It was one of the more ingenious disappearing acts in a city famous for them. Rudolf Heß, at one time Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command, was Berlin-Spandau’s last remaining inmate when he died in the prison set aside for major Nazi offenders in 1987. To prevent the place from becoming a commemoration site for neo-Nazis, the Allies decided to tear down the old structure and replace it with a shopping mall for British servicemen. Today, the area appears to be a Kaufland supermarket. Or more accurately: most of the area was never a shopping structure nor a Kaufland supermarket. The most efficient way to erase the past, to prevent neo-Nazi pilgrimages, to turn an erstwhile prison complex into non-geography was and remains: a parking lot.
Parking lots are an architecture of use and they are an architecture of amnesia. They are, perhaps in Germany more clearly than elsewhere, about amnesia through use. The walls of the Spandau prison were ground down and scattered in the Baltic Sea, as if they were literally contaminated. The site itself, by contrast, was filled with quotidian substance: shopping carts, sad patches of grass and minivans backing into too-small spots. Every visitor to Berlin will have come across the Stolpersteine – little brass plaques put into the sidewalk to memorialize Jews murdered by the Nazis. The Stolpersteine – ‘tripping stones’ – are meant to arrest you in your everyday routines, if only for a moment, to force memory from thoughtlessness. The paving stones of a parking lot are their opposite: smoothing stones, handmaidens of thoughtlessness.
The photographer Eva Leitolf spent twenty years assembling the series Deutsche Bilder (German Images): photos of places where racist attacks – arson, assaults, murders – have occurred. There is one picture in the set that reminds me of the Kaufland in Spandau. A four-lane road, two houses and three parking spots. The street itself is in Helmstedt, Lower Saxony, but the image feels like it could have been taken anywhere.
The attack that happened here in 2007 – a Turkish-German man was smashed against the fence and threatened with death – is so ordinary that news reports about it are almost impossible to find today. As is the setting: the road with the leafless trees on the other side; the pretty two-story houses that suggest an urban planning rationale long since abandoned or forgotten; the metal fence that seems to be the preordained perimeter of suburban supermarkets across Germany. And the three tiled parking spaces, separated by lines of white tiles: I’ve always found them deeply oppressive, perhaps because they’re not – as in Californian parking lots with their washed-out markings on failing asphalt – evidence of neglect. Someone cared enough to set down these stones, to hammer them in just right, to engineer this pattern, to go the extra inch. This surface is uncaring by design, not by neglect.
The small parking lot feels as though it looks the way it does in order to shrug off what would one day happen. This projective amnesia, as though whatever violence and misery could take place in this location could never truly find a home there in memory – this ability feels deeply connected to the fact that it is traffic architecture. Pictures of roads, intersections or sidewalks don’t make up the bulk of Leitolf’s pictures. But they show up in a lot of them.
Leitolf photographs to emphasize absence: she nearly always keeps human figures out of frame. But whenever I’ve seen any part of the cycle, it has taken me a few pictures to catch on – for the simple reason that these are places we are conditioned to imagine depopulated. The parking lot makes you want to move on. It is inhospitable to lingering, looking carefully, asking questions. The car has become the outer contour of what goes without saying.
Today, Germany knows it’s supposed to talk about cars. The new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made the Verkehrswende a priority: a climate ‘turn’ in transportation policy. But wende is one of those words Germans like to use when absolutely nothing changes. Traveling through Germany in the summer of 2023, you saw more people than usual taking public transportation. Drawn in by a discounted ticket meant to kick-start a shift toward more rail and tram travel – but, characteristically, not matched by new investments in new trains or tram lines – the public seemed to briefly explore a foreign territory, knowing that they’d return to their normal mode of transportation. And normal meant cars.
Decades of unequal investment have created an unequal field of disturbances in German transportation systems: as the number of cars continues to climb, people have come to understand the ubiquitous traffic jams as an expected and calculable risk, whereas every rail journey has become a baffling cascade of Buster Keaton-esque mishaps. People wait for the next train announcement with barely concealed glee glimmering through their frustration: what will it be this time, a cow on the tracks, a brush fire, a broken-down connecting train? Wait till folks back home hear about this! Cars are the dysfunction we have learned to live with, but which we have forgotten how to narrate.
