We just got back from a trip to Berlin. This was my first visit to this city with such a chequered past. Jeff had business there, but we took a few extra days just to see the sights. Our hotel was in the eastern part of the city, the part that until 1989 was cut off from the West.
For 27 years, the people of Berlin were divided by a wall. Life was very different on each side with those in the east generally getting the worst of it. So when that wall finally came down, the East Berliners were keen to participate in the lifestyle of their western counterparts. They eagerly adopted most things from the West, but where did they draw the line?
They wanted to keep their ampelmannchen, their little traffic light men – those cartoonish figures on the pedestrian traffic lights who showed the East Germans when it was safe to cross the street. When the reunited city decided to standardise all of the traffic lights with the common European version, the East Berliners wouldn’t have it. They just said, “No”. Their little ampelmannchen were a part of their heritage that they wanted to keep.
The birth of the ampelmannchen
These figures were created in 1961 by Karl Peglau, a traffic psychologist. Actually, Karl had the idea to use characters that showed the pedestrians what to do instead of just relying on colours which could be confusing, especially for children. He then handed over the task of creating the image to his secretary, Anneliese Wegner, who designed the charming little hat wearing ampelmannchen.
The little men become celebrities
These green and red characters were used in East Berlin to teach children about road safety. Then they went on to appear in cartoons, games, radios broadcasts, and bedtime stories. They were an important part of the culture.
They get to stay
The East Berliners eventually won the “battle of the traffic lights” and got to keep their beloved ampelmannchen. Now they can be found in other parts of Germany and may be coming to a street near you. Recent studies have found that people have a quicker reaction time to these figures than to the common, less expressive slim version, which makes them the safer option.
Let’s compare the German ampelmannchen with the standard UK stickmen:
You will notice that the ampelmann is shorter and stouter than his UK cousin. (A bit too much German beer and schnitzel maybe?) He wears a little hat and has a face (you can make out his nose and lips). He is walking with enthusiasm, head held high, taking wide strides and pumping his arms. I think the message here is to cross quickly, as I rarely made it to the other side before the little red man appeared. Now for the UK green man: He is also walking, but with less zeal. He appears to be looking down (to avoid potholes or puddles?) And what about sun protection? Where is his hat?
When it is not safe to cross the street, the red ampelmann takes his job seriously. He faces you directly and throws out both arms as if to shout – “No, don’t even think about crossing this street now!” Maybe this is why the Germans are much more obedient at their pedestrian crossings than we are. On several occasions, I stood on a street with a group of others when there were no cars coming, but the red ampelmann was telling us to wait and we all waited. The UK red man, on the other hand, stands there with his arms at his sides as if to say – “Well, I wouldn’t advise crossing the street now, but if you really want to, I’m not going to stop you”. You can almost see a little shrug of the shoulders. You have the impression that he doesn’t really care. And that is why we look both ways and then decide whether or not to obey him.
Little green and red women
In 2004 female versions were created, called the ampelfrau. They show a girl wearing pigtails and a skirt, depicted in the same postures as the ampelmannchen. Today both the ampelmannchen and the ampelfrau are symbols that can be found on countless tourist items. There are even shops solely dedicated to items carrying these logos.
It is easy to see why the East Germans did not want to give up their little traffic light men. They have charm and personality, they are child friendly, and as it turns out they are safer than our UK stick figures. I wouldn’t mind seeing them pop up all over Europe.
*Ampelmann (singular) – little traffic light man
*Ampelmannchen (plural) – little traffic light men
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