Wait. Didn’t we do motorways a few days ago? Why are we doing the same thing again, only in German?
The Autobahn in question is Kraftwerk’s landmark album from 1974. I have a copy of this record but I don’t listen to it very much, in part because it rather too successfully captures the tedium of driving on an Autobahn and not the enjoyable part.
What the album does do is to allow me to consider a few small angles on the Autobahn as a manifestation of German modernity, a subject for art and also the change in the way we perceive progress between 1975 and today.
My essay the other day on motorways had a very consistent critical line to motorways. In part this was because I situated my thoughts within the concept of motorways, the British version of high-speed, dual-carriageways. I was not thinking of them generally: French autoroutes, German Autobahnen or Italian autostrade, for example. As a result I was dwelling mostly of those aspects of Britain and Ireland with which I am most unhappy.
It’s the very imperfect alignment of modernity and tradition that makes things like UK and Irish motorways so grating. In contrast, the thing I most like about Germany is the way in which modernity and tradition are combined. One result of that combination was that it has been possible for me to charge at high speeds over mountains and across valleys and exult in the aesthetic triumph of modernity. I have looked up at huge Autobahn bridges and thought: that’s just fantastic. Why? Because I feel that, inasmuch as this is possible, the Autobahn has been accommodated into the pre-existing condition of Germany’s landscape well enough for me not to resent them.
It’s not important to know what Kraftwerk wanted to do with Autobahn, the album. The artist is dead as Roland Barthe said in 1967. I think this: Autobahn’s monotony and aesthetic appeal capture both anxiety about the consequences of the Wirtschaftwunder years and also the charm of being able to get quite easily from one place to the next. As it happens, the Autobahn in question is the A555 leading from Köln to Bonn which gives the album as special appeal to me as I consider Köln one of the best cities in Europe (why would one ever want to drive away from it?).
Further, I have always quite liked Kondrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne because he was keen on trees in cities. And the A555 was another of his ideas. All of these things heap up when I consider Autobahn and then Autobahnen, Köln and Adenauer. I don’t suppose Kraftwerk intended those associations to resonate with me in quite that way but I will share them nonetheless.
Finally, Autobahn brings into sharp relief the difference between how we view progress today and how it might have been seen in 1975. I think that despite the oil-shock of 1973, most people thought the golden years were going to resume and carry on. Thus Autobahn still retains the bright optimism of mechanical invention, industrial ingenuity and consumer satiation.
Against that it contrasts the dullness of using some of those inheritances: Autobahn driving is convenient but rather monotonous. And it also acts a foreshadowing of the anxiety we suffer now of knowing what all that good dirtying fun results in. The planet is not in good shape. We have learned of our original sin of tapping those hydrocarbons. The ironic cheeriness of Autobahn – this is boring but we like it – is not really on today. Autobahn is a fossil from a cheerier time just ending.