Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I’m in Berlin now, for the first time in ten years. I lived here for much of the 1990s, and much has changed since then. But the change that I found most striking is in the Ampelmännchen, the anthropomorphic red and green traffic signals that tell you to walk or not walk. When I was first in Berlin, the backlash against Western triumphalism was just starting. With the unification of Germany, all kinds of things that had been standardised within each of the former countries now needed to be standardised between them. In principle, this would have involved some sort of consultation and compromise between the two sides. In practice, the East was treated like a colony, and the western standards were simply imposed. (I wrote a long essay at the time about my perceptions of the resentment in East Berlin.)

The resistance converged on the Ampelmännchen. The East had sort of jaunty 1950s-era conspicuously male figures, while the West had sleek, modern, gender-neutral figures. They looked like this:

berlinwalksignals

By the time I arrived, quite a few signals had already been changed in East Berlin, and the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign (“Save the  Ampelmännchen“) was fighting to stop the losses. They distributed stickers with images of the Eastern Ampelmännchen, and hoped to slow their destruction. It was an inspired choice, since these Eastern Ampelmännchen are just so adorable. The arguments for the others — in particular, gender neutrality — may be convincing, but it is hard to contemplate their utter extinction without a pang.

Now, 20 years after the struggle broke out, I find that the Ost Ampelmännchen are everywhere in Berlin, even in the West. So, something has been saved. The rulers of the GDR vowed to create a Neuen Menschen (new man), but their only enduring success was the creation of a Neues Ampelmännchen.

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