On Violence and Traffic Lights

In my class here in Germany—The Psychology of Ideology—the topic of ideological conflict and violence has been a recurring theme. One way to examine these ideological conflicts is through theologian Miroslav Volf’s discussion of “exclusion,” the state of sin where humans exclude rather than embrace the Other. These forms of exclusion can be violent or passive, hot or cold. During our recent trip to Berlin our reflections on exclusion were largely dominated, not surprisingly, by the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall. But our cultural, historical and psychological learning experiences have also led us to another intriguing example of exclusion (at least of a perceived sort). Interestingly, we discovered this in the pedestrian traffic lights.

Obviously, the Holocaust presented us with an opportunity to examine the most horrific forms of genocidal exclusion. I’ve written about our experiences at Buchenwald but in Berlin our Holocaust reflections centered on The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The Memorial was built between 2003 and 2005 and designed by the architect Peter Eisenman. Above ground the Memorial is dominated by a maze-like grid of 2,711 concrete stele which can be entered or exited at any point. Exploring the Memorial I did not find anything telling about about the symbolism of the stele but the effect upon me was like walking through a huge and highly stylized cemetery where the tombstones cluster around you, dominating your with their size, weight and grayness. As you enter the Memorial your head is above the stele but as you walk further in they begin to rise above you. As I experienced it (as a cemetery growing around me and above me, closing me in), the sheer massive weight of death engulfs you.

Beneath the Memorial, underground, is the Memorial Information Center. In the Information Center the exhibition strives to personalize the stories of the many millions who lost their lives in the Holocaust and whose names have been lost and will be, perhaps, never recovered. Powerfully, in the Room of Names the known names and biographies of Jews killed in the Holocaust are read aloud from the database of names from the Israeli memorial site Yad Vashem. Currently, the database contains more than three million names. In the Room of Names it takes six years, seven months, and 27 days to read the names aloud.

One of the joys of Berlin is finding the two rows of red bricks that zigzag through the city. These bricks mark the former location of the Berlin Wall. Today one can easily hop across the line, but before 1989, a short nineteen years ago, this line was a Dead Man’s Zone manned by concrete, barbed wire, armed sentries, and watchtowers.

Contrasting the Berlin Wall with the Holocaust we find a cooler form of exclusion but a form of exclusion nonetheless. In the early morning of August 13, 1961 Operation Rose went into effect, a complete enclosing of West Berlin. Berliners woke up that Sunday morning—Barbed Wire Sunday—to the new object that would become their ever-present companion for the new few decades: The Wall.

The wall was a violent act of exclusion although no one was lined up and shot. Suddenly, overnight, families and friends were separated, a wall between them. As Barbed Wire Sunday wore on events got desperate on Bernauer Strasse where the apartment buildings were on the East side but the street below was on the West. Many quickly scrambled out the lower windows. But as the Stasi (the GDR secret police, recently depicted in the movie The Lives of Others) cleared the lower floors many began jumping from the higher windows. Some fell to their death. Killed jumping for freedom.

I had expected my class to focus on both the Holocaust and the Wall as forms of exclusion and violence. One hot, the other cold. One concerned with extermination, the other with isolation. But during our time in Berlin and our stay in Leipzig we have discovered another interesting case study of exclusion, one Volf calls “assimilation.”

As I said, we discovered this third case study in the Berlin pedestrian traffic lights.

As you walk around Berlin (or tour cities formerly on the West or East) you are quickly hit with the non-uniform nature of the pedestrian traffic lights telling you when to cross or not cross a city street. We quickly realized that when we were are on the East side of the Wall in Berlin the pedestrian lights looked like those back in Leipzig, which was a part of East Germany. On the West side of the Wall the lights are different. In short, Berlin is a chorus of pedestrian traffic lights as West and East Germany had formerly used different signals. With the Wall now gone the pedestrian traffic lights now appear to the traveler to be a mixed and matched collection.

Being based in Leipzig we, as a bias, liked the East German pedestrian traffic lights. So we were thrilled to find whole gift shops devoted to these pedestrian traffic light images known as the Ampelmännchen. But we began to wonder, why are there whole gift shops devoted to Ampelmännchen chic? Who thinks a crossing light is cool?

