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.”
In January 1982, an unemployed and broke French artist moved from Lyon, France to Mariannenplatz in West Berlin. His inspiration for the move was the music and cultural scene in Berlin – David Bowie and Iggy Pop both called West Berlin home at this time. His tiny one bedroom rental faced the Berlin Wall, and every day for two years he looked at the Wall and the East German guards patrolling on the other side. The area around the wall was always empty and abandoned. An idea began to grow in his mind, and in 1984, in a revolutionary act of defiance he started to paint the wall. With that defiant act, Thierry Noir became the world’s first graffiti artist.
Painting on the wall was illegal, because the wall itself was set a few feet within the dividing line, and was actually in East Berlin. Noir would paint, and quickly run away from the wall as soon as the East German guards saw him. Over time he developed a style that allowed him to paint quickly; simple figures with three colors that he could finish fast and run at a moment’s notice. He calls it the Fast Form Manifest and we have large simple cartoon like figures in yellows and pinks. From 1984, until the wall fell, Noir painted many miles of the wall. The Elephant Key, which looks to Picasso, Miro, and Basquiat for inspiration was one of his first paintings on the wall. Some figures, like the dinosaurs, represent an unnatural mutation – like the wall was an unnatural mutation in the city.
Another section of the wall was painted in 1985, “Red Dope on Rabbits,” – an homage to the hundreds of rabbits that lived along the wall.
Thierry Noir opened the floodgates and inspired thousands of graffiti artists to paint the wall, and between 1984 and 1989, the wall was covered with layers upon layers of artwork and graffiti.
Noir said painting the wall made him feel stronger than it. By painting the wall he changed something oppressive into something that became a symbol of the 80s, of the young – their passion, energy, creativity, and unfailing hope for a better future. The East Side Gallery, and the many pieces of the wall all over the world are, in my mind, some of the greatest works of art in the world. And for this we have to be grateful to the young unemployed artist who looked at the wall from his apartment window, and dared to dream, and dared to hope
The 1980s seems like a special time – it was the decade of Queen, Band-Aid, the rise of graffiti art, and of course the decade capped itself off with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin was like a small island in the middle of an ocean – except the ocean was the German Democratic Republic (DDR), and every road on this isolated island led to the wall. The wall which encircled them, also provided the rebellious youth with a massive, blank canvas. And on this canvas, they recorded their thoughts, likes, dislikes, ideas, in the form of written word and art. It was as though a dam suddenly burst in the 80s and an entire generation filled the wall with their musings; all the while defiantly defiling the property of the DDR whose brutal police marched inches away.
These youth were not unaware of the police marching inches away on the other side of the wall, nor were they unaware that the DDR police would not hesitate for one second to shoot at them. It was this fear, this thrill, this defiant attitude of using the wall as a canvas, or a community notepad, that gives rise to the raw energy that emanates from the graffiti on the walls. I found this raw energy lacking in the section of the wall that can be seen in the East Side Galley in Berlin. While it has amazing and meaningful art and murals done by artists from all over the world, for me, it lacks the heart and the passion seen in the graffiti from the 80s. It lacks the urgency of the graffiti from the 80s, and graffiti without urgency and youthful defiance is just art that grew up and became something your parents can buy at a gallery to frame and hang on newly painted walls.
I spend hours with the images of Berlin Wall graffiti that I find online. I zoom into the images, read the messages, and find connections. One prominent writing in red says “27.86 HHS of Moorburg,” which is a neighborhood in Hamburg, West Germany. Below that in black, “FACIST PROTECTION WALL,” and to the left, a black heart with the words, “From Russia With Love.” The black and white image has the words, “Realitat,” which is the German word for facing facts. A German fan pays homage to a favorite band – Raga Rockers 83 – a Norwegian band that recorded their first album in 1983. In Italian a “Viva Librealismus,” while a German “Mu̇ll” – which suggests tothrow something in the trash – quite apt for what most Berliners wanted to do with the wall. There’s a rocket with the word USSR on it, and what seems to be Reagan 60 written next to it. To the right, what I’m sure was a powerful antiwar sentiment – unfortunately the tree is covering some of the letters.
Another section of the wall says, “C’est l’historie d’un mur tombant. Mais l’important, c’est pas la chute. C’est l’atterrissage,” meaning, “this is the story of the falling wall. What is important is not the fall. It is the landing.” The quote is from French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La haine, which of course means this is an image from after the wall fell – regardless, I think it’s a great quote about the unification of Germany.
An artist boldly writes, “Take a walk, On the Wall,” and below that another writes, “Graffiti is like a drug.” At the bottom of the wall one sentence reads, “There is only one reason for art….to keep that” and sadly I can’t make out what the rest of it says.
Each one of these remained for probably less than a day; the next day someone else would come along and paint over it to or write directly over it. Some were captured in images for posterity, while most were erased even before, as they say, the proverbial ink dried. Yet, these images show us what made Berliners tick in the 1980, what they thought about, how they related to and lived with the wall. These images have captured real, honest, unrehearsed snippets of moments in time before the wall fell, and that’s why they fascinate me to no end. (All images courtesy Massimiliano T.P. Instagram).
Another town I went to during my trip to Germany this summer was the beautiful, and for me the mysterious, town of Leipzig. Like Dresden, this town too was part of the German Democratic Republic. The town has amazing architecture, and the long corridors and arcades with shops and cafés inside the old buildings were beautiful. Some of the newer buildings around the train station are covered in fantastic murals that light up the town with their glorious colors. Every corner of Leipzig seems to be brimming with history – either from the Soviet era days or prior. Composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn all called Leipzig home, and the town center opera house stands in testament to the city’s musical past. German writer Goethe wrote his famous Faust in Leipzig.
