Ampelmann: The Hero of The Pedestrian Crossing

‘I apologise in advance for my nation!’ These were the words scribbled on the brown wrapping paper, surrounding the gift my friend gave me on my last day of work in the UK. She chuckled wryly as I opened the present in front of me. What I had expected to be another Berlin guidebook, or worse, another German language guide filled with complicated grammar tables. Instead, it was something entirely different.

‘How to be German in 50 Easy Steps: A Guide from Apfelsaftschorle to Tschüss’ by Adam Fletcher, a bilingual guide to Germany’s quirks, has become my survival guide to this city. Heart-warming and hilarious, this book made me fall in love with this country and this city.

My current favourite, (although admittedly it does change on a regular basis) of the 50 steps is Number 8 ‘Obey the red man.’ Mainly because when I arrived here, I still maintained that devil-may-care, ‘what they gonna do…. Run me over?’ attitude that all Brits secretly harbour, and I was shocked to find that liberal Berliners strictly follow the rules of the road.

Every time I go to cross the road (and get my initial look left, look right, look left again the wrong way round) everyone else is waiting patiently for the little green man and his hat. Even after the traffic lights have gone red, and everyone knows that it is safe, people still wait for official confirmation.

Maybe it’s because the people of Berlin are all honestly law abiding citizens, maybe it’s just peer pressure and nobody wants to be judged by their fellow road crossing comrades. Or maybe, and I really hope it’s this reason, it’s because every Berliner is just a little bit proud of their history shaping Ampelmann.

I’m sure traffic light men all over the world are jealous of the fame of the Ampelmann, I mean the British green man doesn’t have his own chain of high street stores, nor does he have celebrities like Dennis Quad rocking him on a t-shirt, and he can just forget about his own cartoon. Yet all three of these things belong wholly to Berlin’s Ampelmann.

Ampelmann store in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO Akina Otsuka.

How then, has this pedestrian sign become a celebrity, and what part has it played in this amazing city’s history? Designed in East Germany in 1961 by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau, in order to stem the increasing number of traffic accidents that were happening in the city, the Ampelmann has long been part of Berlin.

Designed to be simple and easy to understand for young and old people alike. But that’s no different to traffic light men all over the world, I hear you cry, so why the love and adoration of a city? The answer to that question is simple, it’s the hat. Peglau placed a hat on his head, so that the people of the GDR would find some sort of emotional attachment to him, and remember all that he stood for.

It was a love that went much deeper than Peglau could have imagined. The GDR began to use the Ampelmann in cartoons, teaching children road safety, most famously as part of the Sandman cartoon series which was an extremely popular kids cartoon. The Ampelmann’s acting ability actually won him an award in 1984 at a Czech awards event for educational films.

The Ampelmann secured its place in Berlin’s hearts, history and traffic lights after the reunification of Berlin. However, it wasn’t secured without a fight. Following reunification, many were critical of the systems left in place in East Germany, including the cute little man on the traffic lights. In 1994, he started being replaced by his Western (and infinitely less loved) counterpart.

However following the formation of the Committee for the Preservation of the Ampelmann, and industrial designer Markus Heckhausen’s work turning used Ampelmann into commercial household furniture, it was declared in 1997, that the Ampelmann could stay, a beloved part of this city’s history.

So when Adam Fletcher told me to ‘Obey the Red Man,’ he was probably making light of the stereotypical image that German people must follow the rules. Yet there is part of me that thinks… you must obey the Amplmann for all that he has contributed to this wonderful city.

By Charlotte Deacy

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