In a world constrained by speed limits and excessive nannying, there is something wonderfully liberating about the German Autobahn system. It’s also one of few times when you can utter the following sentence. Well, at least Adolf Hitler’s got something right. I couldn’t resist that, but in reality, the grand-uber dictator very much just jumped on a successful bandwagon and then claimed the glory for himself, which sounds very much like him.
The German Autobahn, which translates literally as car runway, forms the basis of the first modern national expressway system and today stretches for over 13,183 km (2020) (8,192 mi) – making it the third-longest system in the world behind the U.S and China and when you consider the size of Germany compared to other nations, that’s quite extraordinary.
Then there is the frankly giddy prospect of travelling as fast you like, because yes, long stretches of the German Autobahn come without any speed limits, making it one of the few places in the world where you can push your foot down hard on that accelerator without any fear of flashing lights behind you.
Considering we are essentially just talking about roads today, the German Autobahn is pretty iconic around the world, but to start this story we need to begin a little further south in the land of pizza, pasta and excessive hand gestures.
The World’s First Highway
While the Autobahn can be considered the Grandfather – or Grandmother for that matter – of modern high-speed highway systems, there was a road that predates it, and since we do like to give credit where it’s due, it’s only fair we begin with here.
The Milano-Laghi motorway opened in 1924 and was the brainchild of civil engineer and entrepreneur Piero Puricelli. The road essentially connected Milan with the lake regions of the north allowing the well to do to escape the hustle and bustle of the city quickly and efficiently. This was a time when there were only roughly 41,000 cars in Italy with most of the population still using carts, bicycles or even their own two feet, so this was very much a rich superhighway.
The First Autobahn
While the first autobahn didn’t appear until 1932, the seeds had been sown well before. The disastrous terms of the Treaty of Versaille had crippled Germany after World War I and while many believed they fully deserved it, if anybody had had a crystal ball at the time, I’m willing to bet things would have been very different.
With the country experiencing high unemployment and struggling to kick-start its industries once again, the construction of the Autobahn system was seen as a way of stimulating growth and prosperity in the country.
Germany had already dabbled with the Avus experimental highway in Berlin which opened in 1921. The Avus is a bizarre race track-autobahn hybrid which is technically the oldest controlled-access highway anywhere in the world. I don’t think I’ll be ruffling any German feathers when I say it’s not exactly the most interesting race track in the world with just two very long straights and four turns. And yes, that is it. The beauty of Avus is that it is also very much part of the Autobahn System, forming the northern part of the Bundesautobahn 115. Over time the closure of the road for racing events became more problematic and the final race was held at the Avus in 1998.
The first purpose-built Autobahn to be used exclusively by the everyday man, woman and hopefully not children, was the Autobahn 555, which still connects Cologne and Bonn and was built between 1929 and 1932. However, when it opened in 1932, it was still considered a country road and wasn’t given official autobahn status until 1958. The stretch of road has been nicknamed the Diplomatenrennbahn – the Diplomat race track – thanks to the high numbers of diplomats who were said to enjoy the occasional high-speed outing from Bonn, back when it was the capital of East Germany.
When Hitler seized power in 1933 the idea of a large-scale autobahn system was already well in the works and seeing the potential political benefit, he jumped on it. A man called Fritz Todt was brought in as Inspector General of German Road Construction and the system was seen as the ideal way of bringing down Germany’s uncomfortably high unemployment rate.
It was noted by visiting Americans at the time that Germany was about to begin building a huge road network but seemed to be lacking some rather important machines – namely cars. And it was true, certainly compared to parts of the US, Germany didn’t exactly have a vast fleet of automobiles. But luckily, Hier Hitler had another plan. He intended to provide the people with cheap and cheerful cars that would be for everybody – the people’s car – the Volkswagen.
In 1938, Dr Ferdinand Porsche completed his design for the new car and a production plant was set up in Wolfsburg. Over 300,000 Germans paid at least part, if not all of the cost in advance and no doubt many were rubbing their hands together with glee over the prospect of a shiny new car and a wonderful expanse of autobahn to drive it on. Alas, it was not to be. Hitler ordered the Wolfsburg plant to switch to military vehicles on the eve of war and not one German received a new car or even a refund. I know on the grand scale of Hilter’s misdemeanours this doesn’t even come in the top 10, but what an absolutely fraudulent idiot.
Workers from around Germany were brought to various camps along the new road projects and put to work building the Autobahn System. It is important to mention that this was certainly not always voluntary as many were forced to work under the compulsory Reich Labor Service.
It’s therefore probably not a great surprise to hear that work continued at a slow pace right up until the outbreak of World War II. During one of his many barely comprehensible screaming speeches, Hitler made the grand announcement that the Autobahn project would employ around 600,000 people, with 1,000 km (621 miles) worth of road added each year. Like many of Hitler’s blusters, this fell well short and it’s thought that at its peak, the project was employing around 120,000 people and by 1942 when things started to go south for Germany and Adolf Hitler, only 3,800 kilometres ( 2,360 miles) out of a planned 20,000 kilometres (12,430 miles) of freeways had been completed.
The propaganda image of healthy Ayran wonder people working joyfully on the Autobahn system for the greater good of the German homeland was utter crap, with able-bodied workers required either on the front lines or in the factories pumping ammunition and military hardware, the workforce building the autobahn system relied almost exclusively on forced workers and concentration camp inmates.
