Autobahnen/Free ways. A fundamental text


Pour Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011), historien de la littérature et figure tutélaire des « media studies », les systèmes techniques et les « media » ne sont pas des objets en soi, mais une dimension décisive de toute culture. Avec à l’esprit ses travaux sur les systèmes techniques et les modes d’écritures, on ne peut qu’être attentif à sa réflexion. Historien fondamental et chercheur des origines des systèmes, il propose ici une rapide généalogie autoroutière entre France et Allemagne et une réflexion classique sur la destinée des infrastructures de guerre. Contestant de nombreux récits officiels, l'essai fait remonter les origines de l'autoroute allemande à la bataille de Verdun (1916) côté français. La nécessité militaire d'organiser une circulation à double sens, stricte, sans contacts et sans intersection devient le modèle pour la construction des autoroutes. Friedrich Kittler développe davantage son caractère martial en reliant le mouvement du matériel militaire en temps de guerre aux « invasions touristiques » en temps de paix. Traduit du néerlandais à l'anglais par Geoffrey Winthrop-Young.

In Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, Vol. 11, no. 3, November 2015, p. 376-383. Translated from Dutch to English by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young.

The country offers ways because it is country. It gives way, moves us. We hear the words “give way” in this sense: to be the original giver and founder of ways.

—Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language

Tragedy, as we all know, began at the three-way crossing of Daulis with the chance encounter between a mule cart and a pedestrian, a tyrant named Laius and his unrecognized son. It would have been averted had Delphi and Corinth been connected by an intersection-free, median stripe-equipped highway. Which is why Heiner Müller is not Sophocles, and why all op-ed laments about the disappearance of dramatic encounters miss the point. Where the god of chance (whose herma once graced every Greek crossroad) has left the stage, runways and their centaurs take over. There is no drama anymore, only the movement of tanks, from Verdun to Volokolamsk and on: “Only empty tanks which crash / Into each other on this scorched earth.”1

At the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, a final news flash from PNS Los Angeles reaches you, the reader of the novel. Seconds before the first or last V2 explodes over LA, a “Managerial Volkswagen” takes you on a trip along the Santa Monica Freeway, “the freeway of freaks” and “traditionally the scene of every form of automotive folly known to man.”2 On the oncoming lane, “the city’s garbage trucks are all heading north toward the Ventura Freeway.”3 In downtown LA you are surrounded by increasingly congested truck traffic. Heading up the Hollywood Freeway, you are passed by “a mysteriously canvassed trailer rig and a liquid-hydrogen tanker”4—precisely the type of convoy or motorized rocket brigade Waffen-SS Lieutenant-General Hans Kammler used to send along the autobahn between September 1944 and March 1945. And when the electric off-ground detonator, thought up by Hitler himself, is triggered by the rocket closing in on the LA of the early 1970s, you’ll be able to see for a millisecond in the blinding light of its payload what they are, all the freeways and Reichsautobahnen Fig. 1 of this world…

Which leaves the question who thought up the automotive folly called autobahn. As is frequently the case with inventions, there are two versions. The first is feudal and famous, the other a forgotten matter of war. The autobahn, “the roads of Adolf Hitler,” are said to be from their very outset a thoroughly German affair. Hence a historiography that is spearheaded, not coincidentally, by a former press relations officer of the HAFRABA, erases all foreign traces.5

This official version is quickly told. In that unimaginable past when only general staffs and major corporations owned fleets of vehicles, certain high-ranking drivers were upset by the dust and clamor that prevailed on roads. According to the last crown prince of Prussia, this dust prevented the setting of new records at the Hamburg car race of 1904 and therefore made concrete surfaces all the more desirable. A lot of hue and cry—racecar driver Manfred von Brauchitsch recalls—threatened drivers who dared “defy it and make full use of his engine.” In the cities they had to contend with pedestrians, cyclists, carts, and carriages; in the country, with hay wagons, children, cattle, and free-run poultry. Unacceptable conditions, no doubt, whose termination lead to an agreement between the emperor and his first-born. While Wilhelm II, a major techno-freak, continued to focus on large-scale projects and basic research such as [Alfred von] Tirpitz’s shipbuilding program or the army telegraph, which he discussed with his chief engineers on walks across the Brandenburg Schorfheide or over dinner at his Hubertusstock hunting lodge, Crown Prince Wilhelm received permission to further indulge in his racing hobby that he had already pursued with great success in Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

