1) they have an extensive product line and (2) B and I went a little crazy in the store. I would like to tell you that profits from Ampelmann merchandizing go to some worthy political cause to benefit unemployed East Germans, but as far as I know they don’t. Cute little guy though, huh?

As if there weren’t ironies galore already in the Ampelmann story, I must observe that the red “stop” Ampelmann looks disturbingly Christlike, and on the black knit ski cap it looks like a cult symbol.


Thanks for 'ampelmann' information! I wonder if he'll ever have a mate — or will ladies just have to wait at the curb till an escort comes along
Your travel blogging is making my day yet again. Can we start a campaign to bring Ampelmann to America?
I am appalled and saddened by the blatant sexism exhibited by this website. In its rush to advertise the Ampelmann phenomenon in Germany, it completely ignored the equally important Ampelfrau phenomenon, proof of which is found on websites such as this:

Schande auf Ihnen, Oscar!

Shame on you Oscar!
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