Ampelmaennchen – former East Berliners

What is green and helps pedestrians cross the road? Ampelmännchen! Ampelmännchen is German for “little traffic light men.” Internationally, a generic walking figure or a WALK sign gives pedestrians permission to cross, a hand or a DON’T WALK sign implies to wait. Prior to German reunification in 1990, the two German states used different forms of Ampelmännchen: West German traffic signs showed a generic human figure; East German signs displayed a stocky male figure wearing a hat.

Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) created by former East Berliner, Karl Peglau

Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) created by Karl Peglau in 1961

History of the German Ampelmännchen

Until 1961, only vehicle traffic lights directed traffic in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The lights looked more or less the way they had in the 1930s. But the growing number of cars had led to an increase in vehicle-pedestrian accidents, which caused the East Berlin Traffic Commission to consider traffic lights for pedestrians. They asked East Berlin traffic psychologist Karl Peglau to design such lights. In early October 1961, less than two months after the Berlin Wall had gone up, Peglau introduced an icon of a little perky green man with a happy stride to signal permission to cross. His red cousin spread his arms like a human barricade. By the early 1980s, the icons had also gained widespread popularity throughout East Germany as characters in children’s road safety education programs, a cartoon strip, a radio nighttime story series, and on television.

Save the East German Ampelmännchen

Following reunification, traffic lights were to be standardized, and the East German Ampelmännchen were slated to disappear, much like other features that had once been part of life in former East Germany. Immediately, a campaign to “Save the Ampelmännchen” was launched with the result that those perky little guys with their human features were preserved from extinction first in the former East Germany, then in the former West Berlin, and eventually in other formerly West German cities as well.

The Ampelmännchen mascot

In the years after German reunification, the former East German Ampelmännchen became the mascot for an East German nostalgia movement because, as Peglau believes, they represented a positive aspect of an otherwise failed social order. Today, Ampelmännchen are extremely popular souvenirs with locals and tourists alike and are recognized worldwide as a brand from Berlin. Over forty souvenir products bearing the Ampelmann logo, including t-shirts, bags mugs, lamps, and jewelry, are hot ticket items and have become the German equivalent of Mickey Mouse. Also visit Ampelmann to marry Ampelfrau


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.



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