The first section of the Nazi-built freeway, a 14-mile stretch between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, was completed on 19 May 1935. Words by Thomas Zeller, author of Driving Germany: the landscape of the German autobahn.
At a time when the prospect of building roads could create excitement, Germany’s Nazi dictatorship inaugurated its autobahn system, a nationwide network of four-lane divided highways without intersections.
Fritz Todt, a long-time Nazi and civil engineer, was in charge of the autobahn project. His charge to build 1,000km of these roads annually resulted in hasty planning and construction, as well as poor labour conditions for the autobahn workers.
One reason the Nazis adopted the autobahn was its potential for propaganda. Although pre-Nazi lobbies had suggested such roads, Hitler claimed to have invented the idea and took part in ground-breaking ceremonies broadcast on radio.
Hitler, who never earned a driver’s licence, and his entourage were the first to ride on completed roads in grand celebrations. They were built for a populace defined as Aryan: Germans defined as Jews had to surrender their licences by the late 1930s.
Some stretches of the autobahn were straight enough to be used as race tracks. In 1938, Bernd Rosemeyer died while setting a speed record near Frankfurt. Here, Luigi Cannava in a streamlined Motoguzzi attempts world records in 1952 near Munich.
Under Nazi rule, some 3,600km of autobahn were built in Germany and Austria. Since the simultaneous effort to provide cheap cars (Volkswagen) mostly failed, the autobahn became a white elephant with little traffic. Freight traffic picked up after 1950.
West Germans used the autobahn to visit West Berlin, but were often at the whim of the East German authorities. Road conditions in the East deteriorated to the point where Bonn paid millions of marks for the upkeep of routes to and from Berlin.
The post-war division of Germany meant that some stretches of the autobahn did not align with the border between the American and Soviet zones. A detour of 25km was the result on the Frankfurt-Leipzig highway. The autobahn no longer united Germany.
The electronic pop group Kraftwerk produced the musical version of a road trip with their 1974 song Autobahn. Using mainly synthesisers, the band surrounded a fast-paced journey with the sheen of a cool techno-romanticism.
Since 1953, the absence of a general speed limit has made the autobahn equally loved and abhorred. After the US interstate highway system and the Chinese motorway network, the autobahn is the world’s third-longest highway system.
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