East Berlin Ostalgie: Ampelmaennchen (Ampelmann)

by Chris on October 13, 2010

The hatted Ampelmann (Ampelmaennchen), who has guided pedestrians across East Berlin crosswalks since the early 1960s, is now a symbol of East German ostalgie, or nostalgia.


Ampelmann, Berlin, Germany

Walking around Berlin, few blatant signs remain as reminders of the German capitol’s divided past. One that does: the beloved Ampelmaennchen, the hatted characters that appear as pedestrian guides on Berlin’s traffic lights.

Ampelmannchen, Berlin, Germany

Also known as Ampelmann, the characters were introduced in East Berlin 1961 as visual cues to help pedestrians make better traffic decisions. The red Ampelmann has his arms out as a physical barrier, while the green Ampelman strides confidentially across the street. Almost immediately, they became popular, showing up in cartoon strips, TV shows and other aspects of East German life.

Ampelmann, Berlin, Germany

When Germany reunified after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the country wanted to standardize the pedestrian lights in both areas of the city. But people in the former German Democratic Republic loved the Ampelmann, and successfully campaigned to save him as a symbol of East German culture.

Ampelmann, Berlin, Germany

Now the Ampelmann is an unofficial mascot of Berlin, and a good representation of Ostalgie, a pop culture phenomenon based on nostalgia for artifacts from the GDR. You can find him on totebags, T-shirts, mousepads – even represented in gummi candy –  at Ampelmann, a store that specializes in crosswalk paraphernalia.

Ampelmann, Berlin, Germany

I couldn’t resist buying an Ampelmann long-sleeved T-shirt.

There’s also an Ampelmann store on the Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s prettiest squares, with two Protestant domed churches and the gorgeous NeoClassical Konzerthaus. We’re staying here for our first night, courtesy of the five-star Sofitel Berlin Gendarmenmarkt. It seems like a great area to have as a base, as you’re close to Berlin’s premier boulevard Unter den Linden, the shops of upscale Friedrichstrasse and Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the sights on Museum Island. Yet the area is quiet, with very little street noise. So far, I’m loving it (if only this cold could disappear!)

I’ve been in Germany since Friday and will be here until Oct. 17. Look for more posts on Berlin, as well as the Saxon cities of Dresden and Leipzig, in the next few weeks. And if you have a great Berlin restaurant rec for me, send it along!

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Camels & Chocolate October 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm

I totally have the Ampel(wo)mann bag from that same shop from my trip to Berlin last year! And I only used it for the first time yesterday, too, though I’m about to make it my puppy’s official “diaper bag” =)

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Audrey October 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I was just telling my father about Ampelmann tonight! He’s visiting us in Berlin for the week & was asking for souvenirs to buy – I found myself getting caught up in the Ampelmann story…think he thought I was a bit crazy for getting excited about a pedestrian crossing symbol.

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sven October 14, 2010 at 4:53 am

Short question from germany: Do you call it “Ampelännchen” or Ampelmann?

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Laura Bly October 14, 2010 at 5:01 am

I’m kicking myself for not buying an Ampelmann souvenir last year. Be sure to make it to the DDR Museum…and I can’t wait to see a picture of Don in a Trabi 😉

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Chris October 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Ampelmann is adorable. We’re over in Ku’damm tonight, and I’m amazed at how much I like the Mitte better. The former East Berlin has really made a comeback!

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Meryl October 16, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I wish I had travelled around with you in Berlin. I loved the Ampelmann signs, too, but sadly never had time to buy a souvenir or shoot as many pix as you did. Did Don ever go in the Trabi? We did — what an experience, especially with four people jammed into one.

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Chris October 17, 2010 at 4:31 pm

We didn’t go in the Trabi, mostly because Don was concerned that he couldn’t fit. You should write something up about it!

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Judy Wells November 4, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Loved the ampelmann too, but stopped short of buying one as a e souvenir for anyone back home. Who’d care if they hadn’t been to Berlin post wall? Totally agree with you on East Berlin – totally new city compared with the west – especially after midnight!

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