The answer we learned is that the Ampelmännchen has become of a symbol of what is known in Germany as Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the old GDR East Germany.

In 1990, after the fall of the Wall, there was a post-unification movement to standardize the traffic lighting across Germany. The Western lights were to replace the Eastern Ampelmännchen. A protest movement began to save the Ampelmännchen. This movement was successful and the Ampelmännchen have remained in the former East Germany. Further, some Western Germany cities have adopted the Ampelmännchen as a sign of respect and solidarity with the East. Because of this movement the Ampelmännchen have become a symbol of East Germany pride and Ostalgie. Thus the Ampelmännchen chic.

In short, the Ampelmännchen are symbols that despite the fall of the Wall Germany still faces some challenges in their unification efforts. Easterners and Westerners, colloquially Ossis and Wessis, still have stereotypes about each other. Relevant to our discussions, some Easterners have felt that their cultural experiences and identity have been ignored and wiped away during unification. The Ampelmännchen and Ostalgie are manifestations of a refusal to be quickly and easily assimilated into the “dominant” culture. After the fall of the physical Wall these lingering unification challenges are now known in Germany as Mauer im Kopf: "The wall in the head.” In Berlin, as we danced over the bricks marking the former Wall, the traffic lights signaled to us that the psychological and sociological impact of the Wall was still very much with us.

So my class has ended up with three case studies of exclusion, going from horrifically violent to sociological subtle: The Holocaust, the Wall, and the Ampelmännchen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Ampelmännchen as it allows us to pose questions of respect and paternalism. As my students reflect on the Holocaust and the Wall those events are almost too immense to get one’s head around, intellectually and emotionally. Thus, it is hard to point to the workaday pragmatic outcomes for daily application and living. What can one take away from the Holocaust or the Wall that can make a tangible difference to daily living? The events are so epic. As are the lessons we take from them. By comparison my life is very modest and humdrum.

But Ampelmännchen we can get our heads around. The issues here involve simple respect for difference, different histories and sensibilities. It also highlights subtle forms of power differentials and powerplays. The attempt to remove the Ampelmännchen was not an intentional act of violence. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. Standardizing traffic signage is a reasonable thing to do. The moral issue was the simple assumption that the Western signs were the ones that would trump the Eastern signs. And in that assumption a moral lesson is learned, one very applicable to all of us: How often do we assume our way is the best for all? How often do we assume that the “reasonable” thing to do is to conform to our standards?

The reason this is important is that it illustrates the basic source of Volf’s exclusion: Making yourself the measure of all. The Ampelmännchen is a benign illustration of this, but the tendency can intensify when groups begin to see themselves not just as a standard but as superior in relation to other inferior groups. Pushed to its horrific conclusion we find the Holocaust.

I am not trying to say that the seeds of a future Holocaust in Germany are to be viewed in the Berlin traffic lights. But I am claiming that the dynamics of human violence are not qualitatively different, only quantitatively so. The seeds of the Holocaust are all around us. In America as well as in Germany. The moral nexus turns on how we treat the Other. And when I begin to assume that the Other must be like Me all sorts of evil emerge. For what if the Other refuses? What will I do to them then? Legislate them into obedience? Wall them out? Or kill them?

[Pictures of crossing lights, Berlin Wall, and Holocaust Memorial taken by Jana Beck, June 2008]

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “On Violence and Traffic Lights”

  1. it is great to read aboout your time in germany and the lessons comming out of it.

    here's a cross-cultural thing to consider in ideological manner: have you seen that some german toilets have a little shelf in them?? this is the older style, and is growing less common... i always have seen a bit more than just "style" there... but i will let you ponder it. ;-)

    cate (ampelmenschen supporter)

    ps: look for the ampelfrauchen! the girls are seldon, but exist as well..

  2. Hmmm....Shelf in toliets...I actually had not noticed but will look and ponder it :-)

    Some of my students saw the girl ampelfrauchen in Dresden. I, apparently, had my head too far in the clouds to spot them.

Leave a Reply