The sense that automotive architecture was almost intentional in its hostility to reflection and memory is much older than Leitolf’s pictures. Theodor Adorno left Frankfurt in 1933, when the Nazis came to power – and when all of Germany had about 300,000 cars. He returned in 1949, when there were about half a million cars in Germany. In 1959, when he gave a lecture on ‘The Meaning of “Working Through the Past” ’, in which he pointed to ‘a lack of self-reflection, in the end an incapacity to experience’ among his contemporaries, there were about 3.5 million.
He had spent the intervening years in Los Angeles (1.5 million inhabitants, 1 million cars in 1940), and in Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he referred again and again to the car. ‘Every intellectual in emigration,’ he wrote, ‘lives in an environment which necessarily remains incomprehensible, even if one can manage to find one’s way among trade union organizations or automobile traffic; one is forever getting lost.’
The car, and that sense of alienation, followed Adorno home. In 1962, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He demanded a traffic light for a crossing close to his institute’s new building.
When crossing the Senckenberganlage, near the corner of Dantestraße, one of our secretaries was recently run over and seriously injured, only days after another pedestrian had died in the same crossing. On your way to university you have to run across the street in an altogether undignified way, as though running for your life. Should a student or a professor be in the state that is actually appropriate for them, namely in their thoughts, then there is an immediate threat of death.
Years after the philosopher’s death, the city of Frankfurt put a traffic light in place at the crossing – the ‘Adornoampel’, as it is known today. The traffic-light episode is often told as one of the more light-hearted moments in a fairly downbeat biography. But there was surely a very dark dimension to Adorno’s worry: the professor had reflected for years on what the ‘immediate threat of death’ might do to thinking. The letter to the editor suggested that the effect of the exploding car traffic around the German metropolis raised the same concern for him. Amid the mindless mania for rebuilding, Adorno detected not just an allergy against recollection, but also a readiness for repetition.
The letter reflected less a change in Adorno’s thinking than one in his choice of transport. He had gone from being a driver in California to being a pedestrian in Frankfurt. The Californian landscape had appeared to him ‘disconsolate and inconsolable’, and it had appeared that way behind the windows of a speeding car. ‘For what the hurrying eye has merely viewed from the car is not retained, and the landscape drops away without a trace in the mind, just as all traces on the landscape fade away.’
By the 1960s, Adorno was no longer concerned about what driving might do to the driver’s psyche. When crossing the Senckenberganlage, he became concerned with the alienation felt by the car’s potential victims: that is, pedestrians. The car was, just as in the United States, a mode in which a society made its peace with mass death. But, as Adorno was keenly aware of, closing their eyes to mass death was something that Germans had considerable practice in. It seems at least possible that Adorno sensed a continuity between their tacit acceptance of one and their acceptance of another.
In early September 2019, a Berlin man drove his car into a group of pedestrians on Invalidenstraße. The driver had had a malignant brain tumor removed only weeks before and had been told not to drive; nevertheless, he had packed his mother and his six-year-old daughter into his Porsche Macan Turbo to drive to a nearby restaurant. Four people paid with their lives when he suffered an epileptic seizure, his cramping leg pushing down on the gas pedal, and the Macan – 2,000 kilograms of steel – sped to 100 km/h and charged at pedestrians waiting at the stop light.
In opening statements at his trial, the driver, Michael M., claimed that he had no reason to think he was not in full control of his body that September evening – why else would he have allowed his mother and child to ride in his car? The court decided that M. ought to have known, but didn’t address the larger falsehood contained in that statement: that thanks to the massive weight and fancy safety features of the Macan Turbo, M. was never putting his child or mother at risk. He left his house, chose convenience, chose control, not gambling on his child’s life, or his mother’s. German technology ensured he didn’t have to. He instead gambled on the lives of perfect strangers. That, after all, is the promise of the SUV: its safety features are safety features for those on the inside; those same features often mean certain death for those on the outside. If the judges refused to make that connection, the people living near the intersection did: cars are terrorism said one sign put up on the site of the accident. If that is true, it is a terrorism that a society visits voluntarily upon itself.
