On a walk through the forests of Gmünden am Main, Dieter Stockmann points out crumbling bridges, overpasses and heavily overgrown road cuts and embankments only vaguely recognisable as human constructions. Scores of relics from the “forgotten motorway” can be found in the area, some of which have just been declared listed monuments due to the perseverance of the regional environmental official.
During the Nazi era, the isolated region was home to one of the most important work sites of the Reichsautobahn, a Weimar Republic infrastructure idea co-opted by the Nazis, who had plans to create a network of high-speed motorways across the country.
Between 1936 and 1939, a 30-kilometre stretch of land, known as Route 46, was cleared to serve as part of the intended north-south connection which would have run from Hamburg to Lake Constance. Up to 6,000 workers were employed on the building site.
When the Second World War broke out, work was suspended though sections of the motorway were only lacking a concrete road surface.
After the war, Route 46 was abandoned entirely. Today's Würzburg-Fulda motorway runs a considerable distance to the east.
Construction never continued due decisions made by the motorway architects, who tried to integrate roads into the landscape in the most harmonious manner possible. They felt motorways should not carve through the landscape as they do today, but add to it and create an enjoyable experience for drivers, Stockmann said.
The consequences of this aesthetic can be seen in audacious stretches of road with narrow curves and steep gradients. The Gräfendorfer Hang section includes repeated 90 degree curves with a gradient of 7.8 percent.
“In the winter no trucks would have been able to make it,” Stockmann said.
In order to succeed in placing Route 46 under a preservation order, Stockmann had to a lot of convincing. Local politicians didn't want reminders of the Nazi past, and some feared that the section could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.
Stockmann believes these fears are unfounded.
“Route 46 is rather a symbol of the collapse of (the Nazi) ideology,” he said, adding he has not met a single neo-Nazi on one of his tours, which he advertises online, in the annual Spessart's Nature Park programme and in a self-published book.
Residents of the economically underdeveloped region have gradually warmed to the idea of the old motorway as a tourist attraction, though. More municipalities are reflecting upon ways to make the motorway more accessible to visitors.
“A great walking path could run along the section, with information boards – a kind of motorway nature trail, if you like,” said Robert Herold, Deputy Mayor of the Markt Burgsinn municipality.
The only people unhappy with the turn of events seem to be local hunters, who don't want the forest to be disturbed.