And so it came pass that in 1907 a command was issued from “the very highest place” to construct a paved road able to accommodate parallel traffic. Two years later, members of the Berlin sports and finance world created the office of the Automobil-Verkehrs und Übungs-Straße (Automobile Traffic and Training Road), better known by its acronym Avus. Fig. 2aFig. 2b Ten kilometers between Charlottenburg and Wannsee, or the road of the future: for cars only, with no intersections, but featuring raised curves, bleachers for sporting events, and (not to forget) two lanes separated by a median stripe.

It’s hard to imagine what people had been willing to put up with. From mule tracks to Roman roads, from cobblestone to asphalt—millennia of walking, riding, and driving on any possible type of path, track, or way, and all without median stripes or dividers. While random encounters persisted, Hermes, god of roads, retained his power over boulevards and lidos. It was the autobahn that finally delivered traffic (both work and thing) from its obscene double meaning, which already long before Freud was celebrated in countless puns.6 To be sure, right-hand traffic had been decreed by Napoleon as part of his joint creation of marching infantry divisions and a national road system, but regulations on their own cannot guarantee that nobody will ever bump into anybody else. It is the autobahn’s median divider that, once and for all, separates the two snakes or streams that pass each other and vanish beyond different horizons. Wannsee and Charlottenburg…

All the more sad, then, that the initiator of this automotive folly was never able to act out his obsession. Only in his imagination did the exiled crown prince race along the Avus unencumbered by dust goggles and oncoming traffic. A world war, the first of two, interrupted its construction. Financed by industrialist Hugo Stinnes and built with the help of new cement mixers, the Avus was not completed until 1921—as a leisure track for gentlemen drivers. And the latter, though recently democratized, had not increased in number. In any case, endless traffic jams, bumper to bumper by day, headlight on headlight by night, are no German invention. To turn gentlemen drivers into responsible citizens of the road (the twentieth centur’s character mask) required greater resources than Hohenzollern hobbies. The car as a means of mass transportation emerged at a time when weeds were covering the unfinished Avus: during the First World War. This is the strategic secret studiously avoided by the heroic epics of German autobahn construction.

September 1914: an anthroposophic member of the German General Staff has a better grasp on bearers of bad tidings than on Schlieffen plans. Instead of simply connecting front line units by telegraph, Helmut von Moltke the Younger sends an automobile-equipped lieutenant-colonel, Richard Hentsch, to the Marne. Hentsch, head of the intelligence section at Supreme Headquarters, communicates reports of wide-open fronts and French attacks. Yes, only a thin cavalry line (whose heavy radio equipment is under the command of none other than a certain Captain [Heinz] Guderian) is covering the gap between [Alexander] von Kluck’s First and [Karl] von Bülow’s Second Army. And yes, General [Joseph] Gallieni, military commander of Paris, commandeers all the city’s cabs to rush his 62nd Infantry Division to the front at Nanteuil. But improvised prophecies in the shape of history’s first motorized division do not decide battles—for that you need the blind gentleman driver Hentsch. And so the Miracle of the Marne came about.

February 1916: the armies have long since dug themselves in and buried the Schlieffen Plan. Trench warfare from Ypres to Belfort. The hapless Younger Moltke is succeeded by [Erich von] Falkenhayn, who stands in front of his sandbox (an innovation, incidentally, introduced by Heinrich von Kleist’s circle of military friends) and ponders the situation. Ever since the Battle of the Marne, breakthroughs and thrusts, encirclements and annihilation, are out of the question. Clausewitz is obsolete. But what if the French were to be bled dry by applying a “suction pump”? At a place where they would be forced to join battle, but where the Germans would not be required to ship materials? His cartographic eyes fixed on the front line, Falkenhayn identifies the only possible point: the string of forts called Verdun. Even failed Schlieffen Plans have their upside: as the hub for the large move to the right undertaken in 1914, Verdun is cut off from the French hinterland and connected only by one railway line and a road. (One world war later, the German Army Command will note that the planned advance toward the Ural Mountains by eight panzer and four infantry divisions “is generally determined by rail and road connections.”)