Leipzig played a prominent, though often overlooked, role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and dismantling the German Democratic Republic. The church stands in the center of a cobblestone square and was built in 1165 with the gothic tower being added in the 1600s. Every Monday, in the autumn of 1989, the Nikolaikirche, or the St. Nicholas Church hosted a prayer meeting that was followed by peaceful, candlelit protests for democracy and justice.
For three months in the autumn of 1989, on every Monday, ordinary East Germans, religious and the not so religious, young and old, gathered in front of the church and demonstrated peacefully. On Monday, October 9, 1989 over 70,000 protesters gathered peacefully, and, and the number swelled to an even greater 120,000 the following Monday. Not one gun was fired, and these peaceful demonstrations became the DDR’s swan song. One month after the first major demonstration in Leipzig, the Berlin Wall came down. A simple white palm topped column in the middle of the square commemorates the peaceful demonstrations.
As the 30th anniversary of the fall of Berlin wall approaches, I wish I was in Berlin to join in the celebrations. I can just imagine how lively the city must be right now – well maybe I can’t because to me it was so lively even without the celebrations – the atmosphere must be electric as the city approaches this anniversary. Since I can’t be there I decided to do my own countdown with a blog every day between now and November 9th on Berlin Wall, or some aspect of it.
Thousands of miles away from Berlin, in the most unexpected place – in the peaceful and leafy campus of Kennesaw State University campus there is a piece of Berlin history. A section of the wall, with a particularly cheerful graffiti lies on this campus. Well, perhaps not completely unexpected because I’ve realized that Georgia has quite a few sections of the wall. Apart from the one on the KSU campus, there is one in Suwanee (which I wrote about previously), there’s one at the Atlanta International School (I am so envious!!), the National Infantry Museum in Fort Benning has three sections of the wall on display in their Cold War gallery, and Freedom Park in Fort Gordon has two sections of the wall on display.
The wall in KSU was donated to the college by Chuck Clay who
is a former senator of Georgia. Mr. Clay’s
grandfather, General Lucius D. Clay commanded the American forces in Europe after
World War II and organized the Berlin airlift.
The wall was given to his grandson, Chuck Clay by a grateful city in
2000. He donated the section of the wall
to KSU in 2010.
The bottom plank of the wall was in the East Berlin side. It was included with the second generation wall after a soldier with a tank broke through the first generation wall and escaped into the West. With this plank at the bottom, the wall would have fallen on the tank rather than on the other side. This stopped people trying to escape by breaking through the wall with cars, tanks etc.
The West Berlin side of the wall is where the original graffiti would have been found, and the graffiti on this wall is a particularly cheerful one. The bright yellow, smiling sun or sunflower with almost perfect petals against the deep blue background is simply stunning and would have brought a smile to many West Berliners in the 1980s. There seems to be some green grass at the bottom, and words that I couldn’t really make sense of. The grey of the wall is visible on top where the white backgrounds paint ends, and I imagine there are many layers of graffiti underneath.
In this section of the wall, the East Berlin side also has graffiti, something that was obviously done after the wall fell. The top scene looks like a gondola in Venice, with a covered bridge on top. Below that there’s some interesting graffiti going on but unfortunately, I can’t make out what’s going on. There are layers of writings though none seem fully visible.
The students of KSU are fortunate to have this piece of history in their midst. For some it might just be a concrete sculpture that they walk past everyday on their way to class, while others may pause and reflect upon the history that surrounds this section of the wall. For me the Berlin Wall with its graffiti holds endless fascination; for me each piece of the wall is art, history, end of World War II, rise of Communism, cold war, fall of Communism, freedoms denied, freedoms regained, families torn apart, families united, unbelievably brave East Berliners, even more unbelievable miraculous escapes, and above all the resilience of the human spirit that has yet to meet a wall it can’t bring down.
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.
Earlier this week I heard the word Schadenfreude and it really intrigued me – that this very non-English sounding word was being used in English. It is a German word that means to take pleasure in someone else’s pain – for which we have no exact one-word translation in English. That got me thinking of other German words that we use regularly that were obviously ideally suited to describe something better than English could and so were adopted into the English language.
Fahrvergnugen – the love of simply driving – this is another German word that has no exact English translation. This word was used in German car ads and so became quite well known.
Wanderlust – intense desire to travel – this German word is so commonly used in English that I didn’t realize it was not an English word.
Doppelganger – a double who looks exactly like another person – this is another which is used regularly because there is no one word to capture its meaning in English. I’ve noticed the usage of this word seems to have gone up a lot and I see it quite a lot in Instagram – maybe people find their doppelgangers a lot more because of social media.
Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – another German word that describes the spirit of the times better than any English word could.
Kindergarten – children’s garden – interestingly another German word.
Kitschy – something that’s tacky – this is another German / Yiddish word that describes something tacky particularly with reference to art or decorations.
Hinterland – backwoods – another lovely German word that does the job better than English could.
Bildungsroman – a literary term most high schoolers who have read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” know only too well – and now we know the word is German.
Deli short for Delikatessen – another common work which comes from Germany.
Interesting how English adopts words and adapts itself – maybe that’s why it’s the most widely spoken language in the world!!