Hitler Loved Speed Limits

Germany’s unregulated highways might be the most irrational aspect of its modern identity—but you can’t blame it on the Führer.

Adolf Hitler riding in a car with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich in Sept. 1937. (AFP/Getty Images)
Adolf Hitler riding in a car with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich in Sept. 1937. (AFP/Getty Images)

In late January, Germans got wind of a proposal by a government-commissioned taskforce calling for a top speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles an hour) on all stretches of the country’s autobahn highway system. Desisting from the hallowed practice in Germany of putting the pedal to the metal on the speed limit-free parts of the highway system, the taskforce said, would be the easiest and least expensive way to reduce the carbon emissions that help cause climate change. The country’s transport minister, however, said the idea went “against all common sense.” Chancellor Angela Merkel sought quickly to unruffle feathers by consigning the proposal to bureaucratic death via “further study.”

To an American observer, the German autobahn speed limit debate looks much like the struggle in the United States over gun control: full of sound and fury but ultimately going nowhere. Yet beneath the current rhetorical battles, the German autobahn speed saga harbors some intriguing twists and turns that make it quite special. Not least of these oddities is that today’s proponents of autobahn speed limits have Adolf Hitler on their side.

The question of speed regulation on the autobahns is almost as old as the system itself. Contrary to popular mythology, Germany’s superhighway program was not launched by Hitler, nor did his government build most of these fabulous roads. (Hitler, by the way, was not a driver; lacking a driving license, he had to be driven.) The freeway network we know today had its origins in the Weimar Republic, that ill-fated democratic experiment lasting from 1918 to 1933. Due largely to economic constraints, i.e., the Great Depression, only one section of Weimar’s ambitious scheme actually got built, a freeway between Cologne and Bonn opened in 1932 by Cologne’s mayor, Konrad Adenauer.

Drawing on Weimar-era blueprints, the Hitler government announced in June 1933 an even more ambitious program to build nearly 4,000 miles of four-lane superhighways within five years. This autobahn network would symbolize the technological supremacy of the Third Reich, constituting modern Germany’s answer to ancient Egypt’s pyramids. Weimar Germany had plenty of speed limits, but there would be no such limits on this iconic new system because Nazi Germany’s Highway Code of 1934 abolished all speed restrictions across the Reich, even in built-up areas. Thus, while the Hitler regime was imposing tight controls on just about every aspect of public life, it was allowing huge personal leeway in the domain of driving. The Reich government justified this anomaly by arguing that good National Socialists would not abuse their freedom to express themselves behind the wheel. Conscious of their duties to the Volksgemeinschaft, or “people’s community,” they would invariably be courteous and attentive to possible hazards. Behaving recklessly or irresponsibly as drivers, thundered the Nazi Party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, would be fundamentally “un-National Socialist.”

It quickly became evident that, behind the wheel of whatever vehicle they might possess, an awful lot of Germans were not living up to their government’s high Nazi standards. They were, instead, displaying quite “un-National Socialist” behavior. From 1933 to 1939, between 6,500 and 8,000 people died in traffic accidents on German roads, making the Nazi nation the most lethal place in Europe to drive. The carnage encompassed the new autobahns despite their relative freedom of congestion and lack of cross-traffic. Hitler was furious: The roads were claiming warm German bodies that might have served their nation in its new military or other vital services. “The [drivers] who deprive the nation of 7,000 dead and 30,000 to 40,000 injured are a plague on the people,” he said. “Their actions are irresponsible, and their punishment is therefore a matter of course. (Obviously, this punishment could apply only to those drivers who hadn’t already killed themselves.)

In an effort to cut the flow of good blood, Hitler’s administration in November 1937 changed the Highway Code to allow prosecution not only of drivers who caused accidents but also of those who behaved recklessly without actually causing a crash. Since this modification did not bring much of a change in the accident rate, Hitler’s regime went a significant step further in May 1939 by reimposing speed limits of 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour) in built-up regions and 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) on the open road, including the autobahns. In November 1939, after the beginning of what would become World War II, Hitler’s government cut the top speed on the autobahns to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) in order to conserve gasoline for the war effort, but we should keep in mind that the initial motivation behind speed control was to save lives, not an ideal usually associated with the Führer.

