Flying the Autobahn

Germans lean toward mysticism. They just can’t help it, it seems. All throughout history, whether it was Christian mysticism Ã?  la Meister Eckhart or philosophical mysticism as practiced by Hegel and Heidegger or the barbaric philosophy pursued by followers of Hitler, they just can’t seem to let go. In other words, they believe in truths beyond the present reach of reason. And one of their most sacred truths is the firm and unshakable belief that the way they drive on their Autobahn is somehow safe and normal.

It is neither of those two things.

The Autobahn, also referred to as the Bundesautobahn, is of course the German freeway system, a highly-complicated and densely-packed network of modern motorways that has yet to get around to establishing a general speed limit. Part of the reason could be the fact that the word for speed limit in German is something called Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung. As you can imagine, pronouncing a word like this without the proper amount of care could be injurious to your health and perhaps even to the health of those around you and this is probably the main reason why most Germans refuse to ever put it into their mouths.

Of course another reason could be the simple fact that Germans are insatiably and incurably mad about speed. They need to have it. They get this strange look in their eyes while they’re getting it. When they park their cars after it’s over they can’t remember having had it (the speed, that is). And then their eyes slowly return back to normal. In other words, they are what the folks in my country and in many other cultures all around the world like to refer to as “crazy people”.

You can break down the German Autobahn system pretty much like this: Every Autobahn was named by using the capital A. This got a little confusing after being introduced, however, so after a few years they came up with the idea of giving each one of these A’s its own number, too. The main Autobahns go all the way across the country and usually consist of a single number; A7, for example. These numbers are usually even-numbered if you are travelling on an east-west stretch and odd if travelling north-south. Shorter, regional Autobahns usually have a double-digit number and nobody seems to care much at all which direction they’re going in or not.

If being driven by a German, however, please remember that none of this numbering stuff will do you any good as the speeds you will be moving at preclude the possibility of ever being able to recognize things like road signs, much less what might or might not be written upon them.

Now for some history: Although the construction began during the Weimar era, Hitler enthusiastically embraced an ambitious Autobahn construction project and is generally credited with the system as we know it today. But that’s still no excuse. You can only pass the buck along for so long before somebody has to start taking the responsibility here, people.

And it should also be noted that the main culprit behind this modern post-Hitler, post-war Autobahn mania is the so-called “West-German”. He, or they I should say, not only quickly repaired the damaged Autobahn system in the West, they also established a highly successful and highly complex experimental low-flying-racing-vehicle technology which later became an all-out industry and eventually brought us many marvellous new technical innovations, the most famous among them being the so-called “German car”.

And we should also give credit where credit is due. The Autobahns in East Germany (GDR) were grossly neglected during the Cold War era. This may have been a good thing. The communist leadership there was in the position to force through radical new ideas at that time, one of the most radical being the speed limit. It was set at 100 km an hour on all GDR Autobahns. This was a giant leap forward and a great psychological success for progressive Germans everywhere, though it was primarily due to the fact that East German automobiles could only travel at 80 km per hour.

And then the Cold War ended and now they’ve got their damned Autobahns so, like, who cares?

In closing I would like to issue a special warning to all foreign travellers considering a trip to Germany. They are a very hospitable and friendly people. They are generally rational and considerate. They will even bend over backwards to help you if you ask them to. But never, under any circumstances, get into a car with one of them. German mysticism or not, it is one mystical experience you do without.

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