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Germany might ask drivers to pump the brakes on the Autobahn

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Germany is known for many things - beer, World War II, cars - which brings us to the autobahn. That is the country's network of highways, where you can drive as fast as your car can go. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, a movement to introduce a speed limit on the autobahn is gaining momentum and leading to some soul-searching.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE ACCELERATING AND SHIFTING GEARS)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: This is the sound of the autobahn inside Alex Gruhler’s Mercedes.

ALEX GRUHLER: (Through interpreter) This is a convertible S-Class with an AMG engine, 612 horsepower, and its top speed is 192 miles an hour.

SCHMITZ: Gruhler knows this because he's driven it that fast, but only a few times a year on vacant stretches of the autobahn near Cologne.

GRUHLER: (Through interpreter) I'm a car enthusiast. The first word out of my mouth wasn't mama or papa, but auto. I love driving. And I love driving fast, but I only do it when it's safe.

SCHMITZ: Gruhler wears black-rimmed glasses, a black cashmere sweater and a striped, cream-colored blazer. The advertising exec says he'd prefer an Italian sports car, but he sticks with an understated Mercedes because he says Germans feel self-conscious about showing off.

But he insists Germans should not feel self-conscious about their autobahn. A movement to introduce speed limits on speed-limitless portions of the national motorway is gaining momentum. And years ago, when the government began introducing limits of 80 miles an hour on many stretches of the highway network, Gruhler started a campaign against these limits.

GRUHLER: (Through interpreter) Having no speed limit is part of German culture. The French are obsessed with wine. The Americans love their guns. Every nation has its cultural characteristics. We have no speed limit, and it's a freedom we've enjoyed for decades. It's part of Germany's DNA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUTOBAHN")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: Indeed, many aspects of modern German culture, including this 22-minute ode to the autobahn by German techno music icon Kraftwerk, are infused with this sense of freedom - a roadway without limits, an ideal platform for German industry to showcase the technological superiority of its immaculately engineered highways and automobiles. And that was precisely how the Nazi leadership saw the autobahn that it inherited from the post-World War I Weimar Republic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABEN SIE SCHON MAL IM DUNKELN GEKUSST")

EVELYN KUNNEKE: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: Nazi propaganda films like this one employed popular music of the era to showcase Adolf Hitler's promise for building an autobahn network across Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABEN SIE SCHON MAL IM DUNKELN GEKUSST")

KUNNEKE: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: These propaganda programs mixed music with skits devoted to the glory of the Reich's autobahn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character) I'm very anxious to get going and still more curious of the results when we have finished.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) Well, let's go.

SCHMITZ: One of these skits, meant for an English-speaking audience, portrayed a race between a British visitor and his German friend. The Brit takes the country roads between two points, and the German opts for the autobahn. When they meet up, they compare notes. The German says he used his brake just five times. The Brit? - 165 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character) The instruments cannot deceive, and the cars performed beautifully. The German Reich's autobahn will impress the world.

CONRAD KUNZE: I listened to these radio shows from the Nazi times on the autobahn, and I was, I ought to say, surprised how good they are.

SCHMITZ: Conrad Kunze is author of the book "Deutschland Als Autobahn" or "Germany As Autobahn." He says the Nazi leadership closed factory floors and stores so that Germans would listen to Hitler's speeches in these radio dramas about the autobahn and how it symbolized German superiority.

KUNZE: The autobahn is a collective piece of architecture. It's connected to an idea of Volksgemeinschaft. That was the Nazi idea that, like, all Germans are a somewhat harmonious nation.

SCHMITZ: A nation that, like its showcase roadway, was rapidly moving forward without any limits. And in some ways, Kunze says, this unifying idea around the autobahn survived beyond World War II, as Germany continued construction on the network, again making it a distinctive feature of the country. Today, the autobahn is 8,000 miles long. Seventy percent of it has no posted speed limit.

STEFAN GELBHAAR: (Through interpreter) Every single study on CO2 emissions and speed limits comes to the same conclusion. We can save millions of metric tons of emissions by introducing a speed limit on the autobahn.

SCHMITZ: Stefan Gelbhaar is a Green Party lawmaker in Germany's parliament. His party has called for a blanket speed limit on the autobahn of around 80 miles an hour in order to save more than 2 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. Two parties in Germany's three-party ruling coalition are in favor of this measure, but the libertarian FDP party is blocking it, calling this limit on the freedom to speed unnecessary. Gelbhaar compares the debate over a speed limit similar to that around gun restrictions in the U.S.

GELBHAAR: (Through interpreter) The debate around freedom and security is definitely similar. There are people who associate a concept of freedom with driving fast or carrying a gun. And there are people who say that my sense of safety is massively threatened by someone hurtling past me at more than 160 miles an hour.

SCHMITZ: Alf Luchow knows this personally, in the worst way. Eight years ago, the now 72-year-old therapist got a call from the police saying his ex-wife and 15-year-old daughter had been hit from behind by a car on the autobahn.

ALF LUCHOW: (Through interpreter) My wife was driving a small car. She signaled left. And as she was pulling out into the next lane, a car driving 120 miles an hour slammed into her.

SCHMITZ: His ex-wife died instantly. His daughter was taken to the hospital in critical condition, and Luchow jumped into his car and headed there.

LUCHOW: (Through interpreter, crying) I wanted to get there as fast as I could by. Sorry, I need a moment. She was still alive as I drove to the hospital. My friend, who was with me, told me to slow down. Of course, it's so ironic that I was speeding to get to my daughter, who'd been in a crash caused by a speeding car.

SCHMITZ: When Luchow arrived, it was too late. His daughter, Sofia, had died.

LUCHOW: (Through interpreter) I see cars as weapons in Germany. I almost think you need something like a weapons license if you'd like to drive a car here.

SCHMITZ: According to road accident statistics from last year, 34 people per million Germans died in car accidents, but only 5% of those accidents occurred on the autobahn. Germany's fatal car accident rate is among the lowest in Europe and is more than three times as low as the rate in the United States. Luchow says it's an uphill battle introducing a speed limit on the autobahn because the German economy is dependent on an auto industry that uses the autobahn as a selling point. But he thinks the tide may turn soon. In the most recent polls, 60% of Germans agreed on introducing speed limits...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE RUNNING)

SCHMITZ: ...And even autobahn enthusiast Alex Gruhler thinks the government should add some restrictions.

GRUHLER: (Through interpreter) I do think Germany should require drivers to get an extra license for driving cars of a certain caliber. I don't agree with 18-year-olds having the right to drive an 800-horsepower car.

SCHMITZ: But as far as a blanket speed limit on the autobahn, Gruhler says, it would take away a freedom that he thinks is synonymous with being German.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUTOBAHN")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK SONG, "AUTOBAHN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.