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German Myth 8

Hitler and the Autobahn

German Misnomers, Myths... > The Autobahn Myth > Timeline


But he created the Autobahn...

Hitler planned and built the Autobahn. Or did he?

AB sign In reality, the first section of what would later become the legendary German autobahn network was constructed and built before Hitler came to power. Construction on the Köln-Bonn Autobahn began in 1929. During opening ceremonies on August 6, 1932, none other than Konrad Adenauer was on hand to inaugurate the 20 km (12 mi) section of autobahn running between Cologne and Bonn. Adenauer, then the Oberbürgermeister (mayor) of Cologne, proclaimed: "So werden die Straßen der Zukunft aussehen." ("This is how the roads of the future will look.") Adenauer supported the autobahn project partly as a way to create jobs during hard economic times. Later he would become West Germany's first Bundeskanzler (chancellor, from 1949 to 1963).

AVUS and the World's First Autobahn
But the Cologne-Bonn superhighway was not the world's or Europe's first superhighway. The credit for that goes not to Hitler but to Benito Mussolini. The 80-mile autostrada from Milan (Mailand) to Varese was the world's first limited-access motorway. Designed and developed by Piero Puricelli, the Italian autostrada opened to traffic in 1924. Unlike the later autobahn, the Milan-Varese expressway was a toll road and did not have divided lanes until years later.

But the earliest precursor of the autobahn was German. Construction of the "intersection-free" AVUS (Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße) began in Berlin in 1912. Not fully completed until 1921, the AVUS was essentially a closed race and test track. The industrialist Hugo Stinnes later purchased the roadway and expanded it to four lanes running a distance of almost 20 km (12 mi). Only much later did the AVUS connect with Berlin's public road network. Today it is part of the A115 autobahn.

Geschichte der deutschen Autobahn
Audio for intermediate to advanced learners

Nazi Autobahn Propaganda
So how did Hitler and the Nazis manage to take most of the credit for the autobahn they didn't invent? While it is true that about a quarter of Germany's current 11,000 km (6830 mi) autobahn network was originally built during the Third Reich, the early planning and design work was done by others. In 1924 the Studiengesellschaft für den Automobilstraßenbau (Stufa) was founded to begin planning for a German highway network. In 1926 Stufa published an ambitious plan for a 22,500 km German superhighway network. Its work was later taken over by HaFraBa, originally an agency set up to design a north-south autobahn that would link the Hanseatic cities (Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck), Frankfurt, and Basel. As late as 1930 the National Socialist (Nazi) party helped vote down a HaFraBa autobahn proposal presented to the Reichstag. Ironically, it was the work of HaFraBa that allowed Hitler and his chief civil engineer Dr. Fritz Todt to proceed with autobahn construction in 1933, the year Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Hitler quickly realized the propaganda value he could get from promoting the autobahn. He and the Nazis found it easy to take credit for the earlier work of others and make it seem that it was all the Führer's own idea.

The term Autobahn was first coined by HaFraBa's public relations head, Kurt Kaftan, in 1928. The word also was used as the title of the organization's official magazine.

Another myth related to "Hitler's autobahn" is that of the employment benefits it provided. The main reason the autobahn had difficulty getting off the ground prior to the Nazi era was the worldwide depression and hyperinflation in Germany. Hitler promoted building the autobahn for the jobs it would create, but in reality autobahn construction never employed more than a small fraction of the millions of German unemployed. Before the war forced the Nazis to abandon all autobahn construction in late 1941, Russian prisoners of war were doing much of the work.

Historians continue to debate the issue of the military value of the autobahn in the Second World War. The Nazis clearly considered the network of German expressways of some military value, and even included the military in autobahn planning. But tanks and trucks were very hard on highway surfaces and the bulk of German military traffic, men and materiel, went by rail. The vaunted German autobahn network was still incomplete and much of the rest was made useless by Allied bombing and neglect.

One last sidenote: America's first “autobahn” was the Pasadena Freeway (then known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway) in California, which opened to traffic in December 1940. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened a few months earlier, but it's a toll expressway, not a “free” way like the autobahn. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have been inspired in part by the autobahn when he signed a bill to create the U.S. interstate highway system in 1956, but that's another story.

ALSO SEE > Autobahn Timeline + Stufa, HaFraBa, etc.
ALSO SEE > Automobile and Driving Glossary (English-German)

WEB > The Autobahn Today (The German Way)

AUDIO > Geschichte der deutschen Autobahn - for intermediate to advanced learners from Schau ins Land

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