Ah yes, “ze Autobahn”. Few other landmarks represent Germany more than its freeway system. Cologne’s cathedral is distinctively West German, and the TV Tower in Berlin is a GDR feat of engineering, but the Autobahn (literally “car runway”) connects the whole country.
Over the decades, it has morphed from a utilitarian piece of national infrastructure to a cultural icon that has spawned artworks, albums, merchandise around the globe – and even the name of an Irish pub.
But why has it become so legendary, and what relationship do Germans have with their Autobahn today? More importantly, is it true that you can drive as fast as you want on it?
First things first: the Nazis didn’t invent the Autobahn. Instead, the idea of constructing motorways connecting Germany’s expanding cities after World War I was conceived in the post-war Weimar Republic. The first public road of this kind was completed in 1932, linking Cologne and Bonn. It still exists – today, it’s part of Autobahn 555.
After Hitler rose to power in 1933 he used the Autobahn for political gain, appointing Fritz Todt as “Inspector General of German Road Construction,” and tasking him with increasing the Autobahn network.
Todt was behind a jobs creation program which, according to Nazi propaganda, helped eradicate unemployment in Germany. Autobahn workers lived in work camps near their construction sites, though often did not come here voluntarily – they were conscripted through the compulsory Reich Labor Service (that way, they were removed from the unemployment registry).
The true results of that motorway expansion were meager, however, and construction increasingly relied on forced workers and concentration camp inmates after war broke out in 1939.
“Due to the massive number of workers required to sustain the production needed to launch a war, they ran out of workers to build the Autobahn, making forced labor increasingly important,” says Alice Etropolszky, mobility expert and product marketing team lead at public transport service provider door2door in Berlin.
The forced labor, she adds, took place “obviously under very poor working conditions.”
By 1942, when the war turned against the Nazis, only 2,360 miles (3,800 kilometers) out of a planned 12,430 miles (20,000 kilometers) of freeway had been completed.
East vs. West
After the war, most existing Autobahns in West Germany were repaired and put back into use, with an expansion program starting in the 1950s.
During the Cold War, some sections of the highway were designed to function as makeshift airfields for allied troops in case of a Soviet invasion.
In the GDR (East Germany), meanwhile, motorways were used primarily for military traffic and state-owned manufacturing vehicles.
The difference in attitude when it came to motorway construction in divided Germany also means that even today, in a few parts of the country, you can still feel the difference when you cross from a smooth, West German surface onto the old concrete blocks that used to form the majority of GDR Autobahn, and your ride gets increasingly bumpy. Try it for yourself on the A2, just before Magdeburg.
The Autobahn today
Since 1953, the official term for the German motorways has been Bundesautobahn, the “federal motorway”. There’s now a whopping 8,080 miles (13,000 kilometers) of Autobahn, ranking it among the longest and most dense road systems in the world.
Most sections have two, three or even four lanes in each direction, plus a permanent emergency lane.
While for many Germans the Autobahn is an everyday, unremarkable sight, true fans still cherish it. Cologne architect Christian Busch is one of them.
“There are always technical developments that make a noticeable improvement for the user,” he says.
“The way it is constructed is an example of the art of engineering.”
The Autobahn is financed by taxes and maintained by the German state itself and not the regions it crosses. Cars have free access, but since 2005, lorries need to pay a “maut” (toll).
The Autobahn also has its own police force, the Autobahnpolizei, often using unmarked police cars equipped with video cameras to document speed violations.
They even have a TV series dedicated to them, “Alarm für Cobra 11”, which focuses on the action-packed work of a team of Autobahnpolizei in the Rhine-Ruhr area.
Speed is of the essence
Of course, the one thing that most people (think they) know about the Autobahn is that you can drive as fast as your car can manage. Astonishingly, that’s partially true. Some Autobahn stretches – for example the A3 between Cologne and Frankfurt – have no speed limit, giving the drivers the chance to let rip. As Tom Hanks once said about his Autobahn experience: “When you go past a sign that says ’120’ with a line through it, the gloves are off, baby. The government is off your back in Germany.”