The Allied military occupation administrations that governed Germany immediately after World War II were not anxious to emulate the Führer, but they too wanted to save lives (mainly their own) on the freeways, so they imposed limits varying somewhat from zone to zone. (Actually, the Russians simply kept Hitler’s regulations in place, and those continued to apply to East Germany’s autobahns until the collapse of that state in 1990.)

Neither saving lives nor conserving gasoline was a major concern of the new West German state (established in 1949) when it came to traffic regulations. In a display of national sovereignty from a nation that in most vital ways was not yet sovereign, the country’s parliament abolished all nationwide speed controls as Nazi- and occupation-era relics. Interestingly enough though, rather than as an anti-Nazi gesture, this move could be seen as a return to the early Nazi policy of no speed limits, which is exactly how it was celebrated by Bonn’s then-transport minister, Hans-Christoph Seebohm, a leader of the ultra-conservative German Party. And just like the Nazi traffic gurus of 1934, Seebohm based his laissez-faire approach on the assumption that Germans would act responsibly and invariably adjust their speeds to the prevailing traffic and road conditions. Not a chance! Once again, West Germany’s drivers, piloting their powerful new Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, and Porsches, turned the nation’s roads into rivers of blood, causing 11,025 fatalities and 298,231 injuries in 1953, up from 6,314 and 150,416, respectively, in 1950.

As early as 1956, a countermovement to stem the carnage by reimposing speed limits on German roads, including the autobahns, took shape. The quixotic leader of this charge, a Christian Democratic Union politician from the Black Forest named Oskar Rümmele, proposed a limit of 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) at the highest for the superhighways. Rümmele’s effort quickly stalled amid strong headwinds from Germany’s all-powerful auto industry. A Mercedes spokesman argued that the technical superiority and marketability of German cars derived in large part from their being built for high-speed operation; if drivers couldn’t push their vehicles to exhilaratingly high speeds, what was the point of buying fast cars, and what would be the point of building them? West German citizens stood to lose not only a valuable export commodity but, in an otherwise tightly regulated society, the freedom to speed. Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger (“Free Driving for Free Citizens”) was the word of the day.

In 1973, chronic fuel shortages engendered by the Arab oil embargo caused a reimposition of speed limits on all the autobahns, but this emergency measure ended as soon as the oil started flowing again. One could almost hear the sigh of relief across the land.

But the relief was far from fully secure. In the 1980s, in addition to highway safety and fuel conservation concerns, pesky speed limit advocates brought forth another argument in favor of taking the foot off the gas: environmental preservation. Acid rain and deforestation had caught the attention of West Germany’s growing Green movement, which posited that the devastation was being exacerbated by high-speed driving on the freeways. However, when various tests revealed that lower speeds might have only a “modest” impact on forest preservation, the government backed away from imposing a speed limit for the free sections of the autobahns. The Raserei (“wild racing”) went on.

And so it continued to do after German reunification, now with the addition of former East Germany’s once-regulated highways to this lethal mix. Traffic deaths doubled in the immediate aftermath of reunification. Once again, the Greens and some Social Democrats fought for a speed limit, only to be met with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s rejoinder that Germany was a “nation of drivers.” Nor would speed limit advocates fare any better with Merkel, whose cabinet in 2005 and 2007 beat back domestic and European Union appeals for “common sense” regulations on the autobahns.

Oddly enough, the Green party transport minister in the state of Hesse recently declared with confidence that speed limit-free driving on Germany’s autobahns would soon be a thing of the past, just as would be America’s equally dangerous freedom with firearms. Not likely! Yet if and when such a time comes, one can bet with assurance that the speed limit proponents will not have buttressed their case with references to the Führer’s erstwhile advocacy.

David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.