The most popular man in East Germany wasn’t actually a human being, but a symbol shown on pedestrian signals. His name was Little Traffic Light Man, Ampelmännchen, diminutive of Ampelmann. Today, thirty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmännchen remains a beloved symbol in Eastern Germany. It has the distinction of being one of the few relics of the communistic German Democratic Republic to have survived the end of the Cold War, mainly because of its immense popularity. In post-Wall Germany, the “cute” little traffic light man gained cult status and became popular with tourists as souvenirs. The East German Ampelmännchen is a stout male figure in straight-legged stride; he is wearing a hat which always reminds me of the flat-topped hat Amish men wear. With his big head and short legs, he looks as if he just stepped out of a cartoon or comic strip. The more static-looking West German version, by contrast, has a traditional-shaped human figure and no hat or other accessories.
The father of the East Berlin Ampelmännchen was traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927-2009), who created it in 1961 as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout. Peglau was eager to design a pedestrian traffic light that would be comprehensible to everyone regardless of age or health—children, elderly people, the mentally and physically handicapped, and color-blind persons. His concept envisioned two little men: a side-facing green man in full stride, his arm stretched forward like an arrow, signaling permission to “GO AHEAD;” also, a frontal-standing red man with thick outstretched arms that had the function of a barrier, signaling “STOP.” Peglau’s ultimate goal was to create greater safety for pedestrians. The “walk/don’t walk” symbols would make sense to all pedestrians, he reasoned, and would certainly help reduce traffic fatalities. He decided to give his clever creations noses and hands, to create a likeable effect in the hope of provoking the desired pedestrian behavior through an emotional response. And that is how the hatted Ampelmännchen, the purposeful-looking signalmen that have helped direct traffic in East Germany for more than fifty years, came into being.
The first Ampelmännchen was installed in 1969 at the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse, two major streets in East Berlin’s central district. The little men were so popular that they were woven into comic strips and children’s cartoons. Games with the Ampelmännchen were developed, as were stories for radio broadcasts. Partly animated Ampelmännchen stories were broadcast once a month as part of the East German children’s bedtime program Sandmännchen (Little Sandman), which had one of the largest viewing audiences in the GDR. In the 1980s, parents and teachers spearheaded an initiative to make the symbol become part of road safety education for children. In the 1990s, however, the Ampelmännchen almost faced extinction. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, newly unified Germany decided to rid itself of some vestiges of the GDR, including its street and traffic signs as well as its pedestrian traffic signals. The East German safety education programs featuring the Ampelmännchen vanished. In 1997, the country prepared to switch to the more generic-looking West German traffic light man. East Germans, many of whom felt they had been treated like second-class German citizens during and following the reunification process, were outraged. They pushed back and their protests led to calls to save the East German version of the Ampelmännchen as a part of East German culture. A group rightfully called “Rescue the Ampelmännchen” successfully lobbied the government for their preservation, and the little traffic light men returned to pedestrian crossings. Since that time, the Ampelmännchen has become a virtual mascot for the East German nostalgia movement, known as Ostalgie.
Ampelmann and Sandmann are two of the few cultural icons from the East that survived the change in direction that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Today, Ampelmännchen are omnipresent throughout what once was the German Democratic Republic and have been embraced by East and West Germans alike. The Ampelmännchen are not only installed on pedestrian traffic signals in Eastern Germany, but also in the eastern and some of the western districts of Berlin, as well as in some western German cities. In 2004, Joachim Rossberg invented the female counterpart to the Ampelmännchen, the Ampelfrau, which was installed on some traffic lights in eastern German cities, including Dresden and Zwickau. Ampelfrau is a squat, girlish figure with pigtails and a full skirt. There are three official Ampelmännchen variations in modern-day Germany—the much-revered East German version, the traditional West German version, and the pan-German Ampelmännchen that was introduced in 1992. Each German state has the right to determine the version it is going to use. East Germans have changed the look of Ampelmännchen traffic lights as a joke since the early 1980s. Some variations are Ampelmännchen with umbrella, with bicycle, and as warning light. But the best variation for sure is the one the West German city of Bad Nauheim created in Elvis Presley’s honor in 2018. When Elvis was a soldier stationed in Germany, from October 1958 to March 1960, he lived in Bad Nauheim. The “King of Rock and Roll” Ampelmännchen shows a silhouette of Elvis, who gives the “WALK” signal when he starts his signature hip swinging. How clever!
Ampelmann has become a cult figure and an iconic brand with a flagship store in Berlin’s Hackesche Höfe marketplace. There and on the Ampelmann website one can purchase all sorts of products—souvenirs, fashion accessories, clothing items, and more—featuring the East German Ampelmännchen logo. If you would like to see some of these innovative consumer goods and perhaps do a little shopping, click on this link: https://www.ampelmannshop.com
For the information presented above, I relied primarily on the following online sources:
1. “Ampelmännchen,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ampelmännchen. 8 pp.
2. “The Development of the East German Ampelmännchen,” https://www.ampelmann.de/en/a-brand-with-a-history. 11 pp.
3. Olga Khazan, “The ‘Little Traffic Light Man’ That Could,” https://www.theatlantic.com/international. September 25, 2013. 7 pp.