Route 46 the forgotten highway

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"Route 46" was the name of the route that was one of the first autobahn projects in germany. It was supposed to run from bad hersfeld to wurzburg, but was never completed. Today, it is a unique testimony to german transport history.

By: klaus rufer

Status: 13.07.2020 | archive

The A7 is now one of the most important north-south links in germany. Every day, around 40.000 vehicles on this trunk road in the north of lower franconia. At 962 kilometers, it is the longest german federal highway and the second longest continuous national highway in europe.

"route 46": one of the first autobahn projects in germany

Only a few kilometers to the west are the remains of the original A7 hidden in the forest. "Route 46" was the route, which was one of the first autobahn projects in germany, called. On this "route 46 idyllic peace reigns near gemunden am main. No car can drive on this route, no road map shows this autobahn, no navigation device knows this route. even the route itself is barely visible in the landscape. What hardly anyone knows today: almost 80 years ago, tens of thousands of cars were supposed to drive along route 46. construction work begins in 1937 on the approximately 70-kilometer long highway section. But already in 1939, shortly after the start of the second world war, the workers are withdrawn again. And they will never return. Only about 30 kilometers of continuous highway have been built so far.

the reichsautobahnen of the national socialists

looking back to the 1930s: the national socialists seized power in germany. A project that the regime is about to announce is the construction of a completely new type of road. The technocrats in berlin want to cover the reichsgebiet with a network of motor roads unknown in germany at that time – the reichsautobahnen. Fritz todt, the civil engineer and SA group leader who made his career under the nazis as general inspector for roads in the third reich, announced the ambitious construction project with pithy words.

"The construction work brings work on the largest scale in the long run. 250.000 forehead and fist workers find employment for seven years. For motor traffic, these Reichsautobahnen finally bring roads that correspond to the technical development of the motor car."

Fritz todt, inspector general for roads in the third reich

Hitler invented the autobahn? "This is not true at all"

"According to the will of the leader – according to the propaganda of the time – the german empire is to be covered by a whole network of these novel roads. "the national socialists invented the autobahn, probably even adolf hitler himself!" this view is still widespread even in today’s world. But if one works up the german autobahn construction in a historically correct way, a completely different picture emerges.

"Hitler has stolen the plans that clubs have previously created privately. He has made a huge propaganda campaign out of it. And synonymous is yes ‘streets of the leader’, but this is not true in the back and front."

Dieter stockmann, civil servant at the main-spessart district office

The origins of the german autobahns ..

Dieter stockmann is a civil servant at the main-spessart district office – and a profound expert on the history of the origins of the german autobahn system. In the course of his research on the historic route 46, he also came across the origins of the basic idea to develop special and completely newly designed power roads. Considerations about it existed long before the national socialists. And this not from governmental, but from private side. The road network in 1920s germany is barely able to cope with the steadily increasing volume of traffic. From business and commerce, therefore, come the first ideas for modern and more efficient traffic routes. Associations are even being formed to focus on the targeted development of the german transport infrastructure. And the first concrete highway plans were then drawn up by these associations.

"One has created new types of streets, new rules. None of this existed in the past. During the weimar republic, when the aforementioned associations began to plan, they started to build a highway from munich to berlin, for example, or from hamburg via frankfurt to basel."

Dieter stockmann, civil servant at the main-spessart district office

… go back to the weimar republic

Even if initially only on paper – the later so famous german autobahn is born. The plans had been waiting in the drawer, so to speak, since the weimar republic. The nazis just grab it and sell the idea in their propaganda as their own. But at best, the concept of building an entire autobahn network in the reich originated in the plans of the national socialists. As part of a north-south connection, route 46 in the Hesse-Bavaria region was ultimately planned in this way.

"The planned route was from bad hersfeld to wurzburg. That means that from north of bad bruckenau, the route would have passed through towns and villages such as weibenbach, grafendorf, gemunden, karlstadt, and zellingen all the way to wurzburg kist. And in wurzburg kist, another route, route 40, would have been added, heading south. In other words, it would have been possible to drive from Kiel to stuttgart via route 46."

Dieter stockmann, civil servant at the main-spessart district office

What was left over from route 46

A rather crisp march sunday. The mayor of gemunden, jurgen lippert, invited people to the guided tour and about 50 interested people showed up. Jurgen lippert himself comes from seifriedsburg. Unlike many people in the area, the mayor has been very familiar with the 80-year-old relics in the Seifriedsburg area since he was a child: the remains of the old highway "route 46".

"So, we are now directly on the route, route 46. Now you will say: you can see nothing at all!? You have to look closely to see what’s there."

Jurgen lippert, mayor of gemunden

mayor lippert and the hiking group are literally standing in the forest. At first glance, there is really nothing here that reminds one of a freeway. But as jurgen lippert says: you just have to take a closer look.

"If you look at the trees, it might become a little clearer. Here everything is full of deciduous trees and here everything is full of conifers. So this needle tree area, that’s just this stretch 46."