With new roads appearing around German you might have assumed that during World War II the German military would be barrelling around them, but the truth was the early autobahn system wasn’t particularly useful to the Wehrmacht. Trains were still far more efficient when it came to transporting large numbers of troops and as the war slowly worsened, petrol became more and more scarce, meaning that the roads were often left virtually empty. In fact, this was the only time when bicycles were allowed on the autobahn.
Although they certainly did get some use, probably not in the way that they were designed. With airfields around Germany high on allied target lists and often attacked from the air, finished autobahn roads were frequently used by the Luftwaffe as makeshift runways with the planes often kept nearby under camouflage. No doubt the allies began picking up on this and by the end of the war large stretches of the roads had been badly damaged. Work pretty much ground to a complete halt in 1943 as the Nazis were ejected from the Soviet Union with their tails firmly between their legs and Hitler’s plans began to implode.
East and West
As with many aspects of life after World War II, the sections of autobahn in West Germany fared much better than in the East. In the West, most damaged roads were repaired shortly after the end of the war, while in the East the pace was much slower and sometimes barely at all.
There was also a noticeable difference in users. In East Germany, the autobahns were frequently used by the military and state-owned farming or manufacturing vehicles, whereas in the West they received a much wider use. In the 1950s the West German government authorised the re-start in construction, while in the GDR, things were sporadic, to say the least, and when they did get around to repairing or even adding to the existing system, it was often done with materials greatly inferior that was being used in the west. Even today, there are roads such as the A2 that crosses the old East and West boundary where it is noticeable the difference in surface quality as you pass between them. While the Western section feels relatively smooth, the Eastern section is much bumpier thanks to the old concrete blocks that typically formed the old East German autobahns.
On 9th November 1989, as the world watched in raptured awe, large crowds gathered at the Berlin Wall. Nobody was entirely sure how this momentous occasion was going to pan out but after public relations minister Gunter Schabowski announced on live television that travel restrictions had been lifted, people began passing through the gates in Berlin or simply started smashing the hated symbol down. It was a truly historic moment and while I doubt too many were thinking about finally linking up the autobahn system in those heady days of freedom and reunification, it did of course mean just that.
While the epicentre of all the drama was based in Berlin, in the coming days checkpoints up and down the dividing line were opened and people began to pour back and forth across the border. In the coming years, Germany instigated its German Unification Transport Project, which included rail lines, waterways and of course new or improved autobahns. There were a total of seven road projects totalling some 17.3 billion euros, most of which had been completed by the early 2000s.
The Autobahn today
Today the Autobahn system stretches for 13,183 km (2020) (8,192 mi) and reaches to all corners of Germany, though if you look on a map you’ll see that the concentration is higher in some areas than others, with the west the densest and the south and north-east much sparser. This is either down to terrain, with the south much more mountainous or high levels of urban population as is the case for the western region.
In the last decade, Germany has undergone a huge widening and rehabilitation program on its autobahn system with the very busy A 5 in the southwest and A 8 going east-west two of the most significant upgrades. There are only a few roads now with just two lanes going both ways with most having three or four. It goes without saying this is one of the finest kept highway systems in the world with much of the tarmac laid using a freeze-resistant concrete mix which prevents it from cracking as much as you often see other parts of the world.
The system comes with 17,000 telephones by the side of the roads that people can call for motor assistance. Surely in the age of the iPhone 64 – or wherever we are with it nowadays – nobody is actually using these roadside telephones anymore, but surprisingly they are still used 150 times on average every day – a figure down from around 700 ten years ago.
It’s against the law to stop for any reason on the autobahns except for emergencies but luckily for anybody travelling the Germans do a fine job at maintaining rest stops, service stations and idyllic picnic spots.
The Need for Speed
To quote one chiselled aviation pilot from the eighties, some people just feel the need, the need for speed, and for those kinds of people, the Autobahn system is probably the best place for them. However, the widely-held belief that the whole system is free from speed limits is about as accurate as the dodgy propaganda back in the war.
The Autobahn system does have some speed limits but not everywhere, meaning it is one of the few places in the world without a blanket limit on speed. Limits are placed on certain kinds of vehicles and whether they are carrying passengers or not. For example, a bus with passengers standing cannot travel above 60 km/h (37 mph) while if everybody is seated it can travel 80 km/h (50 mph). There are also plenty of sections such as on-ramps, interchanges, specifically dangerous stretches and parts under repair where speed limits are certainly enforced.
So Germany must experience significantly higher levels of traffic accidents, right? Of course not, this is Germany, they’ve figured it out. Firstly, German traffic exams are fairly rigorous meaning that those who emerge from them are typically much better-trained drivers than in other countries. With the system also kept in excellent condition, the chances of an accident caused by an issue with the road surface are also drastically reduced.
And the statistics back all this up. Germany doesn’t necessarily experience any more crashes on the autobahn system than other European countries with speed limits on their rapid transit roads and the risk of being killed on the autobahn is about half of that on an American interstate. Whatever the Germans are doing, it is working, but that hasn’t stopped a steadily growing movement to apply blanket limits across the country.
Numerous votes have been brought forth regarding speed limits in Germany and so far, they’ve all been rebuffed. The Germans are proud of their autobahn system and the freedom they have on it, and rightly so. Those from countries living under the yolk of repressive speed limits often simply assume that Germans must all be out flying along at blistering speeds and no doubt causing mayhem on the roads. But the truth couldn’t be more different. The Germans are brought up to respect speed and also taught how to handle it – and I for one am all for it.
The autobahn system is a hugely impressive road network that has been evolving since the 1930s, but perhaps equally impressive is that this is an example of how people can be given greater freedom and responsibility to drive how they wish without turning the autobahns into the German version of Wacky racers.