The enduring symbols of the former East Germany are not particularly cherishable; the Stasi, brutalist architecture, steroid-riddled athletes. But this week saw the 50th birthday of an icon of the German Democratic Republic who’s gone from strength to strength since German reunification.
The Ampelmannchen – literally, “the little traffic light man” – is the figure charged with advising East German pedestrians when to walk and not walk at crossings. He was designed by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau in 1951, and, remarkably for one of the most repressive of Soviet satellite territories, he was endowed with a buoyant, if not downright perky, personality. In “waiting” mode, he stands erect and poised, arms outstretched, like a pint-size version of Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North”; in “walking” mode, he strides out, arm raised, all zest and purpose. In both modes he wears a petit bourgeois hat, cocked at a jaunty angle.
The Ampelmannchen’s popularity – he’s spread to many intersections in West Berlin, and dedicated souvenir stores sell everything from Ampelmannchen earrings to iPhone applications – can’t just be put down to ostalgie, the East German nostalgia movement. For the beleaguered city perambulator, buffeted by everything from intrusive street furniture to charity muggers, he represents the Platonic ideal of crossing guardians; the diminutive, dynamic defender of the pedestrian’s faith. His warmth and integrity, compared to his peers around the world, is almost palpable. His Taiwanese equivalent breaks into a panicked run as crossing time ticks downward – an unwelcome reminder of looming mortality if ever there was one. His Spanish counterpart lunges along with oversize feet shaped like cross-country skis, while his Mexican stand-in flails like a hapless drunk. And he simply oozes personality over his generic stick-figure confreres in the UK, or the grimly austere “walk – don’t walk” commandments at American junctions.
In short, the Ampelmannchen is the plucky little Everyman of the intersection, signalling the temporary triumph of foot traffic over the motorised kind. He also embodies the triumph of warmth over cool – whether embarking on the pedestrian scramble of Unter den Linden or Hachiko Square in Tokyo, wouldn’t you rather place your trust in a man who looks like he knows where he’s going, and who’s determined to keep his chin up en route, rather than a blank husk ground down by life’s treadmill? By the time his 100th birthday rolls round, the Ampelmannchen should be installed at every major world crossing point. He’s a socialist leader that we can all happily follow.