Jurgen lippert, mayor of gemunden

First laboriously cleared – then reforested again

In fact, it is now clearly visible: a band of dense conifers stretches across the forest, about 50 meters wide. They stand where the lanes of route 46 should once have run. What was later reforested with spruce trees had been painstakingly cleared years before – on the orders of the state authorities. After clearing, topsoil still had to be removed and piled to the left and right of the roadway, as a foundation for later revegetation measures. Then the actual construction work could begin.

Catastrophic conditions for the workers

Especially at the beginning of the construction work, there are major problems. The regime hired private companies. But it soon becomes clear that these companies are initially completely overwhelmed with the organization of such large construction sites. Accommodation and food for the required workers are partly catastrophic. The large number of workers on site alone causes major problems – also on route 46.

"You can calculate: about 4500 people who worked directly here, at this single construction site here in bavaria, hesse is added, but the numbers are no longer available. And then you have to add about 3,000 to 3,500 workers at the supply plants."

Dieter stockmann, civil servant at the main-spessart district office

For the first time, contractors are taking care of the social well-being of their workers

Working and living conditions for the construction workers were so precarious at the beginning that there were even strikes at the construction sites. And the work stoppages do not fail to have an effect on those responsible for the Fuhrer’s prestige project: the autobahn construction sites are completely reorganized. And above all: the contractors are being made to shoulder their responsibilities.

"Since the workers came from very distant areas, they were housed, so they created barracks camps. At first glance, this sounds very negative, but compared to the social situation of the workers in the early 20th century, it was very positive. It was a revolutionary leap in the twenty-first century, because for the first time ever the contractor had to take care of the accommodation and the social well-being of his workers. He had to provide sleeping places, washing places, enough food, sanitary facilities, a shower did not exist in the whole world at that time. That’s why there were so many commissions that came here and took a look at these things."

Dieter stockmann, civil servant at the main-spessart district office

Remains are listed as historical monuments

Today, most of the 80-year-old highway structures are still there. It is not least thanks to the high quality of the workmanship that they have survived the decades so well – and will probably continue to exist for a long time to come: the relics have been listed since 2003. On site, original photos from the time of the construction work are shown on display boards. The photographs prove: at that time, hardly any machines were used, but instead a lot of muscle power was employed. An old man from Seifriedsburg remembers this well. Konrad hahn was six years old when the workers came to his village in 1937 and construction work began above the village. little konrad was often present directly at the construction site.

"Well, I have a lot of memories because my father had horses and he always got work with the horses there and I just went along as a boy."

Konrad hahn, contemporary witness

Horses and muscle power – instead of machines

The horses were needed to move the heavy overburden lorries, remembers konrad hahn. The blasted rock was transported by wagons over an improvised railroad track to the roadway. The boulders served as fill material. Driving duty at the highway construction site brought the hahn family a welcome bit of extra income.

Injured and dead on the construction site

The work was not only physically hard, but also dangerous. There were injured and also dead. As at other construction sites, a tragic accident occurred in the pit near Seifriedsburg, says Jurgen Lippert. A scaffold collapsed.

"And that was on 29.04.1939: there were two workers on the scaffolding, kaspar betz and johann hahn, and both were from seifriedsburg. In any case, this scaffolding collapsed, both workers fell off the scaffolding into the construction pit."

Jurgen lippert, mayor of gemunden

Kaspar betz suffered severe internal injuries and died the same evening in a wurzburg hospital. Johann hahn broke his hip and remained scarred by the accident for the rest of his life.

No forced laborers or prisoners on the highway construction site

When one hears these descriptions, images of other Nazi construction projects naturally come to mind: brutal and inhumane procedures in the planning and construction of mostly war-important armaments projects, in which countless people lost their lives. But in the construction of the reichsautobahnen – a pre-war project – the regime took a different approach:

"it was also definitely so that here only regular workers worked, so all workers who were employed by companies and here quite regularly were assigned and worked. So there were no, I’ll call it now ‘conscripted workers’. There were no concentration camp inmates who would have had to work here, but quite regularly until the year 1939, until october, by regular construction companies."

jurgen lippert, mayor gemunden

Construction stopped at the start of the war

In september 1939, hitler announces the start of the war he provoked. The outbreak of military hostilities also has a direct impact on the construction of the reichsautobahnen. Men and machines are now needed elsewhere. Route 46 is also affected. Here, no construction worker will ever set one stone on top of another again. Although most of the construction material is left on site, the construction sites are secured and preserved for the planned further construction, this no longer happens due to the collapse of the regime and the defeat in the war.

route 46 today: an 80-kilometer-long construction ruin

Instead of a freeway, Route 46 ultimately became a ruined construction site some 80 kilometers in length, with scattered sections of it still standing in the landscape today. Dieter stockmann and his comrades-in-arms plead for a differentiated approach to this historical legacy. route 46 is not a "national socialist autobahn" but a freeway, but a freeway that was worked on during the national socialist era, he says, and he doesn’t see that as splitting hairs at all.

an impressive relic of german traffic history

Stockmann does not want to conceal the historical connection of the old route to germany’s darkest time. But he also wants to prevent this heavy heritage from covering everything up and obscuring the view of what he considers to be essential: route 46 as an impressive relic of a part of significant german transport history.

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