Berlin’s light that never goes out
The Ampelmännchen is a cult figure from the days of socialist East Germany. (Siegfried Layda/Getty)
Berlin’s Alexanderplatz neighbourhood isn’t short of landmarks, from the futuristic silver sceptre of the TV tower to the Gothic spire of the city’s oldest church, the Marienkirche.
Yet there’s one icon that’s not so easy to spot – the stocky green figure in a fedora hat who stands frozen mid-march on the pavement’s edge. This is the Ampelmännchen (“Little Traffic Light Man”), a cult figure from the days of socialist East Germany who, at 50 years old, is still going strong.
The country’s first pedestrian traffic light symbol, he captured the hearts of East Germans, featuring on everything from road safety films to colouring books. The fall of the Berlin Wall almost meant lights-out for the Ampelmännchen, but post-reunification plans to replace him with a more mundane West German green man met so much resistance that he was saved. The Ampelmännchen has proved one of Berlin’s most popular exports – a memorabilia shop has even opened in downtown Tokyo.
For people closer to home, however, he’s much more: a leading light in a wave of nostalgia for everyday life in the old east, where employment and a stable livelihood were guaranteed. Tourists can take “Trabi safaris” round the capital in rickety Communist-era Trabant cars or stay in the Ostel – a grim apartment block hostel featuring the retro wallpaper and 1970s annuals of its glory days. It’s a trend equally evident in the DDR Museum, where visitors can admire starchy floral dresses and suspect-looking electronic goods.
Some think that this nostalgia, or “Ostalgie”, glosses over East Germany’s less endearing aspects, like censorship and secret police. Not everyone will be doffing a hat for his half-century, but I suspect it will be a while before the Ampelmännchen walks off into the sunset for good.
For Ampelmännchen memorabilia and merchandise, see ampelmann.de.
This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.