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
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.