As with the Porsche Macan Turbo decades later, the cars Adorno dodged on the Senckenberganlage mostly came from Germany, welcome symbols of a country that could once again show its face in the world, so long as that face came with sufficient horsepower. After the war, the car industry became the bearer of a new nationalism, and the car the emblem of recovery and a source of collective identification.
The car had a funny way of negating the supposed ‘year zero’ in 1945. Take Wolfsburg, the city founded by the Nazis to build the Volkswagen, the ‘people’s car’. By the end of the Second World War, Wolfsburg was exactly none of those things: the Nazis’ planned city was half finished and already in ruins. What production facilities existed were heavily damaged by Allied bombs. As for the people’s car – the facilities in Wolfsburg had produced about 600 KdF-Wagen (the car that later became the VW Beetle). All of them had gone to the Wehrmacht. The only German families that had ever driven the car to a lakeside or down an autobahn had done so for propaganda pictures.
In spite of its Nazi-ish-sounding modern-day name, Wolfsburg wasn’t even called Wolfsburg. Only at Allied insistence was the ‘City of the KdF Car near Fallersleben’ rechristened (after a nearby castle) into Wolfsburg. So what Volkswagen celebrated ten years later, when the one millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in Wolfsburg, a gold version with rhinestone bumpers, wasn’t so much a recovery from the Nazi period and from the war. It was – even though no one would have acknowledged it at the time – the fact that the Nazis’ vision for the company had finally been realized. The automotive future that the Nazis had to fake for propaganda postcards: the post-war ‘economic miracle’ had made it real.
The pride many Germans took (and still take) in being ‘world champions in exports’ is largely an artifact of car manufacturing: frequently cars account for more than half of Germany’s excess exports. By way of cars, post-war Germans could ‘once again’ take pride in their country’s prowess, and, yes, even take a pride in their own dominance, something that the country in the political arena sidestepped compulsively. As the psychologist Oliver Decker has argued, after the war Germans developed a ‘secondary authoritarianism’ – focused not on the dictates of any one political figure, but on the supposedly apolitical demands of industry. ‘The authoritarian personality,’ Adorno had said in ‘The Meaning of Working Through the Past’, ‘identifies with power par excellence, before any particular content.’ The car was the perfect icon for the absence of content. The reliance on the car became an important ideological buttress to post-war Germany: it took, as Bernhard Rieger writes, a ‘historical carwash’ to the Nazi past, and it gave the ambitions of those years a new, more acceptable shape. It suggested continuities with a time for which, in politics, Germans had little wish for continuities. And the frenzy with which it imbued the country, and which Adorno recoiled from in Frankfurt, made the continuities harder to spot, easier to put out of mind.
In Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a couple walking down the street come across a car accident. They reconstruct what happened and observe the approach of the ambulance. ‘One almost left with the justifiable impression that a law-like and orderly event had taken place,’ Musil’s narrator concludes. The car is, or can feel like, an instrument of law, even if it is an agent of chaos.
For a few years in the 1980s I grew up near what’s called an Ausfallstraße, an arterial road that connected a historic city center to the autobahn and the periphery. Unlike in the United States, where new highways required by the car boom of the midcentury drove massive wedges through organic urban environments, these are often preexisting country roads, simply widened and provided with all the accoutrements of commuter existence: expansive gas stations, parking-intensive shopping, fast food.
Our house lay on an old street with heavy cobblestones and no road markings. Behind the houses lay cow pastures and behind them a rail line on one side, an autobahn on the other. Bisecting it all was the Ausfallstraße, the outer perimeter of our childhood activities. I recently visited the area, after more than thirty years away. On one side of the arterial I remembered almost every street; the other might as well have been on another planet. In the 1980s, we kids were allowed to traverse the cow pastures, the old cobblestone road, the orchards. The limits of our world were automotive, that is to say, the limits of our world were the threat of being run over by a car.
