The History of the Autobahn

The history of the Autobahn is long and storied, from one world war to the next, until today, where it has become a worldwide wonder and envy.

The History of the Autobahn

One of the common misconceptions about the German Autobahn is that it was somehow the brainchild of Nazi Germany or, more specifically, Adolph Hitler. While WW2 created a propaganda campaign for Germany and the Autobahn, it probably endured as much damage as it did creation during this period.

Today, the Autobahn is widely recognized as a place where you can slam your foot to the floor, unconcerned about federal control over how fast you drive. It's also one of the world’s largest and longest highways at over 8,000 miles in length.

That’s a far cry from its humble origins in 1913, as the world’s first motorway. The reality is, that there is a lot more to the Autobahn than a lack of speed, and it's as steeped in history, including excesses and shortcomings, as some of the world’s most remarkable achievements.

The Autobahn’s Origin Story

The Autobahn was developed as a first in world history, as in the first “access controlled” highway, which means that all access to the highway is controlled, which is a necessity since the Autobahn has no speed limits.

If you could imagine a vehicle entering a highway, trying to gain speed, while vehicles traveling 100 to 120 mph are blowing by, you get an idea of the necessity for controlled access.

Construction on the Autobahn began in 1913 and it was originally a speedway on the outskirts of Berlin. Shortly afterward, construction on the Autobahn ground to a halt as WW1 viciously and mercilessly swallowed half the world. It wasn’t until 1921 that construction on the highway resumed.

Up until this point, the Autobahn was little more than dual straightaways and it stayed that way, for the most part, as another decade rolled by, carrying the wounded and crippled nation of Germany into the darkness of Nazism and the rise of the Third Reich.

The Autobahn and Nazi Germany

The German war machine of WW2 was known for the Blitzkrieg, the German word for a surprise attack that utilized an overwhelming force of artillery, armored vehicles, and air support that moved with incredible speed.

Hitler recognized the advantages that the Autobahn could bring to the table with this new evolution of fast-moving warfare. Construction on the Autobahn increased tenfold, in terms of both reality and conceptual design.

Not only was the Autobahn of strategic importance to Nazi Germany's war plan, but it was also a propaganda campaign for Hitler himself, who sought so-called superiority in everything. The idea behind the propaganda was to provide a national, fast-travel artery packed with cars that could be afforded by anyone, not just aristocrats.

Of course, the nature of the German government could ill-afford to pay the workers that it hired and as Germany began to build its war machine, better work opportunities arose for Autobahn construction crews, who left the Autobahn to work in the factories.

Eventually, work on the Autobahn ground to a halt once again, with only sections of the highway still seeing active service in the war effort, primarily as airstrips or to transport heavy armor and artillery.

Thanks to the airstrips and tank use, many sections of the Autobahn fell into disrepair, as the design was for vehicles, not multi-ton tanks with steel and iron tracks rather than rubber tires. At the time that production halted in 1943, roughly 1,300 miles of the Autobahn were complete.

The Autobahn in Post-War Germany

As it turns out, it wasn’t just the nightmare of thousands upon thousands of metal hiding war machines that set the Autobahn back a decade in terms of damage. It was also the Allied bombing efforts and Germany’s fight to the very last with both American and Soviet forces crushing Germany into Berlin.

Post Germany’s defeat, the Autobahn became known as the Bundesautobahn, which stands for “Federal Highway.” After all, it couldn’t retain the name of Reichsautobahn, which would have been a political and public relations embarrassment.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the Autobahn was back in fighting shape, with the German government now looking to the future. In ten, short years, the post-war 1,300 miles had expanded by an additional 500 miles.

However, that was nothing next to the explosive growth the Autobahn experienced over the next two decades. By 1984, the Autobahn had expanded to 5,000 miles and nearly 7,000 miles by 1990, especially thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With two ends of the Autobahn reunited, the eastern side of the Autobahn was in drastic need of repairs and modernization. By the early new millennium, the Autobahn was one of the world’s largest super highways, only lagging behind that of China and the United States.

Modern Day Autobahn

Today, the Autobahn is well over 8,000 miles in length and is considered to be the world's longest and densest highway system. It is largely funded by taxpayer dollars, as far as maintenance and repairs are concerned.

Germany, during its pre-war ambitions, extended the Autobahn in every direction across the map and the only thing that the Autobahn did after, was growing exponentially. Most people know and understand the Autobahn as a sort of “racing” venue, which it is clearly far more than just a place with no speed limits.

Even the lack of speed limits isn’t a rule that encompasses the whole of the Autobahn, as there are several sections along its seemingly endless route that are governed by a speed limit. In areas where it is not, there is still a minimum speed limit, which will get you pulled over just as quickly as speeding in the US will.

Roughly 30% of the Autobahn has an upper-speed limit, where vehicles can go no faster than a set speed. These speed limits fall anywhere from 50 mph to 81 mph. The rest of the Autobahn is governed by a minimum speed limit.

There are several reasons why these speed limits exist.

  • Some of them are always enforced and never change
  • Some are “wet-weather” speed limits
  • Some are speed limits only at night
  • Some are “dynamic” in that they change according to current road conditions
  • Some are speed limits only for certain vehicle classes

Autobahn Speed Limits Across the Century

There wasn’t a set speed limit of any sort on the Autobahn until the government of the newly installed Nazi party enacted the Road Traffic Act, which it passed in the mid-1930s. It didn’t place a speed limit on the Autobahn so much as on roads that connected with it.

Of course, back then, their speed limits would be laughable in today’s world. The first, real speed limit on the Autobahn was set in 1973 and it was limited to 62mph top speed, enforced across the entire Autobahn.

The problem was, it was sorry horribly received, disobeyed, and despised, that that burgeoning law was shunned and repealed in less than a year. From that day forward, legislation is constantly brought up in terms of restricting the entirety of the Autobahn, thus far to no success.

So far, the only speed limit that is enforced across the entire Autobahn is nothing more than an “advisory” speed limit, which holds no legal power or repercussions at all.

How Does the Autobahn Remain Safe in the Modern World?

Despite its inception in the early decades of the 20th century, the Autobahn is a technical marvel today. It is designed in such a way that it puts American roadways to shame.

The road bed is thick, extremely heavy, and highly compacted. Over the top of the roadbed, anti-freeze asphalt is laid in thick strips. Even the concrete sections, where it's applied, are highly resistant to freezing.

There are no extreme curves on the Autobahn, with the sharpest curves being 30° and as gradual as it can be made, including the fact that they are banked to work with the motion of the vehicles.

There are no grades, up or down that are steeper than 4% and cities are avoided altogether. So, if you live in a city and want to jump on the Autobahn, you’ll have to do a good bit of traveling to get there.

German authorities spend a lot of money conducting routine and intense inspections on every aspect of the Autobahn and they don’t patch anything. Patches can be irregular and oftentimes will collapse. When it comes to the Autobahn, a minor, 6” defect might be enough to call for the replacement of an entire section of roadway.

While looking at a picture of the Autobahn, you might assume that it's any other interstate highway, like one that you might see in Great Britain or the United States. However, it is far safer to drive on the Autobahn than on any highway in the United States.

In Closing

The Autobahn’s history extends to over a century now and from its small beginnings as a venue for racing to its vast network that stretches over 8,000 miles today, the Autobahn has become a household name.

While it isn’t the “everybody for themselves” speed limitless haven that sports car enthusiasts imagine, there is still a lot of high-speed adrenaline to be had on the Autobahn, with across-the-board speed limits highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.