Autobahn has made inroads to German imagination since 1932
BERLIN LETTER:From the title of a 1974 Kraftwerk album to the myth Hitler invented it, the motorway system is set to speed ahead, writes DEREK SCALLY
WHO IS responsible for Germany’s first autobahn motorway? Hitler, you might answer. Wrong. It was Konrad Adenauer. It was August 1932 and Adenauer, later the first postwar West German chancellor, was mayor of Cologne.
“This is how the roads of the future will look,” he said, opening Germany’s first crossroads-free motorway between Cologne and Bonn. It was only 20km long, but offered four straight-as-an-arrow lanes, no traffic lights and an eye-watering speed limit of 120km/h – a considerable challenge to boy-racers in an era when most cars could only manage half that.
It was the birth of a legend that, within a year, had been silently subsumed into the Hitler myth.
In opposition, the Nazis railed against further motorways as a prestige project Germany could ill-afford, a racing route for “rich aristocrats, Jewish big capitalists and their interests”.
It was a widespread political view since the first autobahn test route – the Avus – was built in Berlin in 1921. But attitudes changed when an explosion in motorised traffic left towns choked with traffic. In 1929 alone, nearly 6,000 Germans were killed in road accidents.
The situation was particularly critical in the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr region in western Germany where, in 1926, plans were devised for a motorway with the less-than-catchy name “only-automobile-street”. A second name, proposed by a lobby group for a car-only route from Hamburg in the north via Frankfurt to Basel, was the “HaFraBa”.
In the end it was Robert Otzen, head of the Stufa car lobby group, who is credited with “autobahn” – a modern take on the word bahn, German for railway.
The motorway plan was given a lukewarm reception by the Weimar Republic traffic minister Theodor von Guérard. After banning private companies from building motorways, the minister agreed to co-finance the Cologne-Bonn route as a public works project. To have the maximum positive effect on the high dole figures, the planners were forbidden from using any kind of hydraulic diggers. The first autobahn, costing nine million Reichsmarks and employing 5,550 construction workers, opened on August 6th, 1932, as a twin monument to motoring and manual labour.
The new route was a sensation, and 2,000 car-owners arrived on the first day, grappling with new traffic rules: no stopping, no parking or turning and no transport of animals.