In the public consciousness
It’s no wonder that the Autobahn has also left a cultural impact, starting with the “Autobahn” song and album by German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, which reached No 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.
The song also influenced the villains in “The Big Lebowski,” the 1998 cult classic by the Coen Brothers. In the movie, “Autobahn” is the name of the techno-pop band of main antagonist Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare) and his two nihilist bandmates (played by Torsten Voges and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass player, Flea).
Far away from the Autobahn, in Ireland’s north Dublin, you can have a Guinness at the Autobahn Road House Bar and Restaurant.
There are also some more thoughtful approaches to the cultural impact of the Autobahn in Germany. When the mainly industrial Ruhr region in the west of the country was named European Capital of Culture in 2010, large parts of the A40 were closed to traffic. Instead, two million people used it to walk, cycle, run, have a picnic or even attend a concert – all part of a public art piece entitled “Still-Leben,” or “Still Life.”
The Autobahn of the future
Today, Germany is the only European country without a blanket speed limit, and discussions around introducing one have always been a hot topic in German politics. Calls for introducing speed limits have been around since the 1980s, and have increased in recent years – not least because they could reduce CO2 emissions.
The Green Party attempted to introduce a hard 130 kph (81 mph) speed limit in 2019, but it was voted down.
Speed limit or not, another challenge is the Autobahn’s role in the climate crisis. Will it be replaced by train tracks in the future? Alice Etropolszky believes its “controlled environment” means it’ll have sticking power.
“In terms of human behavior, the Autobahn is highly controlled – people only use it to go from A to B,” she says.
“I believe that we’ll very soon see automated transportation of goods, which will be followed by a continuously more automated solution for passenger transport.”
But as Christian Busch says: “The long-existing focus on car traffic and the infrastructure that has grown around it in Germany complicates the development of alternatives.”
However, he thinks changes will have to be made: “The system is reaching its capacity limits and a rethink is urgently needed.”
For now, politicians and the public in Germany are undecided on the future of the famous Autobahn.
Leading the charge for more motorways is Germany’s highly controversial transport minister Andreas Scheuer.
Scheuer recently tweeted, “If you live in a village, you need the Autobahn!”, which drew the ire of many people living in rural areas who would actually prefer better public transport.
The German Greens, on the other hand, demand an immediate stop to most Autobahn expansion projects – especially that of the A49 in Hesse, as it would mean destroying a 300-year-old, 1000-hectare forest, the Dannenröder Wald.
But while its future may be uncertain, the Autobahn’s place in German history is assured.
Pedal to the metal: How to drive on the Autobahn
• It is illegal to pass a vehicle on the right. You must move into a left lane in order to pass, as the right lane is always reserved for slower traffic. Drivers on the Autobahn are also encouraged to keep the left lane free even if there is no other traffic, following the so-called Rechtsfahrgebot, the “right lane rule” – just to avoid being ambushed by a Ferrari (see next point).
• Unless you drive a F1 car, there’s always someone faster than you – so always check your left side-view mirror. You may be doing the recommended speed of 130 kph (81mph), but some German drivers will hammer past you at double that.
• Most importantly, there are speed limits on the Autobahn, always indicated by signs or overhead electronic displays. The legal speed limit is a black number on a round white sign outlined in red, and many Autobahn sections have limits of 120 kph (75 mph) or lower. Adhere to these, unless you want to make the acquaintance of the Autobahnpolizei.
• If you obey these rules, driving on the Autobahn is pretty safe. However, if you’re in gridlocked traffic following an accident up ahead, you’ll need to create the Rettungsgasse – the emergency vehicle lane.
When traffic backs up due to an emergency, drivers are required by law to make space for the emergency services. If there are only two lanes, they must move their vehicles to the far right and far left of the carriageway, creating a “middle lane.” If there are more than two lanes, drivers in the right-side lanes stay far right, while drivers in the third or fourth left lane stay on the far left.
Top image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images