Why you should care

Because the Führer’s one redeeming quality wasn’t even his.

With tools in hand, the Führer broke ground on the autobahn in 1933, declaring that the great undertaking would be “a testament to our courage.”

Years earlier, while imprisoned and writing Mein Kampf, Hitler “opened a map of our fatherland on his knees and envisaged his Reich’s autobahn being a part of it,” poet Herybert Menzel wrote. By the mid-1930s, this view had become state doctrine, capped by a lavish celebration on May 19, 1935, launching what was supposedly the first 22-kilometer section of autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. And today, many still believe Adolf Hitler’s sole redeeming quality was acting as doula to Germany’s modern highway network. But the Nazis steered our collective memory in the wrong direction by peddling a big lie.

Dissenting views were quashed, and everyone was told to toe the line that Hitler had conceived the idea back in 1924 while serving a jail sentence for his first attempt to take over the German government. Fritz Todt, Hitler’s autobahn planner, sent letters to anyone who publicly disagreed, reminding underlings that the Reich’s autobahns were solely “Adolf Hitler’s roads” and encouraging recipients to view the note as “a warning,” not merely a rebuke. But Todt was more than a planner; he was, in fact, the “perfect combination of Nazi ideologue and effective engineer,” says Princeton professor Anson Rabinbach.

Photographs, paintings and books were hastily produced to reflect the revised history.

Photographs, paintings and books were hastily produced to reflect the revised history. But in truth, the Nazis originally opposed what would amount to 8,000 miles of roads spanning the country, branding the proposed freeways “luxury roads” for “plutocrats.” Even the then-National Automotive Industry Association, which approved of four-lane highways skirting cities, protested an autobahn because it feared that the expansion of inner-city and regional routes would boost mass motorization. Opposition was also intended to placate the powerful railroad monopoly, Rabinbach says, as Nazi Party members were concerned that railroad executives would “strike back” against competition.

Shortly after coming to power in 1933, Hitler did a U-turn. The section he “opened” in South Hessen was meant to be the first part of an extensive network, but that ignored the irritating detail that Cologne Mayor Konrad Adenauer had already lapped him by opening an autobahn between Cologne and Bonn. So Nazis immediately reclassified that four-lane expanse as a country road. Berlin also had a four-lane freeway, known as the automotive traffic and practice road, but it was easier to dismiss because it wasn’t part of the general transport network.

The bigger challenge, though, was hiding the long-standing plans for Germany’s autobahn network — and the Nazis’ opposition to them. Plans had been made by an association dubbed HaFraBa — including advocates from the transport department, businessmen, civil engineering bosses, cement firms and others — that had campaigned for an autobahn to connect Germany’s Hanseatic cities via Frankfurt to Basel as far back as 1926. Today, two of Germany’s A roads follow these original blueprints, which accounted for everything from green median strips and cloverleaf interchanges to rest areas, gas stations and highway maintenance. They even included the section of road that Hitler opened 80 years ago.

The Nazis worked tirelessly to reconcile their earlier rejection of the autobahn concept with their subsequent hijacking of it. Newspapers wrote that HaFraBa “was motivated solely by capitalist and Jewish interests” before 1933 and that everything had been “dominated by thoughts of profit.” Hitler went so far as to remove the board chairman of the HaFraBa, a Jew named Ludwig Landmann, touting that he had removed the Jewish power, says Rabinbach.

Hitler’s ideologues went to great lengths to emphasize the autobahn’s “sociopolitical” benefits, not least job creation. It remained a popular belief that Hitler’s freeway project was designed to tackle the problem of 6 million unemployed, when in reality, building the autobahn employed just over 100,000 workers. Even factoring in subcontractors and the broader economic impact, the project still generated only some 250,000 jobs.

Some were led to believe the autobahn was a vital part of Hitler’s defense program. “These are the Führer’s roads,” said Joseph Goebbels, “and these roads lead to the West Wall.” In an internal report, Todt advised Hitler that the autobahn would enable “an army of 300,000 men in 100,000 requisitioned vehicles to advance from the eastern to the western border of the Reich” within 36 hours. A number of documents allude to the military importance of a network of wide, congestion-free roads, but historians disagree, saying that military considerations were invoked simply to make the plans seem more important.

In January 1938, German racing legend Bernd Rosemeyer was killed trying to set the speed record on the same section of road that Hitler had “opened” three years earlier. With 1,900 miles of roads built by then, many believed — and would continue to believe, thanks to Nazi spin doctors — that the project was Hitler’s brainchild when, in fact, he had merely raised it as his own.

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