Monday, November 09, 2009

The Rise of the Ampelmännchen: Thoughts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was a teenager when I was born, and I was a teenager when it fell. When the thing was up, it sat there, carving Berlin into two, immutable, eternal. And then it was gone.

The Berlin Wall, known to most Germans simply as “die Mauer” opened 20 years ago today, allowing East Germans to cross freely into West Berlin for the first time in 27 years without being shot. It is difficult to successfully articulate today how strange and exhilarating it was to watch this event unfold - watching all the programming that reflects on it 20 years later, many of the people who were there are still baffled by why it happened.

But perhaps more shocking still, is the fact that, 20 years on, East Germany simply disappeared. The Wall fell and took an entire nation with it. And East Germany did not just disappear politically – its very existence has disappeared from the minds of most people in the English-speaking world. To many, a unified Germany signifies an expanded West Germany, and not the coming together of two nations with very different paths, ideologically and existentially opposed to each other, and yet now one.

There are many reasons for this mass forgetting, but part of it has to do with, surprisingly, commodities.

The recent film Das Leben der Anderen rekindled popular interest in the former East Germany. Highly acclaimed, it was praised for its authenticity as an accurate representation of the Ministry of State Security, or the Stasi. However, in the film, the moment the Wall falls is more reflective of the current view of the former East Germany than the euphoric days and months following November 9, 1989.

Das Leben der Anderen captures the fall simply and brilliantly – when the principal character discovers the Wall has come down, he, who had been consigned to steaming open East German mail after helping a well-known playwright subvert the state, gets up from his chair and walks out the door.

This silently taking leave of his work implies to the viewer that the principal character knows more than he possibly could have at the time. It signals that the entire promise of East Germany is no more. The socialist mission, the way of life, is gone, forever. This moment identifies less with the jubilation of 1989 and more with German unification, the absorption of communist East Germany into capitalist West Germany, and the nearly 20 years of high unemployment in the former East Germany.

That East Germany is no more is further evinced by Ostalgie, the nostalgia for East Germany – what is nostalgia but a longing for something irretrievable? And yet, even the symbol of the Ostalgie movement, Ampelmännchen, the old East German crossing signal figure, is ultimately more representative of the new reality of a unified Germany than an expression of the concrete past of the East.

Signalling his own transformation from a symbolic point of difference between East and West into a commodity that unites them, Ampelmännchen is now available on a wide variety of consumer products. There is even an Ampelmann Restaurant in Berlin.

The figure still occupies a role in traffic control, yet this has been superseded by his role as a design icon who can hold a pencil or adorn a mug. As the website devoted to his products notes:

“Now they (Ampelmännchen) can be found again, mainly in the new federal states on secondary roads and municipal streets. Only the west or euro traffic light man is allowed to glow on main roads, in accordance with the Traffic Signals Directive. In the meantime there are selected crossings in a few West German towns where pedestrians are directed by the East ampel men. But this should be viewed as no more than an act of solidarity, because despite the advantages, a general change over in the other direction has never entered the discussion."

In other words, Ampelmännchen is an anachronism, no longer the standard; the figure is no longer a functional representative of the country that birthed him. His meaning has changed, and with him the meaning of what it is to be East German. Through the power of capitalism, Ampelmännchen, with his restaurant and fashion shows, has never been less East German.

And yet, perhaps this was all to be expected. If one watches 1950's DDR films like Meine Frau Macht Musik, or peruses Taschen's DDR design, it quickly becomes apparent that part of what killed East Germany, beyond its truly lousy government, was that it attempted to offer West Germany to its citizens while rejecting the economic system that West Germany was founded upon.

The fall of the Berlin Wall took East Germany away. But tearing down a wall does not build a country, nor does celebrating the Ampelmännchen. Throughout all the celebrations, there are deep fissures which have yet to be filled, in part because the discourse in which people operate in Germany can contain only one side.

The long and painful process of cultural and spiritual reintegration between the Germanys continues, 20 years on, and will likely still be going on when my own son becomes a teenager.

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