Sometimes you notice little things in cities that are unique to the city, and you remember them fondly if they brought a smile to your face. The Ampelmannchen or Little Traffic Light men on the streets lights in Berlin and Dresden made me smile. These are the really charming and happy red and green men that are cut out into pedestrian crossing lights.
The Ampelmann was designed in 1961 by East German traffic psychologist Karl Peglau. This cute traffic light symbol appealed to everyone the GDR – especially children and older people. The point was to reduce traffic accidents by having a light that people liked and almost respected, and would tend to obey more than regular lights. The Ampelmann was chubby so more light would come through. The almost straw like summer hat adds to the overall charm of the Ampelmann.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two cities united, and West German started to slowly remove all signs and remnants of the East. But there were protests to save the beloved icon, and today almost 64% of lights in Berlin have the Ampelmann on them. A souvenir industry has started around the beloved icon.
Karl Peglau explained the popularity of the Ampelmann, “It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification, giving the Ampelmannchen the right to represent a positive aspect of a failed social order.”
Dresden is almost too beautiful to be real. When the late afternoon sun shines on its churches and palaces, it almost takes your breath away. The Frauenkirche (Lutheran Church) sits in the middle of the old town center like a beautifully iced cake on a platter; just one of the many baroque architectural gems in this town which, until 1989, was part of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). The city was completely devastated by Allied bombings in 1945, practically every building was demolished. For 45 years after that, Dresden and its old town lay in ruins. Mountains of rubbles lay everywhere, untouched by the communist government, as a propaganda about the devastation of capitalist warfare.
The GDR constructed numerous buildings around the old town, punctuating the once baroque town with low and wide glass and concrete buildings that are quintessential socialist and communist architecture. The Kulturpalast (Palace of culture, 1962) at the edge of the reborn old town is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order. One side of the building is decorated with a striking mural called “The Way of the Red Flag,” adding color, albeit a symbolic red, to an otherwise grey concrete exterior.
The long narrow mural, is approximately 95 feet high and 325 feet wide, and tells the history of socialism. Almost to the center stands its most striking feature, a woman with a scarf typical of the socialist working class, her left hand stretched out in a welcoming gesture, while her right hand holds a red flag. The raised flag leads the eye toward the hammer and sickle symbol of the GDR. The story starts on the left half of the mural where Karl Marx (with a document in his hands) can be seen standing with Freidrich Engels. Below them a group of three men arm themselves in protest, and to the right we see the Red Star a sign of the Russian revolution of 1914. World War II, and its suffering, is depicted to the right of the flag bearer. The victory of socialism is seen in the depiction of groups of men of various professions, some holding guns while others raise their right fists. All seem to be looking towards the central figure of Walter Ulbricht the communist leader of GDR.
I discovered the mural almost by accident and stood in front of it for a long time, marveling at it, and shocked both by its existence and its contrast with the baroque architecture of Dresden’s old town. The fact that the Kulturpalast and the mural exist to this day, 30 years after the fall of communism, is a testament to the people of Dresden. The people of this Dresden have rebuilt their town back to its former Baroque glory from the debris that remained after World War II. Their love for art and architecture is evident from the fact that despite the passage of time, almost 40 years passed before communism fell, they started rebuilding brick by broken brick as soon as they could after reunification . It is only a city that has suffered and lost so much that will not be quick to tear down art, even if it is communist art. And we, the visitors, leave Dresden enriched, by both the people and the art and architecture of this beautiful city.
It fell with almost the same speed and surprise as it had risen 28 years earlier. From the evening of August 13, 1961 to the evening of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin, effectively cutting it off from East Germany which surrounded it on all sides. The wall was a physical barrier that cut through a city dividing friends, neighbors, and family, but more importantly it was an ideological barrier between capitalism and communism, and a powerful symbol of the Cold War.
This summer, I traveled to Germany, a country I have wanted to visit since I first read about the Berlin Wall in world history. The wall was constructed almost overnight on the night of August 13, 1961 by the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) communist government. The wall was called “Antifascistischer Schutzwall” by the GDR government who claimed that the primary purpose of the wall was to keep the West German fascists, who wanted to undermine the socialist regime of the east, out of East Berlin. In reality though, the wall was built to stop the mass defections that were occurring daily with people leaving East Berlin for the west. The GDR government was concerned about their dwindling population and the impact it would have on the East German economy.
With the slow demise of communism in parts of Eastern Europe, the GDR government too, in a most unexpected and unplanned way relaxed the barrier and on November 9, 1989 announced that “effective immediately” East Berliners would be allowed to travel to the West. The euphoria that followed this unexpected announcement was such that people started to climb the wall and started chipping away at it the same night. Within a couple of days, Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor of Germany, started to address the issue of “German Reunification,” thus putting events into motion that have eventually led to the Berlin of today – a city that seems to be bursting with life; still celebrating reunification.
While most of the wall is gone for good, an almost 1.5-mile-long section of the wall remains standing along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain section of Berlin. This longest intact section of the original 90-mile-long wall has become the world’s largest outdoor museum of sorts. The 105 sections of the wall have been painted by artists from all over the world, each one a unique showcase providing its own commentary on the wall, its fall and freedom.
Unlike the graffiti artist of the 1980s, these artists painted by invitation and had no fear of getting shot by the East German guards patrolling the wall. So while the East Berlin Gallery is an incredible piece of art that celebrates freedom and humanity, it does not have the intensity and rawness of the street art that covered the wall prior to 1989. The first artist to paint the wall was French artist Thierry Noir, who lived along the wall and painted sections of it with incredible street art almost on a daily basis. The amazing gallery that stands today is because of pioneer street artists like Thierry Noir who by painting the wall attempted to psychologically destroy it.