This year has been the year of the roaring zeros in the eastern part of Germany, as many universities, private firms and organizations in the former East German states of Mecklenburg-Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia are celebrating 20 years of existence and the nostalgia that had existed prior to the Revolution of 1989 managed to make its way to the main stream of German culture and international prominence; especially after 50 years.
Strangely enough, the pedestrian traffic lights in the eastern part of Germany happen to fall into the category of international prominence. 50 years ago this year, Karl Peglau of the Ministry of Transportation got a bit creative and tried to present the then German Democratic Republic with a mannequin figure, who stretched its arms out in red to alert the pedestrians to stop and waltzed across the street whistling his favorite tune in green, as seen in the photos taken below:
The Socialist Party eventually approved the introduction of the mannequin figure traffic light for the pedestrian crossings, and the first one was installed in Berlin in 1969 in the suburb of Mitte. It became a ‘household product’ typical of East Germany afterwards as the drivers of the Trabant automobile (another East German product one can still see on the streets today but in fewer numbers) and pedestrians alike were awed by its appearance in the streets of Weimar, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Rostock, Potsdam, just to name a few. Even more so is the fact that Peglau and later others did not stop there with their creative mannequin figure as it presented itself in many different forms; especially in green, which made it even more popular among the residents and visitors passing through the country- from the east, that is (the borders to the west were closed the same year Peglau invented the beloved mannequin figure). Over the years, more than 30 different green mannequins appeared on the traffic lights ranging from a small girl carrying a Valentine’s heart to her sweetheart to a small child carrying a lantern at night to celebrate St. Martin’s Day (which is celebrated in November) or St. Nicholas carrying his bag full of toys to fill in the shoes of small children on St. Nicholas’ Day (which is celebrated on 6 December). A gallery of examples the author photographed while in Erfurt in October of this year is provided below for the reader’s enjoyment:
While the mannequin was not popular in the western part of Germany and therefore not adopted after 1989, a person from Baden-Wurttemberg decided to market the beloved mannequin and today, one can buy a T-shirt with the walking green mannequin figure on it, drink coffee in a cup with the red mannequin figure on it, or buy a poster with a drunken green mannequin on it as it tries for another bottle of beer (believe it or not, it exists.) But those are just to name a few. It is highly doubtful the pedestrian traffic lights in western Germany or even the ones in the US would stand a match against the ones in eastern Germany and therefore be marketed in a way that people will buy them.
But despite its popularity that exists in the eastern part of Germany and the fact that people elsewhere are embracing it through merchandise and photos, in the eyes of many people still (after 21 years), it is considered an “Ossie” product from the former Socialist regime, which stressed the importance of Marxism and Leninism and is therefore considered “evil.” More alarming is the fact that many people (even in the USA) believe that there are two Germanys still, even though they have been reunified for 21 years (3 October is the anniversary of the reunification of Germany and is declared a national holiday). On the contrary though, despite our thinking of a “Wessie” (as the eastern Germans considered the westerners before and after 1989), many countries have embraced some of the products and structures that had existed before 1989. In particular, the Scandanavian countries (Finland and Sweden) adopted the education system of the former East Germany because of its clear structure and learning levels that students can achieve in 13 years. Many countries still have government-owned health insurance and/or obliges the residents to have health insurance so that they do not have to worry about paying out of their pockets for the most important operations that can save their lives. And even in the western half of Germany, the people are embracing some of the TV programs that originate from the eastern part, like Sandman, the Fox and the Elster (a black and white bird found mostly in the eastern part), and other cartoon shows. During my trek to the Christmas markets last year in Nuremberg and Frankfurt (Main), one can see eastern German specialties there that are worth tasting, like the famous Thuringian bratwurst.
It is time that we crack open the books, travel to these regions, and put aside the differences that apparently still divides East and West and embrace the cultures of one another, perhaps even adopting them for the good of oneself and the rest of society. Learning something new once a day will not harm the person but will make him/her more informative than before. This was the mentality that the late news anchor Peter Jennings took when he learned something new everyday and found ways of informing the public about it in his newscast World News Tonight, which he hosted for 23 years until he succumbed to cancer in 2006. While the mannequin traffic light is the tiniest aspect that one would even dream of writing, it represents a fraction of the culture and history that is worth reading about, even if it came from the former East Germany. And with globalization dominating every aspect of life, one should embrace rather be inclusive, for learning about something every day will make a person more open to the world and wiser than the one who is ignorant.
Link to the story (German): http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/Ampelmann100.html