(CNN) – Oh yes, “ze Autobahn”. Few other landmarks represent Germany as much as its motorway system. The Cologne Cathedral is decidedly West German, and the TV tower in Berlin is a technical masterpiece of the GDR, but the motorway (literally “autopiste”) connects the whole country.
Over the decades, it has grown from a useful national infrastructure to a cultural icon that has spawned works of art, 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 go as fast as you want?
First things first: The Nazis didn’t invent the Autobahn. Instead, in the post-war Weimar republic, the idea was developed to build motorways that connect the expanding cities of Germany after the First World War. The first public road of this kind was completed in 1932 between Cologne and Bonn. It still exists – today it’s part of Highway 555.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, he used the autobahn for political purposes, appointed Fritz Todt as “General Inspector of German Road Construction” and commissioned him to expand the autobahn network.
Todt stood behind a program to create jobs that, according to Nazi propaganda, helped eradicate unemployment in Germany. Motorway workers lived in labor camps near their construction sites, but often did not come here voluntarily – they were drafted through the mandatory Reich Labor Service (in this way they were removed from the unemployment register).
The beginnings of the Autobahn: Frankfurt to Mannheim 1935.
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
However, the real results of this motorway expansion were poor, and after the outbreak of war in 1939, construction increasingly relied on forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners.
“Because of the enormous number of workers required to maintain the production necessary to start a war, they ran out of workers to build the highway, making forced labor increasingly important,” said Alice Etropolszky, mobility expert and product marketing team leader in the public transport service provider door2door in Berlin.
The forced labor “apparently took place under very poor working conditions”.
By 1942, when the war on the Nazis turned, only 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) of a planned highway (20,000 kilometers) had been completed.
East against West
In a divided country, West and East Germany developed the autobahn separately (Photo: Hittfeld in Bremen, Hamburg).
Three Lions / Hulton Archives / Getty Images
After the war, most of the existing highways in West Germany were repaired and put back into operation. An expansion program began in the 1950s.
In the GDR, motorways were mainly used for military traffic and state production vehicles.
The difference in attitudes towards motorway construction in divided Germany also means that even today you can still feel the difference in some parts of the country as you move from a smooth West German surface to the old concrete blocks that were used around most of the GDR -Highway form, and your ride will get bumpy. Try it out on the A2 just before Magdeburg.
The Autobahn today
Today the Autobahn symbolizes freedom for many, even far away from Germany.
The official name for the German autobahn has been the Bundesautobahn since 1953. There is now a whopping 13,000 kilometers of motorway that is one of the longest and densest road networks in the world.
Most sections have two, three or even four lanes in each direction, plus a permanent emergency lane.
While the autobahn is an everyday, inconspicuous sight for many Germans, real fans still appreciate it. The Cologne architect Christian Busch is one of them.
“There are always technical developments that mean a noticeable improvement for the user,” he says.
“The way it is built is an example of the art of engineering.”
The autobahn is financed through taxes and maintained by the German state itself and not by the regions it crosses. Cars have free access, but since 2005 trucks have had to pay a “toll” (toll).
The Autobahn also has its own police force, the Autobahn Police, which often use unmarked police cars equipped with video cameras to document speeding violations.
They even have a television series dedicated to them, “Alarm für Cobra 11”, which focuses on the action-packed work of a team from the Autobahn Police in the Rhine-Ruhr area.
Speed is of the essence
Of course, the only thing most people (they think) know about the Autobahn is that you can go as fast as your car can. Amazingly, that’s partly true. Some sections of the autobahn – for example the A3 between Cologne and Frankfurt – have no speed limit, so drivers have the option of being ripped. As Tom Hanks once said of his autobahn experience: “If you come across a sign that says ‘120’ with a line on it, your gloves are off, baby. The government is not on its back in Germany.”
In the public consciousness
No wonder that the Autobahn has also left a cultural influence, starting with the “Autobahn” song and album by German electronics pioneers Kraftwerk, which reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.
The song also influenced the villains in “The Big Lebowski”, the cult classic of the Coen Brothers from 1998. “Autobahn” is the name of the techno-pop band of the main opponent Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare) and his two nihilistic bandmates (played by Torsten Voges and bassist Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers).
There are also some more thoughtful approaches to the cultural impact of the Autobahn in Germany. When the mainly industrial Ruhr area 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, picnic or even go to a concert – all part of a public work of art called “Still Life” or “Still Life”.
The highway of the future
The autobahn even has its own police force.
Germany today is the only European country without a blanket speed limit, and discussions about introducing such a country have always been a hot topic in German politics. The demand for the introduction of speed limits has existed since the 1980s and has increased in recent years – not least because they could reduce CO2 emissions.
The Greens tried to introduce a hard speed limit of 130 km / h in 2019, but this was rejected.
Speed limit or not, another challenge is the role of the autobahn in the climate crisis. Will it be replaced by railroad tracks in the future? Alice Etropolszky believes that its “controlled environment” means that it will have adhesive power.
“In terms of human behavior, the highway is tightly controlled – people only use it to get from A to B,” she says.
“I believe that very soon we will see automated goods transport, which will be followed by a continuously automated solution for passenger transport.”
But as Christian Busch says: “The long-standing focus on car traffic and the infrastructure that has grown around it in Germany makes the development of alternatives more difficult.”
However, he believes changes need to be made: “The system is reaching its capacity limits and we urgently need to rethink.”
The highway is known as a haven for fast cars.
Politicians and the public in Germany are initially undecided about the future of the famous Autobahn.
At the top of the charges for more motorways is the controversial German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer.
Scheuer recently tweeted, “If you live in a village, you need the highway!”, Which drew the ire of many people in rural areas who would actually prefer better public transportation.
The German Greens, on the other hand, are calling for an immediate halt to most motorway expansion projects – especially the A49 in Hesse, as this would mean the destruction of a 300-year-old, 1000-hectare forest, the Dannenröder Forest.
Although the 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 have to change to a left lane in order to pass as the right lane is always reserved for slower traffic. Motorists on the motorway are also asked to keep the left lane free, even if there is no other traffic, in accordance with the so-called right-hand driving law, the “rule of the right lane” – just so as not to be attacked by a Ferrari (see next point ).
• If you don’t drive an F1 car, someone is always faster than you. So always check your left side mirror. You may reach the recommended speed of 130 km / h, but some German drivers hammer past you twice as fast.
• Most importantly, there are speed limits on the freeway which are always indicated by signs or electronic overhead displays. The speed limit is a black number on a round white sign outlined in red, and many sections of the motorway have limits of 120 km / h or less. Stick to these unless you want to meet the highway patrol.
• If you follow these rules, driving on the motorway is fairly safe. However, if you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam after an accident, you need to set up the rescue alley.
When traffic jams due to an emergency, drivers are legally obliged to make space for the emergency services. If there are only two lanes, they have to move their vehicles to the far right and left of the lane, creating a “middle lane”. When there are more than two lanes, drivers stay in the right-hand lane on the far right while drivers in the third or fourth left-hand lane stay on the far left.