The Autobahn: Unraveling the Story of the World’s First Superhighway

Germany was the birthplace of the automobile. In 1889, Karl Benz invented the Motorwagen, the first practical gasoline-powered car. 

Well, practical is a bit of an overstatement. It had a top speed of only ten mph, was a tricycle, and had a steering system more like that of a boat than what we would today call a steering wheel.

Twenty years later, the descendants of the Motorwagen had proliferated among the wealthy. 

They wanted a place to drive their new vehicles without interference from pedestrians and animal-drawn transport. 

A group of wealthy car owners formed a pressure group to build a road without cross streets isolated from other traffic. While this wasn’t called an “autobahn,” it did represent the world’s first highway. 

The road, built on the outskirts of Berlin, was intended to be 17 km (about 10 miles) long, but the city ran out of money and topped out at 10 km (about 6 miles). Then, World War I interrupted construction. After the war, it was mainly used to test high-speed cars.

The Early Autobahn 

The idea of a high-speed roadway was oxymoronic in the 1920s. While more people could afford cars, most averaged about 20 mph and topped out at around 30. 

Speed significantly increased once the engine technology developed by the armaments industry spread after World War II.

It seems strange that what we now know as the Autobahn got started long before cars could manage anything resembling high speeds. However, the logic behind the roads was almost never accommodating a Mercedes doing 100 mph.

In the 1920s, the Germans revived the idea of a high-speed road network. In the first half of the decade, the number of cars in Germany rose from 75,000 to 256,000

This produced a congestion level that the existing road system could not handle. In 1927, a proposal for a road network totaling 22,000 km throughout Germany was submitted but failed after the stock market crash of 1929 plunged the country into the Great Depression. 

Planners then submitted a reduced proposal for a road connecting Hamburg, Germany’s massive port on the North Sea, to Basel in Switzerland to facilitate trade along the Rhine River valley route.

The one stretch of this route that got started was a stretch of road between Cologne (Köln) and Bonn that was only 20 km long. The mayor of Cologne (and future chancellor), Konrad Adenauer, opened this stretch of road on August 6, 1932. Adenauer proudly proclaimed, “This is what the future of streets looks like.”

Laws explicitly limited the new road to automobile traffic. According to the Kölnische Zeitung from that date, “Due to a specific police order, every other traffic, such as pedestrians, carts, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and horse carriage, is prohibited from driving on the street.” 

This effectively restricted the road as a province of those who could afford to use it, as most Germans still depended on non-motorized transport for local traffic.

The Nazi Autobahn

Six months after the Bonn-Cologne highway opened, the Nazis took over the German government and placed future road building in doubt. 

Initially, the Nazis opposed building roads as a sop to the rich. Most workers could not afford cars, let alone ones traveling at anything resembling speed. 

In the 1920s, cars symbolized the class divide in Germany, which the party used as a centerpiece of its anti-establishment rhetoric.

In the German Reichstag (Parliament), Nazi representatives formed the core of opposition to the highway proposals of the decade. Once he assumed power, however, Hitler quickly advocated further road building.

The reasons for this are complex yet simple. In January 1933, when the Nazis achieved power, their situation was far more precarious than it became after they removed all opposition in the next couple of years. 

In the last election of Weimar Germany in December 1932, they had only achieved 37% of the vote. 

While this was the largest block in the parliament, many of the population viewed them with suspicion and doubted that they could tackle the massive 50% unemployment that afflicted Germany in 1933.

Of the major industrial powers, Germany was far more dependent on foreign trade than its rivals. When the Great Depression hit, countries such as the United States and Britain, both major markets for German exports, shut down their trade with high tariffs to strengthen their domestic economies. 

Germany’s domestic economy, however, still reeling from reparations and the economic dislocation of the First World War, could not compensate as much as the US or Britain for lost trade. 

As a result, German unemployment skyrocketed. In 1932-33, it was twice that of the United States at 50% unemployment, and it was the resultant domestic unrest that, in part, propelled the Nazis into power.

The Autobahn project provided Hitler with a handy employment project. Importantly, unlike factories, construction projects were geographically dispersed. 

Road construction could cement support for the regime in areas where that support was shaky. As a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues:

Nazi propaganda used the Autobahn as a powerful symbol of successful economic policy, putting an effective end to austerity—so that many Germans credited the Nazi regime for the economic recovery. In line with this interpretation, we show that support for the Nazis increased even more where highway construction coincided with greater radio availability—a major source of propaganda. The effect of highways was also significantly stronger in politically unstable states of the Weimar Republic. Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can raise support for autocracy when voters are led to associate it with visible economic progress and an end to political instability. 

Hitler embraces highway construction.

Hitler was suddenly present at groundbreaking ceremonies for new highways across the country. He associated his regime closely with this kind of road construction for more than domestic support reasons. 

