BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 03:  Cars and traffic fill the A100 ring highway at dusk on November 3, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Germany is heatedly debating the introduction of highway tolls (in German: Maut), which in the current form proposed by German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt would be levied solely on foreigners. Dobrindt's office argues that this is not discrimination, which would be illegal under European Union law, since Germans already pay an annual car tax.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Ah yes, “ze Autobahn”. Few other landmarks represent Germany more than its freeway system. Cologne’s cathedral is distinctively West German, and the TV Tower in Berlin is a GDR feat of engineering, but the Autobahn (literally “car runway”) connects the whole country.

Over the decades, it has morphed from a utilitarian piece of national infrastructure to a cultural icon that has spawned artworks, albums, merchandise around the globe – and even the name of an Irish pub.

But why has it become so legendary, and what relationship do Germans have with their Autobahn today? More importantly, is it true that you can drive as fast as you want on it?

Dubious beginnings

First things first: the Nazis didn’t invent the Autobahn. Instead, the idea of constructing motorways connecting Germany’s expanding cities after World War I was conceived in the post-war Weimar Republic. The first public road of this kind was completed in 1932, linking Cologne and Bonn. It still exists – today, it’s part of Autobahn 555.

After Hitler rose to power in 1933 he used the Autobahn for political gain, appointing Fritz Todt as “Inspector General of German Road Construction,” and tasking him with increasing the Autobahn network.

Todt was behind a jobs creation program which, according to Nazi propaganda, helped eradicate unemployment in Germany. Autobahn workers lived in work camps near their construction sites, though often did not come here voluntarily – they were conscripted through the compulsory Reich Labor Service (that way, they were removed from the unemployment registry).

The early days of the Autobahn: Frankfurt to Mannheim in 1935.

The true results of that motorway expansion were meager, however, and construction increasingly relied on forced workers and concentration camp inmates after war broke out in 1939.

“Due to the massive number of workers required to sustain the production needed to launch a war, they ran out of workers to build the Autobahn, making forced labor increasingly important,” says Alice Etropolszky, mobility expert and product marketing team lead at public transport service provider door2door in Berlin.

The forced labor, she adds, took place “obviously under very poor working conditions.”

By 1942, when the war turned against the Nazis, only 2,360 miles (3,800 kilometers) out of a planned 12,430 miles (20,000 kilometers) of freeway had been completed.

East vs. West

Under a divided country, West and East Germany developed the Autobahn separately (pictured: Hittfeld in Bremen, Hamburg.)

After the war, most existing Autobahns in West Germany were repaired and put back into use, with an expansion program starting in the 1950s.

During the Cold War, some sections of the highway were designed to function as makeshift airfields for allied troops in case of a Soviet invasion.

In the GDR (East Germany), meanwhile, motorways were used primarily for military traffic and state-owned manufacturing vehicles.

The difference in attitude when it came to motorway construction in divided Germany also means that even today, in a few parts of the country, you can still feel the difference when you cross from a smooth, West German surface onto the old concrete blocks that used to form the majority of GDR Autobahn, and your ride gets increasingly bumpy. Try it for yourself on the A2, just before Magdeburg.

The Autobahn today