Autobahn has made inroads to German imagination since 1932

Thu, Aug 9, 2012, 01:00

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.

Five months later, Hitler was in power. He soon reversed Nazi opposition to autobahns after learning the influence – and popularity – offered by road building. The Nazis were just weeks in office when, in February 1933, Hitler announced a massive autobahn-building programme. Soon the freshly elected chancellor could be seen, shovel in hand, digging out autobahn foundations for the press cameras.

Two years later, he opened the Frankfurt-Darmstadt-Mannheim-Heidelberg route and, in a snub to Adenauer, downgraded the first autobahn to a “regional route”.

With this bureaucratic trick, Hitler had now established himself in the history books as the father of the first autobahn, a myth that survives to this day.

It’s not the only autobahn myth. The notion that there is no speed limit is only partly true. Autobahns have many speed limits – for instance at intersections and construction sights – while, overall, a “recommended speed limit” of up to 130km/h applies.

A recent poll found 80 per cent of Germans opposed to mandatory speed limits. A hard core of drivers view any attempt to make them travel slower than 200km/h as an infringement of their human rights. The fastest recorded speed on an autobahn, fact-fiends will be interested to know, was 432km/h.

The 13,000km autobahn network, the fifth-longest in the world, entered the cultural consciousness with German band Kraftwerk’s album Autobahn (1974) but it remains a hot-button political issue.

Car lobby group ADAC says that, at 80, the autobahn is starting to show its age and that the annual €5 billion maintenance budget is a pittance. But Berlin’s proposed answer to more investment – tolls for private cars – has an effect on the ADAC similar to garlic on a vampire.

German cyclists – barred from the autobahn party for eight decades – are finally hoping to get in on the action.

Down the road from the first motorway, plans are under way for a 85km cycle route (Radbahn) right across the traffic-clogged Ruhr region, from Duisburg to Dortmund.

A study commissioned by the federal transport ministry found that Germany could save on six million tonnes of carbon monoxide emissions – 4 per cent of the annual total – if half of all German commutes under 5km were done by bike rather than car.

Some 80 years after Adenauer’s autobahn of the future was unveiled, the future in Germany may well belong to the bicycle.