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It started out as a mere 12-mile stretch of highway running along one bank of the river Rhine, but today it rates as Europe's biggest motorway network covering a total distance of some 8,000 miles. This week Germany has been celebrating 80 years of the Autobahn, whilst also striving to dispel the still widely held belief that the legendary road system was dreamt up by Hitler – after all, Mussolini beat him to it.
The first European Autobahn was built between Milan and Varese in 1924, whereas German Autobahn number one was built in 1929, four years before the Nazis came to power. It aimed to ease congestion between the Rhine cities of Cologne and Bonn and it was opened by the famous post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In fact, the Nazis spent their early years actively campaigning against the Autobahn because they were convinced that it would only benefit rich capitalists and Jews.
Hitler changed tack and launched a propaganda drive promoting Autobahn construction after the Nazis gained power in 1933. First the unemployed were dispatched to build them and when war broke out it was the turn of forced labourers who suffered hunger and death.
Nowadays the Autobahn is famous for being one of the few road networks in the world which has sections without any speed limit at all: a paradise for testosterone-psyched Porsche drivers and the mighty German car industry. They hope that the Autobahn will last forever. But along the Rhine these days, Autobahn traffic congestion has become such a problem, that the authorities are busy building a successor – a bicycle Bahn.
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