Saturday, July 8, 2017

Save The Little Traffic Light Man!

Hallo :-)

While I've got some time on my hands, let me tell you why I snapped this ordinary-looking photograph two days ago in Dresden, and why it makes me happy.

'Ampelmännchen' pedestrian signal 
 Pragerstraße, Dresden, 6.07.17

As you probably know, a few years after WWII Germany was divided into two separate states: the western, capitalist FRD, and the eastern, socialist DDR (often called the GDR in English). This division persisted for 41 years, between 1949 and 1990. 

From the point of view of civic infrastructure, 41 years is quite a long time  I mean, just think about how different the main street of your home town looked in 1976, compared to its appearance today. So obviously the two Germanies each went down their separate infrastructural paths, and they came to look quite different at street-level. 

A case in point: in the 1950s, the world got its first 'little green men' and 'little red men' at traffic intersections, telling pedestrians when it was safe to cross. The idea spread quickly, and before long, both Germanies had installed their own little traffic light men. But they weren't the same by any means. 

In the DDR, a unique* version of the stop and go men appeared. Compared to the standard versions, which were not much more than stick figures, the East German traffic light men were robust-looking and slightly cartoonish, sporting rakish wide-brimmed hats, and with visible hands and noses. Their creator, a guy called Karl Peglau, added these touches because he thought that having an 'emotional connection' to the Ampelmännchen (German for "little traffic light men") would encourage pedestrians to follow their recommendations about when to cross the road and when to wait**

Peglau nervously presented his sketches to the East German authorities, thinking his proposal would be rejected for its quirkiness. Luckily, he had no need to be nervous  the government of the DDR happily accepted the proposal, requesting just one alteration. The little green man was originally drawn facing right; they insisted that Peglau flip him around so that he was walking towards the left. This, they felt, would make him a more appropriate symbol for a socialist republic. 

The Ampelmännchen were pressed into service in the early 1960s, and they soon became part of the cultural furniture; one of those little, often inconsequential things that help to provide people with a sense of place and identity. They turned up as characters in children's books, on radio, in road safety cartoons and even in games. Although to be to honest, I suspect that many East Germans didn't realise just how much they loved their Ampelmännchen ... until, all of a sudden, they were threatened with extinction. 

This leads us back, briefly, to more momentous historical events.

In 1990, the two Germanies re-unified, and people all over the new Bundesrepublik Deutschland took to the streets in a mass celebration for which history supplies few parallels. The images of street parties were beamed all over the world (I remember watching them, wide-eyed, as a teenager in Australia). But at some point, the party had to end ... and then, some harsh realities would have to be faced. 

Western Germany had become a financial powerhouse; the wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle") of the 1950s had propelled it forward at a great rate, making it one of the world's most developed countries. Meanwhile, the DDR had spent four decades suffering from similar brands of governmental incompetence, indifference and corruption to those which still prevail today in several eastern European countries and in most former Soviet states. The result, natürlich, was an ever-widening discrepancy in living standards between the two Germanies. 

After re-unification, it was decided that this gap had to be bridged, and the way to do it was by massively investing in the East. 

The government diverted trillions of Euros into this project (not without controversy, of course), and eastern cities and towns started receiving badly-needed infrastructural makeovers, funded largely by the wealthy western states of the Bundesrepublik

Obviously this was a good thing in many ways, but not in every way. The DDR had largely been a disaster, but even disastrous states produce some things that are worth saving. One of those things, in this case, was the Ampelmännchen. As moves were made throughout the 1990s to standardise traffic signals around Germany, it became clear that he would soon be gone. But many people in the former DDR just couldn't bear to see that happen ... and so a grass roots movement was born.

The only coffee mug
you'll ever see on this blog    
Now we need to move forward slightly to the year 2000, when the Schmolympic Games came to Sydney. My partner and I had decided that the only natural, sane reaction to this frightening eventuality was to get the hell out of town for as long as possible. We therefore went on holiday to Germany and Scandinavia for three months, and we spent a good portion of that time in what had previously been the DDR.

