Autobahn: The history of the most famous highway in the world

Few other landmarks represent Germany more than its motorway system, the Autobahn. Cologne Cathedral is typical of West Germany and the Television Tower in Berlin is a masterpiece of engineering, but the Autobahn connects the whole country.


Over the decades, it has been transformed from a useful piece of national infrastructure into a cultural image that has led to the creation of works of art, albums and souvenirs. But why did it become so legendary and what is the German relationship with Autobahn today? But the most important question is: Is it true that you can run as much as you want?

2How the creation of Autobahn started

Let’s take things in stride: The Nazis did not invent the Autobahn. The idea of ​​building highways connecting Germany’s developing cities after World War I was conceived in the post-war Weimar Republic. The first public road of its kind was completed in 1932, connecting Cologne and Bonn. It still exists today, it is part of the Autobahn 555.


After Hitler came to power in 1933 he used the Autobahn for political gain, appointing Fritz Todd as “Inspector General of German Road Construction” and commissioning him to increase the Autobahn network.

Todd was behind a job creation program that, according to Nazi propaganda, helped eliminate unemployment in Germany. The reality of course was very different. The Autobahn workers all lived together near their construction sites and most did not go there voluntarily, but were recruited through the compulsory Reich Labor Service.


In the process, construction relied more and more on forced laborers and prisoners in concentration camps after the 1939 war.

Due to the huge number of workers required to maintain the output needed to start a war, they ran out of workers to build the Autobahn, making forced labor increasingly important.

says Alice Etropolski, head of product marketing at the door2door public transport in Berlin. Forced labor, he added, took place “obviously under very poor working conditions”.

By 1942, when the war turned against the Nazis, 3,800 kilometers had been completed, of the planned 20,000 kilometers of highway.

5East vs. West

After the war, existing parts of the Autobahn in West Germany were repaired and put back into use, with an expansion program that began in the 1950s.


During the Cold War, parts of the highway were designed to act as temporary airfields for Allied troops in the event of a Soviet invasion. In East Germany, meanwhile, highways were used mainly for military vehicles.

7The Autobahn today

Since 1953, the official term for German motorways has been Bundesautobahn, the “federal motorway”. The network now consists of 13,000 kilometers and is ranked among the longest and densest road systems in the world.

Most sections have two, three or even four lanes in each direction, as well as a permanent emergency lane. The Autobahn is financed by taxes and maintained by the German state itself and not by the areas it crosses. Cars have free access, but since 2005, trucks have to pay a “maut” (toll).


The Autobahn also has its own police force, the Autobahnpolizei, often using unmarked police cars equipped with camcorders to document speeding violations. There is even a TV series dedicated to them, “Alarm fur Cobra 11”, which focuses on the action-packed life of an Autobahnpolizei team in the Rhine-Ruhr area.

9Speed ​​is the issue

Of course, the only thing most people know (or believe) about the Autobahn is that you can drive as fast as you want. This is partly true. Some sections of the motorway – for example the A3 between Cologne and Frankfurt – have no speed limit, giving drivers the opportunity to press the accelerator as much as they want. As Tom Hanks once said of his experience at the Autobahn: “When you pass a sign that says 120 with a line in the middle, the gloves fall off, baby.”

10The Autobahn of the future

Today, Germany is the only European country without a speed limit and discussions on its introduction have always been a hot topic in German politics. Calls for speed limits have been in place since the 1980s and have increased in recent years – mainly because they could reduce CO2 emissions. The Green Party tried to introduce 130 km / h in 2019 as a speed limit, but was rejected.


At present, politicians and the public in Germany are undecided about the future of the famous Autobahn. The highly controversial German transport minister, Andreas Sawyer, is responsible for creating more highways. Soyes recently wrote in a tweet:

If you live in a village, you need the Autobahn,

which angered many people living in rural areas, who would actually prefer better public transport.

The German Greens, on the other hand, are demanding an immediate halt to most of the Autobahn expansion projects – especially those of the A49 in Hesse, as it would mean the destruction of a 300-acre forest, the Dannenroder Wald.

However, its future may be uncertain, but Autobahn’s place in German history is a given.

12How to drive the Autobahn

It is illegal to overtake a vehicle from the right. You have to go to the left lane to cross, as the right lane is always intended for slower traffic. Drivers in the Autobahn are also encouraged to leave the left lane free even if there are no other cars, following the so-called “Rechtsfahrgebot”, the “right lane rule”.

There is always someone faster than you – so the driver should always check your left-hand mirror. Speed ​​limits on the Autobahn are always indicated by license plates or electronic displays.


If you follow these rules, driving on the Autobahn is quite safe. However, if you are in traffic after an accident in front of you, you need to create the Rettungsgasse – the emergency lane. When traffic is reduced due to an emergency, drivers are required by law to make room for emergency services.

If there are only two lanes, drivers must move their cars to the right and left edge of the road, creating a “middle” lane. If there are more than two lanes, the drivers on the right-hand side stay as far to the right as possible, while the drivers in the third or fourth lane turn as far left as possible.

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