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free national freeway system
The autobahn freeway system quickly became a symbol of Nazi Germany. Its construction was seen as a major element of Germany's economic resurgence under Hitler, and was compared with the projects of Roosevelt's New Deal.

The reality was little different, however. Initially, the autobahn system was proposed and planned under the Social Democrats of Weimar Germany. At that point, the German military objected to the freeways because they might point the way for enemy aircraft seeking German cities! This was one of the reasons that the Nazis also objected to the plans. However, once they came to power, the Nazis realized its economic potential and enthusiastically endorsed freeway construction. To be sure, only about 100,000 people worked directly on the autobahns, but it did help other sectors of the German economy and became an essential part of the infrastructure for Germany's military in World War Two.

Today, the German freeway system is the second largest in the world. It is renowned for its lack of speed limits, though the government recommends a maximum of 130 km/h (!) and many dangerous sections do have some controls.

German Myths- Hitler and the Autobahn

But he created the Autobahn...
Hitler planned and built the Autobahn. Or did he?

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.

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.

The idea for the construction of the Autobahn was first conceived during the days of the Weimar Republic, but apart from the AVUS in Berlin, construction was slow, and most projected sections did not progress much beyond the planning stage due to economic problems and a lack of political support. One project was the private initiative HaFraBa which planned a "car only road" (the name autobahn was created in 1929) crossing Germany from Hamburg in the North via central Frankfurt am Main to Basel in Switzerland. Parts of the HaFraBa were completed in the 1930s and early 1940s, but construction eventually was halted by World War II.

Just days after the 1933 Nazi takeover, Adolf Hitler enthusiastically embraced an ambitious autobahn construction project and appointed Fritz Todt the Inspector General of German Road Construction. Soon, over 100,000 labourers worked at construction sites all over Germany. As well as providing employment and improved infrastructure, necessary for economic recovery efforts, the project was also a great success for propaganda purposes. In retrospect, one can say another aim of the autobahn project, beyond creating national unity and strengthening centralised rule, was to provide mobility for the movement of military forces.

The autobahns formed the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world, with the first section from Frankfurt am Main to Darmstadt opening in 1935. This straight section was used for high speed record attempts by the Grand Prix racing teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union until a fatal accident involving popular German race driver Bernd Rosemeyer in early 1938.

During World War II, the central reservation of some autobahns were paved to allow their conversion into auxiliary airports. Aircraft were either stashed in numerous tunnels or camouflaged in nearby woods. However, for the most part, the autobahns were not militarily significant. Motor vehicles could not carry goods as quickly or in as much bulk as trains could, and the autobahns could not be used by tanks as their weight and caterpillar tracks damaged the road surface. The general shortage of gasoline in Germany during much of the war, as well as the low number of trucks and motor vehicles badly needed for direct support of military operations, further decreased the autobahn's significance. As a result, most military and economic freight was carried by rail. After the war, numerous sections of the autobahns were in bad shape, severely damaged by heavy Allied bombing and military demolition. Furthermore, thousands of kilometers of autobahns remained unfinished, their construction brought to a halt by 1943 due to the increasing demands of the war effort.

In West Germany most existing autobahns were soon repaired after the war. During the 1950s, the West German government restarted the construction programme. It invested in new sections and in improvements to older ones. The finishing of the incomplete sections took longer, with some stretches opened to traffic in the 1980s. Some sections cut by the Iron Curtain in 1945 were completed after German reunification in 1990. Some sections were never completed, as more advantageous routes were found. Some of these sections stretch across the landscape forming a unique type of modern ruin, often easily visible on satellite photographs.

The autobahns in East Germany (GDR) and the former German provinces of East Prussia, eastern Pomerania and Silesia in Poland and the Soviet Union after 1945 were grossly neglected in comparison to those in West Germany and Western Europe in general. They received minimal maintenance during the years of the Cold War. The speed limit on the GDR autobahns was 100 km/h, however lower speed limits were frequently encountered due to the poor condition of the road, changing quickly in some instances. The speed limits on the GDR autobahns were rigorously enforced by the Volkspolizei, whose patrol cars were frequently encountered hiding under camouflage waiting for speeders. In the 1970s and 80s, the West German government paid millions of Deutsche Marks to the GDR for construction and maintenance of the transit autobahns between West Germany and West Berlin, although there were indications that the GDR diverted some of the maintenance funds for other purposes.