Ribbons Across the Land

Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System

The Reichsautobahn

The First Interstates

During the 1930s, Germany’s Autobahn became a showpiece of Nazi engineering. The multilane, limited-access freeways connected many of the major cities in Germany. The first section of freeway opened in 1932 between Cologne and Bonn. When Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor in 1933, he embraced the idea of building a national system of roadways alongside many other ambitious construction projects. He saw that the project would not only serve military and civilian transportation needs, but it would also provide work for tens of thousands of unemployed men.

Under dictator Benito Mussolini, an 84-mile stretch of Italy’s autostrada, a controlled-access toll road designed by civil engineer Piero Puricelli, opened in 1924 between Milan and Lake Como. The roadway catered exclusively to automobiles and the tourist industry and served as a model for Germany’s autobahn. Piero Puricelli. Autostrada. Bestetti & Tumminelli, 1925.

“2000 km fertige Kraftfahrbahnen.” Zeitschrift des Vereines Deutscher Ingenieure, vol. 82, no. 3, 1938. View Source.

German Roadways

Hitler appointed engineer Fritz Todt to head the program and turned the first shovel of dirt near Frankfort in September of that year. By the end of 1937, Germany had completed 2,000 kilometers, or approximately 1,200 miles of the Reichsautobahn. When the United States entered the war four years later, the Autobahn had been expanded to 3,860 kilometers, or 2,400 miles.

Photograph of the German autobahn in the late 1930s in: Zeller, Thomas. Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-1970. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007. View Source.

“Ribbons Across the Land”

As Supreme Allied Commander during WWII, General Eisenhower saw the military and civilian advantages of having an Autobahn-like highway system. He later wrote that, “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…[and] this was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it.”