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Driving Germany's Autobahn

The German Autobahn is both with a journey and a destination, as speed enthusiasts come to drive its limitless stretches. What started as a diplomat commute has become a vital roadway that's been paved by the country's history.

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By Gorm Labenz

Getting behind the wheel


As the popularity and affordability of personal and public motorized travel grew, drivers faced increasingly crowded roads. Cities began cooperating with one another to connect roads unhindered by intersections. The most ambitious such project was the so-called HaFraBa, connecting Hamburg, Frankfurt and Basel. The National Socialists and Communists campaigned against this project, which they argued would “only serve the country’s wealthy.”

Diplomatic driving


The mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, opened a small stretch of such road in 1932. The A555, known as the Diplomat’s Speedway, served officials commuting between Bonn and Cologne.

The Führer’s roads


Despite the party’s initial opposition, the Nazis under Hitler introduced plans to build a highway network of Reichsautobahnen. Highway construction was one of a number of massive state infrastructure projects, putting thousands of people across the country back to work and helping Germany undergo an economic recovery.

Forcing ahead


As more men were sent to the front and the country reached full employment, workers willing to accept the harsh labor and living conditions of road construction camps were increasingly hard to find. Women, school children and prisoners were all forced into highway construction labor programs throughout WWII. Highway infrastructure facilitated invasions of Austria, Poland and France.

Economic miracle


Its industries in shambles, cities in ruins and highways destroyed by retreating troops, Germany was divided between Soviet and Western allied forces. Construction and repairs faced a standstill. Adenauer took the helm as West Germany’s first chancellor. After Western allied governments agreed to currency reform and introduced the deutsche mark, people in West Germany started getting back to work – and getting there by car.

One goal


Just two decades after the end of the war, West Germany was awarded two major sporting events: the 1972 Olympics and 1974 FIFA World Cup. Transportation infrastructure or the promise thereof plays a deciding role in host selection. Construction projects around Munich ensured visitors could quickly access all Olympic sites. Far more demanding: building highways to connect nine different host cities across western Germany for the world’s most ardent soccer fans!

Tunneling to the west via East Germany


In order to connect Hamburg’s port with West Berlin, West Germany financed and built a highway in East Germany! Federal Transportation Minister Otto Arndt of the German Democratic Republic gave his western colleague Werner Dollinger the permits to build the missing 34 kilometers of road.

When 2

become 1


The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 precipitated the end of a divided Germany, resulting in major infrastructural challenges. Highways in the East had a speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour – the top speed of the Trabant, or Trabi, East Germany’s most popular car model. Roads were generally in poor shape, built from concrete slabs. The enormous costs of reunifying the country left few resources for new road creation.

Charging into the future

2000s to today

Cars have become a deeply integrated part of German culture. To support this car-crazed nation, roadways must be constantly improved to handle the growing number of cars on the road – and adapted to the demands of an increasing number of electric cars and autonomous vehicle systems.