The other day, while walking around Wiesbaden, Jay noticed a new display outside the Hessen capitol building: Ampelmann
The statue celebrates 25 years of German re-unification which officially takes place on October 3. This larger-than-life image of Ampelmann and the slogan “Grenzen überwinden” (overcoming borders) got me thinking about the state of Germany’s re-unification process and what Ampelmann has to do with it.
Let’s start with the history of Ampelmann (Light Man) himself. Designed in 1961, the hatted, striding gentleman was introduced in the former GDR in 1969 to bring attention to traffic signals and pedestrian safety. By 1982, Ampelmann had become a TV star as he promoted traffic education throughout the former East Germany.
But after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Ampelmann was in trouble.
From 1990 to 1997, the newly re-unified German government started taking down the East German Ampelmann lights, replacing them with West German ones. This was just too much for many former GDR citizens to take. Ampelmann was a part of their childhood and a small slice of GDR culture that the West Germans (Wessies) simply hadn’t taken into consideration. An opposition citizens committee was formed to save Ampelmann and he, and Ampelfrau, regained their place proudly at intersections throughout the five newly formed states of the former GDR. Not only was he saved but Ampelmann has gained a sort of cult status. In Berlin, for example, there are Ampelmann shops selling all kinds of Ampelmann stuff, from magnetic stickers to T-shirts. There is an Ampelmann restaurant and an Ampelmann cafe. And in 2010 a new Ampelmann shop opened in Tokyo.
While Ampelmann has been a commercial success, can we say the same thing about Germany’s 25 year process of bringing itself together? And better yet, is Ampelmann an appropriate symbol of German unity? Or is he just a convenient icon to use to commemorate October 3rd?
From Jay’s research, it is clear that the re-unification process has not been easy, nor inexpensive. Shortly after the two Germanies became one, the German government imposed a “solidarity surcharge” of 5.5% on Germans’ income. This tax was intended to help the re-unification process, assist the new democratic states in Eastern Europe and to offset the costs of the first Gulf War. The tax, which many Germans are tired of, is still in effect and since 1990, between 100 and 140 billion euros have been collected annually. Over 3 trillion euros have been spent overall. So, has the money been effective in re-unifying the country? Well, yes and no. Unemployment in the former GDR is still nearly twice that of the West. Wages are about 20% lower in the East and pensions are about 10% lower than in the rest of the country. On the other hand, living costs, at least for now, are cheaper in the East. On the plus side, infrastructure has greatly improved in the former GDR and cities like Leipzig and Dresden have seen dramatic economic progress.
But the real stumbling block in true German re-unification seems to be more cultural than economic. According to German media source, Deutsche Welle, many Germans, especially those in the East do not feel as if the country is one nation. Many of the old prejudices and attitudes of Germans in the East (Ossies) toward their Western counterparts still exist. To an extent, Wessies are still seen as arrogant, snobbish, selfish and superficial, while many Ossies see themselves as second-class citizens. One reason given as to why these prejudices still survive 25 years later is the contact theory. The theory is, that while the situation is changing, there simply aren’t enough family and friend connections between residents of the former two Germanies for people to feel as one. We’re not completely sold on this theory. For example, we have no family or friends in most of the rest of the United States, outside our home state of Oregon, but we still feel we are all Americans, whether from Florida, Maine or Nebraska. But then, we’ve never had our country divided into two completely different economic and political systems for 44 years. The contact theory does brings up some interesting questions however as to how the only other split countries, North and South Korea, would face potential re-unification.
In the meantime, Ampelmann will continue to represent whatever we want it to, be it either commercial or political success. And we can be pretty confident of a stronger re-unified Germany as we go into the next 25 years.
We noticed the unique walk/don’t walk lights,but never heard the back story before. Interesting analysis. Thanks.
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