And Falkenhayn acts. Crown Prince Wilhelm, in command of Fifth Army, is given the order to attack on February 12, 1916. A racing aficionado, of all people, is ordered to set in motion Falkenhayn’s grinding “blood mill.” But owing to their own transportation problems, the Germans are forced to postpone their opening barrage, which provides the French with a crucial reprieve—and the opportunity to make global traffic history. On February 19, German deserters betray the new date of the attack. General [Camille] Ragueneau and Major [Aimé] Doumenc, head of the military automobile service, instantly recognize the gravity of the situation. It boils down to a simple problem of securing supplies. Once the Germans sever the railroad connection, Verdun will depend on one last umbilical cord, the route nationale to Bar-le-Duc. Forty-five Napoleonic kilometers will determine the fate of France. But for the Direction des services automobiles that is no reason for despair. Even before the German barrage opens on February 21 at 7 a.m., Doumenc had converted the old-fashioned Route nationale 109 into the first autobahn. Bar-le-Duc becomes the headquarters of the Commission régulatrice automobile (CRA), which relegates all pedestrians, cyclists, and horse carts to rural dirt roads and reserves the RN 109 for the exclusive use of trucks. Europe’s ambiguous traffic comes to an end.

[Jacques] Lacan explained what he called the urinal segregation of Occidental man by telling the story of a little boy and a little girl, brother and sister, seated across from each other in a railway compartment watching “the station platforms going by as the train comes to a stop. ‘Look,’ says the brother, ‘we are at Ladies!’ ‘Imbecile,’ replies his sister, ‘Don’t you see we’re at Gentlemen’.”7 And because according to Lacan the rails “materialize the bar in the Saussurian algorithm,” they need not be materially present. As long as they feature two sets of rails, even railway lines destroyed by German shock troops can become the model for automotive segregation.

Major Doumenc issues orders that Route nationale 109 is to be used like a double-track railroad. The way trains had been passing each other since 1830 becomes standard procedure for roads in 1916. From now on, an improvised divider separates the input and output of large-scale modern battles. In the course of seven months, 350,000 dead need to be removed and replaced. Wheels are rolling or victory—on the right, cannon fodder from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun, on the left, cannon victims from Verdun to Bar-le-Duc. “Two endless chains,” in the words of Doumenc, but without any contact between them. Random encounters between trucks and carts caused enough damage, those between cannon fodder and corpse convoys would lead to catastrophes and mutinies. Militarily, the median stripe is a cordon sanitaire (and to be removed only in emergencies when highways have to double as runways).

Even if Falkenhayn’s suction pump were not in itself already “a declaration of bankruptcy, a capitulation of operative leadership in the face of static warfare,” it is overcome by Doumenc’s double-truck pump. Verdun holds out for seven months, then the crown prince’s bloodied army gives up. The fortress hexagon manages to retain its cruelly exposed part because every day 13,600 trucks (or one truck every six seconds) secure the connection. “C’est la route qui mène la bataille,” notes the CRA, and bestows upon its improvised autobahn the proudest name empires have been able to award since Roman days: La Voie sacrée—via sacra.

The Collection des cahiers de la victoire, a series of French war propaganda pamphlets, dedicates an issue and a title to the Voie sacrée. The autobahn, hardly invented, becomes literature. Long before Tyrone Slothrop and Thomas Pynchon, soldiers of the (barely neutral) United States, come to Europe and take note of how the old world is inventing the future. A nameless GI, witness to Verdun, extols for the Cahiers de la victoire what night has come to mean from the Avus to the Santa Monica Freeway, from Charlottenburg to California: headlights upon headlights, a luminous ribbon stretching across the hills and valleys of the Argonnes, “quelque gigantesque et lumineux serpent.”

“The defense of Verdun came to depend on the operability of vehicular traffic on the Voie sacrée. And so, from the beginning to the end of the battle, fresh blood pulsed into the almost severed link of the French front and kept it alive.” No American world war tourist could have phrased it more poetically, but this is in fact Captain Guderian speaking. In one of the ironies of history, Guderian, a signals officer (and thus one of Schlieffen’s favorite sons), was always in the thick of things: 1914 at the Marne and 1916 at Verdun. He remained on the spot even after the Treaty of Versailles had left the Reich an army of only one hundred thousand men without a single armored vehicle.