The Autobahn was a technological marvel. No country had ever constructed anything like it (mainly because there was little need to, given the capabilities of most cars in the 1930s). However, that didn’t stop Germany from featuring it as a symbol of National Socialist progress.

Vehicles on the autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, 1935. Photo by Wolff & Tritschler/ullstein bild

It also had the additional benefit of showing to its neighbors and potential competitors that Germany had the excess resources to build a road network that outstripped demand. 

It was also widely seen as a mechanism for moving armies across the country and, therefore, a national defense asset.

This was the myth that Hitler sold to international audiences. By the mid-1930s, almost triple the number of people were employed in secret armaments industries than were employed constructing roadways. 

But that was something that Hitler didn’t want to trumpet as most German arms production was technically illegal at this point under the terms of the Versailles Treaty that had ended World War I. 

Hitler was content to let the world think his economic miracle was being built on the back of road construction, not the building of tanks.

The People’s Car

The missing piece came in the latter half of the decade. The “customers” for the Autobahn were largely seen as the “rich” and not the common “volk” (folk). Only the rich could afford the cars that could take advantage of the new high-speed roadways.

The solution to this problem came in the form of a vehicle designed for everyone, a Volkswagen or “People’s Car,” that would make the new freeway system accessible to everyone. 

Ferdinand Porsche, known for his expensive sports cars, designed the new vehicle, the first of which rolled off the assembly line just as Hitler launched Germany into World War II.

Construction lags

Even before the country went to war, construction on the Autobahn lagged behind plans. This should come as no surprise, as the regime drained resources and labor from the project to support Germany’s rearmament. 

The stated goal at the outset was for the Autobahn project to create at least 600,000 jobs. In reality, only 120,000 people were constructing the roads. 

As labor became increasingly scarce, slave labor from concentration camps was also employed in constructing the roads and given the most dangerous jobs.

At the outset of the Nazi part of the Autobahn project in 1934, the goal was to construct 1,000 km of roadway every year. However, by the time construction ground to a halt in 1942-43 due to war pressures, barely 4,000 km total had been constructed of the system.

The idea that the Autobahns were key to the Nazi defense strategy also proved hollow. While many saw their potential to move troops back and forth across the country, the reality was that once war broke out, there simply wasn’t enough fuel to execute this. 

Germany suffered throughout World War II from a shortage of oil. Its primary source for fuel oil was the Romanian oil fields around Ploesti, but those never produced enough fuel for the German armed forces to operate with any freedom. 

Polish army tanks using the Autobahn, 1945.

After the Soviets captured them in the autumn of 1944, the Germans faced an even greater fuel crisis and had to rely on synthetic oil to keep their mechanized armies in the field.

Coal, however, was plentiful, so Germany relied far more on its extensive rail system (and those of the countries it invaded) to move its armed forces around. Driving tanks on the pavement also destroyed the pavement and the tanks. On the whole, it made far more sense to transport the military, as well as resources, via rail rather than road.

Volkswagen also suffered from the outbreak of war. Very few were ever sold to the general public before the new company’s resources were switched over to military vehicles. 

Most initial Volkswagens became the famous German army jeep, the Kübelwagen, which was built on the same chassis as the Porsche design.

After the War

After the war, despite considerable damage to the system, the new West German and East German states had access to the bones of an advanced road system. 

The West Germans also inherited Volkswagen. The “Beetle” became the ubiquitous small car of the postwar world and a centerpiece of the West German economic miracle.

The Autobahn system impressed General Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied armies that entered Germany in 1945. He saw its potential as a military network and a driver of economic growth. 

When he became president in 1953, he set about replicating the Autobahn in the United States through the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.

Konrad Adenauer, the former mayor of Cologne who cut the ribbon on the first part of the Autobahn system on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power, became the first chancellor of postwar Germany. An early advocate of the roadway system, Adenauer launched a major expansion of the system in the 1950s.

It is ironic that the West German government (as well as its counterpart in the East) implemented the same economic drivers that its Nazi predecessor did. 

The West German “Economic Miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder) of the postwar years was based on transportation, particularly the expansion of car ownership and the roads necessary to carry all those new cars. This formed the roots of the modern Autobahn system.

After the Cold War, the East German system was connected to the West German one to create the full system in operation today. However, we can trace the core of this system back to the early days of automotive travel. 

Even before the speed of cars made such things necessary, the Autobahn created the idea of a limited access highway with all the necessary on-ramps and subsidiary road features that are commonplace today.

The Autobahn has recently come under criticism because, like all roadway systems, it is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to calls to get rid of the unlimited speed limits that still feature on most Autobahn stretches. 

Germany is also experimenting with electrifying some sections of the roads so that long-haul trucks can use electricity rather than burning fossil fuels. The Autobahn continues to be a hub of technological innovation as we confront the challenges of the next century of personal travel.

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