The myth of the military purpose of the Autobahn

Taken from Thomas Zeller’s Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-1970, this section addresses the myths that Nazi Germany constructed the Autobahn for military purposes and that regardless of original intent, the autobahnen proved extremely useful to Germany in the home-front days of the end of the war.


Contrary to popular perception today, the military dimension of the autobahnen was not the primary motivation behind their construction. It is now generally accepted in the scholarly literature that this view is one of the myths surrounding the roadways. The armed forces did not accord the autobahnen any strategic value for their own war planning and preferred the expansion of existing roads. They rejected autobahnen close to the borders so as not to provide invasion routes for potential enemies and create bombing targets in an air war. Military leaders saw little reason to radically alter their logistics, which centered on railroads. From a purely military standpoint, Germany, with its extensive railway network, was the European country with the least need for an expensive road network. Yet Hitler also ignored the Reichswehr’s [the precursor to the Wehrmacht, 1919 to 1935] opposition. Logistically, the Second World War was primarily a railroad war for the German Wehrmacht, along both the eastern and western fronts, even if the military benefited from the new regime’s motorization program by having the option of requisitioning trucks in case of war.25 Incidentally, the Wehrmacht employed more and more horses instead of trucks and cars as the Second World War wore on, leading one historian to conclude that, by the end of the war, even the most modern elements of the German armed forces ran on oats as much as gasoline.26

Zeller’s footnotes:

25. The erroneous view was recently still propounded by Ludolf Herbst, Das nationalsozialistische Deutschland (Frankfurt/Main, 1996), 97-98 and Friedrich Kittler, “Auto Bahnen,” in Der Technikdiskurs in der Hitler-Stalin-Ära, ed. Wolfgang Emmerich and Carl Wege (Stuttgart, 1995), 114-122. Middle ground by Dietmar Klenke, “Autobahnbau in Westfalen von den Anfängen bis zum Höhepunkt der 1970er Jahre – Eine Geschichte der politischen Planung,”in Verkehr und Region im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Westfälische Beispiele, ed. Wilfried Reininghaus and Karl Teppe (Paderborn, 1999), 249-270, 255-257. The question, however what influence the Reichswehr exerted iafteri the decision had been made on the construction of the autobahn and the choice of the routes lies outside the purview of the present study and must be reserved for a systematic examination of the files. According to Kopper, only the wishes of the Luftguakommando to circumvent industrial areas were taken into consideration, while Silverman speaks of a “virtual veto right” by the military: Dan Silverman, Hitler’s Economy. Nazi Work Creation Programs, 1933-1936 (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 157. Even Todt [the top boss of the autobahn] conceded internally that the Reich Defense Ministry preferred expanding existing roads to buildng new ones. Inspector-General to the Reich Finance Minister, 13 October 1934, Akten der Reichskanzler, Regierung Hitler, vol. II, 89.

26. R.L. DiNardo, Mechanized Jeggernaut or Military Anachronism? Horses and the German Army of World War II (New York, 1991), 102.

[end of Zeller’s footnotes]

So even in Germany’s drastic times in 1944 and ’45, the autobahn did not prove itself to be a great military resource. ²

It wasn’t until after the war that (West) Germany’s military became involved in planning the autobahn, just as it was not until after the war that, measured in kilometers per person, individual transportation (cars) surpassed trains, buses, and trams as the primary means of personal transportation.The history of motorization in Germany is not easily summarized in a sentence, but one can authoritatively say that the actual consumption and use of automobiles only took off as West Germany recovered economically after the war in the Wirtschaftswunder years.

For Reference:

1. Zeller, Thomas. Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-1970, trans. Thomas Dunlap (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), 56.

2. Zeller, Driving Germany, 184.

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