This was how I first became aware of the traffic light men. When we arrived in Berlin, the campaign known by then as Rettet die Ampelmännchen ("Save the little traffic light men") was in full swing. The iconic green and red figures were everywhere: on bookmarks, t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, plates, postcards, deck chairs, fridge magnets, footballs – basically anything that you could print an image on.  

Once you'd noticed this (and it was impossible not to), getting a souvenir Ampelmännchen seemed as important as getting a piece of the Berlin Wall. 

In fact, it was probably even more important. At that time, every souvenir shop in the city had little chunks of The Wall for sale, but it was widely rumoured that nearly all of them were fake. Genuine fragments had long since disappeared (went the rumour), so what you were buying was just a bit of broken-up concrete slab from a random building sitegraffitied on two surfaces to look authentic. 

The Ampelmännchen products, on the other hand, were real artefacts of an episode of 'micro history' in the making.

I got a mug and a bookmark, and treasured both of them.

(Full disclosure: I eventually bought a chunk of faux wall too. Real or not, it proved hard to resist. I gave it to my dad, who hopefully still has it.)

When we came back to Australia, I was full of concern for eastern Germany's traffic light men. But you know, life moves on, and you forget about things. So I never actually found out how the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign ended. 

Since 2000 I've been back to Germany several times, but apart from one super-brief visit to the border town of Görlitz in 2012, I hadn't set foot in any areas that used to be part of the DDR

In other words, until I saw the Ampelmännchen in the photo above, I didn't actually know whether his kind still existed or not.  

And that's why the photo makes me so very, very happy. 

Simple, really :-)

Btw, with just a little bit of researchiness, I found out the campaign was in fact overwhelmingly successful. Not only did the Ampelmännchen stay in the cities where they were originally; even a few west German cities requested to have their stick figures swapped out for hat-wearing, prominent-nosed DDR traffic light men.

To me, all of this is extremely heartening, for a couple of reasons. In a world where you continually find examples of governments doing things against the wishes of real people, and said people being ridiculed, overruled or silenced in various ways when they try to point out what they actually want, it's nice to see a counter-example once in a while. The Ampelmännchen are exactly that; not a huge and life-changing victory for the people, true, but not an entirely insignificant one either. 

Secondly, although there aren't too many good things you can really say about the DDR, I love the fact that a few niceties have been retained. 

A Trabi on holiday in Poland 
Swinjouscie, Poland, 10.07.16

There are the trabis, for instance  cute, boxy little cars that remain a 'cult phenomenon' and may soon be re-born as fully electric, eco-friendly vehicles. There are also beloved and formerly state-manufactured consumables like Rotkäppchen (Red Riding Hood) sparkling wine and Spreewald pickles (the latter made famous in the brilliant and heart-breaking 2003 movie Goodbye, Lenin!). In the years immediately following re-unification, these things got throttled in the marketplace. But since then, they've staged dramatic comebacks, and are now firmly established in present-day capitalist Germany. And to this list, we can add the little Ampelmännchen – the babies that were saved just in time, as the bathwater was being drained out of the DDR. 

So there you go. That's my rant about the Little Traffic Light Men. I hope you enjoyed :-) 

I'll get back to my usual "Hmmm, that was an amusingly weird/ embarrassing/regrettable thing that happened during my holiday" shtick very soon.


(* I use the word "unique" here to mean "different to anything else", but certainly not to imply that there are no other interesting or quirky traffic signals around the world. Just one example from Europe: the Danish garrison town of Fredericia, where all the traffic light men are soldiers, some male and some female. And I'm sure there are many other examples. If you know of any, please share below; I'd love to hear about them!)

(** An interesting aside: 21st Century research has shown that Peglau was onto something here. Apparently, in a study, German pedestrians instinctively responded to the Ampelmännchen far more quickly than they did to the western stick figure.)

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