One fine fall day in 1985, I stood on a street corner in West Berlin, waiting for the light to change. It was early in the morning and no traffic was visible in any direction. I considered crossing against the light, but standing next to me was a formidable-looking German punk, and he wasn't moving an inch.
By punk, I mean he had a huge mohawk, multiple piercings and every other cosmetic indicator of transgressiveness you could expect from a mid-'80s Billy Idol imitator. But he was not going to cross that street until the light flashed green.
Finally, I thought, I understand the Holocaust. Orders are orders. Red lights mean stop.
Such snap histo-cultural generalization is no doubt unfair, but hey, I was a 22-year-old history major -- that was my life. And to this day, whenever I encounter a fresh opportunity to ponder the mystery of Germany in the 20th century, I recall that motionless rebel.
Today, his memory was summoned by a news story reporting European Union pressure on Germany to impose speed limits on the Autobahn. The ostensible reason: concerns about global warming. Faster cars consume more fossil fuels. But in Germany, where the right to drive as fast as your precision automobile can go is at least as sacred as the right to bear arms in the United States, the notion of a speed limit is pure heresy. The internal combustion engine was invented in Germany -- for car lovers everywhere, "the Autobahn is the pinnacle of the German driving experience, perhaps the ultimate in driving altogether ... the Autobahn offers the transcendent driving experience." How dare it be restricted! To meddle with such transcendence is the worst kind of Green Party ecofascism.
Accusations of fascism are hard to escape in Germany, no matter what side of an argument you're on. Because if you scratch a little at the history of the Autobahn, you will discover that once Hitler consolidated power, he made a big deal of extending the Autobahn network -- later generations referred to them as "Adolf Hitler's roads." The roads were intended to last for hundreds of years and were compared to the pyramids of Egypt; one historian writes, "Autobahn construction enabled the propagandists to demonstrate the government's determination to push through new projects with an apparently endless concrete ribbon that was visible to all and to use the Autobahn's claim to modernity to proclaim the dawn of a new era."
Eisenhower, by the way, cited the Autobahn network as inspiration for the interstate freeway system in the United States. So I guess Americans owe the Fuhrer a debt of gratitude for their unparalleled mobility, even if we aren't legally allowed to put the pedal to the metal.
I'm sure I'm not alone in cherishing the paradox that a country that is such a stickler about obeying the rules sets no limits on how fast you can go on parts of its highway system. No doubt that's one reason why that particular freedom is so sacrosanct. Even if one never actually drives that fast, just the notion that you can might be liberating.
And now here come those party poopers, arguing for speed limits to help keep the planet from overheating. Come on! Go ahead, ban incandescent light bulbs and mandate mass production of biofuels. Subsidize the hell out of solar and wind power (two areas where Germany leads the world). But please don't plug that one outlet for anarchy, in a culture where the punks don't dare jaywalk.