This, however, was to underestimate the inventiveness of Prussian staff officers. As early as the winter of 1923-24, Guderian and the later commander-in-chief of the German Army, Walther von Brauchitsch (not to be confused with racecar-driving nephew Manfred), organized blitzkrieg maneuvers whose tank units consisted of highly poetic mock-ups: staff vehicles with glued-on cardboard turrets. According to Hans von Seeckt, chief of the German General Staff during the Weimar Republic, “the motorization of the army was one of the most important issues.” Small wonder, then, that the very same Guderian writes the first text on the autobahn. The January 1925 issue of the Miltärwochenblatt (The Military Weekly) contains, as part of a section on “the armored vehicle,” his epochal essay “The Lifeline of Verdun.” While the solitary author of Mein Kampf can merely dream of an autobahn, Guderian clearly spells out Doumenc’s lesson: ever since February 1916, giant snakes of light and steel are our lifelines.

In short, you learn from your enemy. The tactics of World War X become the strategies of World War X + 1. Tanks, used by the British in 1917 at Cambrai for infantry support only, and still as late as 1940 restricted to tactical employment in the Allied armies (with the notable exception of de Gaulle), are turned by Guderian into a decisive weapon. “Deployed by the high command in surprising numbers and depth on a broad front,” independently operating panzer divisions drive the blitzkrieg. The autobahn, a purely defensive measure at Verdun and not pursued in postwar Europe (with the exception of Italy’s Dr. [Piero] Puricelli, who, however, did not implement the two-way traffic with clearly divided lanes), is turned by Hitler into the lifeline of the Third Reich. (Only one of Guderian’s ten panzer divisions is already a 110-kilometer column.)

The two creators first met at the 1933 Berlin Automobile Exhibition. In his memoirs, Guderian recounts that it was “unusual for the Chancellor himself to open the exhibition. And what he had to say was in striking contrast to the customary speeches of Ministers and Chancellors on such occasions. He announced the abolition of the tax on cars and spoke of the new national roads that were to be built and of the Volkswagen, the cheap ‘People’s Car,’ that was to be mass-produced.”8

Said and done. The Reich came to experience what even sober economic historians of the Kuczynski School can only describe in psychiatric terms: “the motorization psychosis.” The 1932 traffic volume of 522,943 cars and 162,073 lorries certainly did not require any autobahn, but, as Hitler put it, “just as the horse carriage once paved its way and the railroad built the necessary tracks, motor traffic must receive the necessary road system.”

The movement of ‘33, then, was always already a moving (Be-wegung). It awakened people’s desires to acquire a driver’s license—in German, Führerschein. And the Führer granted them their wish—as tank commanders (Panzerführer) on the autobahn.

A short story, published by the headquarters of VII Army Corps, may serve as a miniature model: In the last days of the 1940 blitzkrieg against France, two German soldiers on reconnaissance enter the village of Sy. They discover “two, three, four—fifteen motorcycles, five of them equipped with sidecars. An entire signal squadron,” whose “drivers must have fled from our artillery.” “One thing is clear: the bikes are going back with us.” While Private A goes looking for reinforcements, Private B “enviously” inspects the loot. He “doesn’t know much about motorbikes,” he has “only now and then watched cyclists and the staff’s ‘gentlemen drivers.’” But war is wish fulfillment—also and especially for those without a driver’s license. Private A returns with a motorcycle expert. “Then, suddenly, the sound of an approaching engine. Everybody takes cover,” but only to witness Private B “return at top speed, stop with squealing brakes and report to his commander: ‘Sir, Sy liberated from the enemy!’” A short story in which one only need replace motorbikes by cars and country roads by the autobahn in order to arrive at the Kraftwerk song.9

For the autobahn is aesthetics. “For motorized traffic,” notes the 1937 governmental publication Bauten der Bewegung, “the Reichsautobahn constitutes a veritable artery: It is not a foreign body in the landscape but an harmonious part.” The somewhat less public reason: unlike autostradas and autoroutes, the autobahn avoids unnecessarily deep embankments “that would separate them from the landscape.” In the words of Fritz Todt and his constant army contacts, “the autobahn must not turn into mouse trap from which military vehicles cannot escape.”10 Thus peacetime planning paves the way for Kammler’s brigades, who spent the final months of the war rushing along the autobahn to launch V2 rockets toward London and World War X + 1.

