Magazine article History Today

The Autobahn Myth

Magazine article History Today

The Autobahn Myth

Article excerpt

Many people still believe that the autobahns in Germany were a National Socialist `creation', but this is very wide of the mark. The first `cars-only road' was assigned to traffic in Italy in 1924, and in Germany itself all Hitler had to do was implement existing plans.

The run-up to the history of the German motorways goes back to the 1920s. Several organisations tried to convince Germans that their happiness no longer lay on the back of a horse, and the future belonged to the motor car. And cars would need straight stretches of road that allowed them to get up top speed -- unimpeded by horse-drawn vehicles, playing children and dusty road surfaces. The founding of `HAFRABA' (the Planning Association for the Motorway linking the Hanseatic Towns, Frankfurt and Basle) in November 1926 at the instigation of Willy Hof, Chairman of the Deutsche Handels-Gesellschaft in Frankfurt, was crucial to the subsequent realisation of motorway dreams. Thus it was not initially a government initiative that lay behind the `motorway myth', but an association whose members were prominent advocates of the idea of motorways from industry, commerce and the administration. This association was not in a position to put motorway construction on the political agenda -- that would have gone well beyond its powers -- but plans for construction were to be drawn up, and above all they were able to beat the publicity drum and convince the Germans of the need to build motorways.

There had of course already been an `Automobil-Verkehrsund Ubungstrasse' (AVUS) [motorised traffic and practice road] in Berlin since 1921, but it had been designed primarily as a racing track, not really as a test road for everyday car traffic. As a stretch of road entirely within one place, AVUS was in no way a link road between destinations remote from one another. To this extent HAFRABA can really take the credit for planning the first German motorways up to construction stage. Willy Holf and his associates modelled their ideas on projects already under way in Northern Italy where the first `motor-vehicles only road' between Milan and the Northern Italian Lakes came into operation in 1924. At the same time this Italian variant of the motorway did not have two separate carriageways for traffic travelling in opposite directions, as later became general.

However, financing the motorways by charging tolls for using them as in Italy was not an option in Germany HAFRABA did put this forward, but financing them in this way would have been in breach of the Financial Adjustment Law of April 1926 which stated that road tolls were not permissible. Motorists were not to be taxed over and above the vehicle tax introduced at that time.

But this was not the only reason why the HAFRABA activists' plans and designs never got off the drawing board during the Weimar Republic. There was opposition -- primarily from German Railways who were afraid they would suffer losses when goods traffic was shifted from rail to road as a result of motorways. And as the German armed forces believed that motorways would serve as a navigational aid to enemy planes, they too spoke out against the `cars-only roads'. However, until 1930 the administrative departments of the German government were also sceptical with regard to HAFRABA's utopian-sounding plans and there was also strong opposition in the Reichstag, interestingly enough especially from the Communist and National Socialist parties.

In the National Socialist bloc the `social revolutionary' wing centred on Gregor Strasser opposed motorways which were branded a capitalist bourgeois waste of money for the benefit of only a few motorists. Nationalistic forces within the party with their hostility to technology in principle also expressed reservations. That it should have been Hitler of all people who made motorway building a reality is on the one hand an irony of history, but on the other hand it is also an object lesson in what clever propaganda can achieve both inside a partly and externally. …

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