When thinking of the history of East Germany, some things that immediately spring to mind are the Berlin Wall, Trabis and the Stasi. Something that might not be so obvious, however, is the significance of its traffic lights. Seemingly unpolitical and trivial, it would be easy to glance over them. However, the 'little traffic light men' which can still be spotted across Germany today, are of huge significance for many reasons.
Ampelmännchen. Photo: Jos van Ouwerkerk via Pexels
Created in 1961, and in the shape of a man wearing a hat, the figure on the traffic light was named the Ampelmann ('traffic light man') or, more affectionately, Ampelmännchen ('little traffic light man'). The design, purportedly taken from a photo of East Germany's former leader Erich Honecker wearing a straw hat in the summer, soon became infamous in cities such as Berlin. In fact, at the time, there were children’s games and comic strips which had the little man as their protagonist, and it also featured as a topic of conversation on many radio talks. Children were also able to watch Stiefelchen und Kompaßkalle – a cartoon show broadcast once a month to be watched at bedtime. Needless to say, the figure became much more than a traffic symbol.
After Germany’s reunification, the government wanted to rid the country of many of the material legacies of East Germany, including the traffic light, which they replaced with a more serious, Western version. It was clear that this was not a wholly popular decision and campaigns appeared demanding the return of the traffic light, with the first one starting in 1995. That is to say, the ‘simple’ traffic light became a clear sign that many people did not want to forget Germany’s past, or even that some were fond of certain aspects of East Germany. It is clear that the symbol encompasses a certain Ostalgie - a deep yearning for aspects of former East German life.
Nowadays, it is possible to see the symbol on many traffic lights in what was East Germany - sometimes a fun indicator of whether you're standing in the old East or West in cities such as Berlin. There are also various designs for the Ampelmann, as well as the Ampelfrau, designed in 2004. Even some of the western cities in Germany use the traffic light, though in Heidelberg it was requested that this be stopped so that road traffic standards could be maintained.
The Ampelmann is also seen in a lot of souvenir shops, particularly in Berlin. Whether it be on a mug, a keyring, or even cut out as a sculpture in its own right, the symbol brings in a lot of cash. In 2004, sales of Ampelmann-related merchandise reportedly amounted to €2 million.
An Ampelmann gift shop on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, Berlin. Photo: Slaunger via Wikimedia Commons
Despite its turbulent past, as a relatively inconspicuous and nostalgic token of East German history, it seems the 'little traffic light man' is here to stay.