Unlike their foreign imitations, Germany’s autobahn is surrounded by green. Fig. 3 State Secretary and later Field Marshal Erhard Milch of the Reich Aviation Ministry provided Todt’s engineers with aircraft “in order for them to see their autobahn from above and assess how advantageously planted vegetation could at least in part obscure the road when approached from the side.” Eichendorff’s question who put the forest so high above can thus be answered in part.11 It was the supreme command of the German Wehrmacht, spurned by the all-too-prophetic concern that enemy aircraft could follow the uncamouflaged autobahn all the way to Berlin. World War X + 1 casts its shadow on all thorough planning.

And when the soloist of the Führer’s Table Talk dreams of driving along the Reichsautobahn all the way to Kiev and Odessa in a car with an inbuilt camera, the modern landscape movie has been shot and the identity of aesthetics and blitzkrieg is beyond all doubt.

To this day, Americans, who had to wait until February 9, 1938, for the Senate to officially recommend the construction of express highways, drive their cars as if they were covered wagons heading west. Speed limits and front bench seats, that stubborn relic from horse wagon days, do not bother pioneers. On a broad, well-behaved front, with nobody passing anyone, they all trek together toward the last frontier. But German panzer divisions moving at combat speed, to quote Colonel General [Werner] von Fritsch of the German Supreme Command, need the autobahn from “Halle to Berlin to themselves.” Which also indicates who, if anybody, is allowed to pass said divisions. Germany forgoes twelve- or fourteen-lane Santa Monica-type freeways. There is only one passing lane for staff officers and engineers, the gentlemen drivers in motion.

And every time summer comes around, as it did in ‘39, when the autobahn is cloaked in green and its soft embankments are navigable, people’s wishes are granted: tourist division upon tourist division sallies forth. Motorization psychosis. Six-cylinder engines roar. Not to mention stereos. Until Europe’s borders capitulate. Blitzkrieg à tous azimuts. And everyone passes everyone.

Peace is the continuation of war with the same means of transportation.



GUDERIAN, Heinz. Panzer Leader. Translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon. London: Michael Joseph, 1952.

LACAN, Jacques. Écrits. The First Complete Edition in English. Translated by Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2006.

MÜLLER, Heiner. Explosions of a Memory. Edited and translated by Carl Weber. New York: PAJ Publications, 1989.

PYNCHON, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1987.

  1. See MÜLLER, Heiner. Explosions of a Memory. Edited and translated by Carl Weber. New York: PAJ Publications, 1989, p. 129; translation amended. “Volokolamsk” refers, by way of Heiner Müller’s poem “Volokolamsk Highway,” which draws on Alexandr Bek’s eponymous 1944 novel, to events that occurred during the failed German advance on Moscow in late 1941. (Translator’s Note)↩︎

  2. Thomas PYNCHON. Gravity’s Rainbow, op. cit., p. 755.↩︎

  3. Ibid., p. 767.↩︎

  4. Ibid., p. 756.↩︎

  5. The acronym HAFRABA originally stood for “Hamburg-Frankfurt-Basel,” the name of the association founded in 1926 for the preparation of the construction of a motorway connecting these cities. “HA” later came to refer to Hansestädte (Hanseatic cities), in order to include Bremen and Lübeck. (Translator’s Note)↩︎

  6. In German, Verkehr can refer both to traffic and (sexual) intercourse. (Translator’s Note)↩︎

  7. Jacques LACAN. Écrits. The First Complete Edition in English, op. cit., p. 417.↩︎

  8. Heinz GUDERIAN. Panzer Leader, op. cit., p. 28.↩︎

  9. A reference to the 1974 Kraftwerk hit “Autobahn” featuring the refrain “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” (“We drive drive drive on the autobahn”). (Translator’s Note)↩︎

  10. Fritz Todt (1891–1942) was appointed inspector general for German roadways in 1933. (Translator’s Note)↩︎

  11. An ironic reference to the opening lines of Joseph von Eichendorff’s romantic poem “Der Jäger Abschied” (“The Hunters’ Farewell”): “Wer hat dich, du schöner Wald, / Aufgebaut so hoch da droben?” (“Oh beautiful forest so high above, / who put you there?”). (Translator’s Note)↩︎