By Robert Pimm
Financial Times Magazine, 29 January 2005
A tribe of extremely small men from the east has taken German by storm. These communist-era poster boys have found fame at last.
On January 5 this year, at the corner of Zeppelin Street in the quiet Berlin suburb of Spandau, a little green man made his biggest step yet in an irresistible, yet curiously congenial advance.
“He’s brighter,” says Eva Maria Kohrt. “Cuter. Funnier. He shows you when you can go.”
“He’s more colourful,” says Sandra Rieger. “Better for kids – especially at night.”
This Ampelmännchen is on my mouse mat at work – Photo Robert Pimm
“It’s great, the way he’s stepping out, with his hat,” says Claudia Schroder. “But he does look very… eastern.”
That’s about to change. Since 1989 the Ampelmännchen (little traffic-light man), who used to tell you when it was safe to cross the road in communist East Berlin, has gone through a near-death experience, been resuscitated and trademarked, and become a cult icon of the reunited city. Now he’s marching into the west.
Karl Peglau, chief psychologist in what was then the East German Traffic Authority Medical Service, designed the figures in 1961. “Good traffic signals need a big surface area,” he says, “and features that appeal to people. So I gave him a rather chubby build, and a hat. I was worried the authorities might find the hat, in particular, petty bourgeois.”
He needn’t have worried. By the 1970s, his little green men were installed all over East Germany. In an early hint of their star qualities, they were animated for a children’s road safety television show. But after German reunification, disaster loomed. “The authorities thought everything from the west was better,” says Florian Heckhausen, a spokesman for Make Design, which has copyrighted the motif. “They started replacing them with the West German traffic-light men, who are stiffer and less friendly. Or with the Euro-man, who’s even worse.”
At a time when everything East German was being denounced as defective, dysfunctional or just plain ugly, the little green men became something of a cause celebre.
A “Committee for the Preservation of the Little Traffic Light Man” was founded; campaigns were run; and in 1997, a reprieve was granted for the eastern part of Berlin. The same year, The Book of the Little Traffic-Light Man was published. In 1999, Make Design produced the first themed products, including T-shirts, key-rings and green and red Ampelmännchen-shaped fruit gums. Fame beckoned. “Everyone knows the Ampelmännchen,” says Mike Engelking from Hanover, in what was West Germany. “It symbolises Berlin, west and east.”
“It’s modern and appealing,” says his friend Julia Krensing. “It’s good they’re replacing them in West Berlin. They’re fun, happy people.”
That charisma is the secret to the success of the little green men. They offer an illuminated beacon of hope to anyone depressed at the global march towards uniformity. And they work.
“We’ve decided now that the new figure [from the former east] really is better,” says Manuela Damianakis, a spokeswoman for the Berlin planning authorities, “especially for children. From now on, every time a light needs replacing or reaches the end of its natural life anywhere in western Berlin, it will be an Ampelmännchen.”
With Berlin firmly in the grip of the little green men as the city gears up for an influx of visitors for the 2006 World Cup finals, the prospects for the Ampelmännchen look excellent. “We’re negotiating with a chain store in Japan,” Florian Heckhausen says. “The Japanese think the little guy has character.”
Eva Maria Kohrt is happy to see the traffic light man from the east in what was West Berlin: “It’s about time that we became one city.” But Peglau thinks his creation could go further. “My dream… would be for the Ampelmännchen to be used right across Europe.”