Unlike in the US, where the car dominates biographies (especially childhoods) with banal obviousness, German biographies – at least in my generation – are still filled with bikes, buses and explorations on foot, by the absence of parents and by adventures far from home. But that can make invisible the very real limits automobility imposed on our freedom. At some point, there was a hard stop, and more often than not, its nature was vehicular. Where we belonged, and what belonged to us, was dependent on cars, trucks, buses – not because they took us anywhere but because they barred us from certain spaces under penalty of death.
Beyond the people’s car, the car was a way of determining who constituted ‘the people’ – who counted and who didn’t. Cars are a perfect agent of segregation and if that segregation was far more obvious in US car culture than in Germany’s, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t powerful in its own right. After all, a four-lane Ausfallstraße orders not just space, but also social classes: there are those who are inconvenienced, hurt, maybe even killed by it; and there are those whose convenience the four-lane street enhances, and whose seigneurial privilege to endanger and maim it sets in stone and asphalt. Every German city has arterials with tall, slapdash apartment buildings on either side with half-drawn shutters trying to shut out the traffic noise, with Turkish and Arabic names on many doorbells; and it has cobblestone streets with large houses set back behind leafy trees, where you imagine every second doorbell must say ‘Müller’. The car ordered this geography and the car made it plausible, naturalized it.
Of course, the car also became a way into citizenship, into belonging. Wolfsburg became a city only due to the arrival of Italian ‘guest workers’. In the 1960s, many other immigrants found their footing in this new country of theirs by working unionized jobs in the automobile industry. Very few of them were able to purchase the newly constructed homes in the suburbs. By the time they could, they were largely priced out. Perhaps as a legacy, the rate of homeownership among the descendants of Gastarbeiter, and among German citizens with a ‘migration background’, is much lower than among the ‘Alman’ majority. Instead, it seems, the disposable income goes far more toward cars.
In the parts of Berlin where many people own their apartments, the inhabitants often seem not to own cars, making use of bikes and public transport. In those areas – immigrant areas like parts of Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Reinickendorff and Spandau – where most people rent, you are often struck by the number of luxurious BMWs and Mercedes. That amid a radical increase of real estate values (and hence rents), these citizens invest in an asset that famously depreciates the moment you drive it off the lot, says volumes about who within German society accrues wealth and who is left to simply consume. But it also speaks to a desire to belong: on Saturdays one still sees these Berliners scrubbing down their cars by the side of busy city streets, as though in some suburban cul-de-sac. Home is where you suds your car.
Adorno likely would have looked at the veneration of the car in post-war Germany as a form of Americanization. The brands may have been German, but the car culture growing up around them was the same that he had glimpsed twenty years earlier in southern California. Germans identified with the car industry, but they didn’t tend to identify with their own car culture. It’s something homegrown about which they could reassure, perhaps delude themselves, that it was a foreign import. Musil’s couple, after observing the accident, likewise think that what they’ve seen is something American: ‘According to American statistics,’ the gentleman claims, ‘190,000 people are killed and 450,000 injured by automobiles there every year.’
Maybe it’s my imagination, but when it came to visualizing the promises of freedom that came with the car, post-war Germans frequently turned to the United States. New German Cinema in the late 1960s and all of the 1970s gravitated toward the road movie as a form, and while Wim Wenders’s early trilogy was set mostly in Europe, whenever their budget allowed their driving took them to America. Whether Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), Wenders’s Alice in the Cities (1974), Paris, Texas (1984) or Volker Schlöndorff ’s Voyager (1991), whether a novel like Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell (1972), or Max Frisch’s Montauk (1975): for a long time, Germans seemed to visualize what their cars promised them by imagining an American wind in their hair. Even when the Volkswagen Beetle began its filmic career – in The Love Bug (1968) – the film was made by Walt Disney and the titular car, Herbie, is a Californian.
Another thing that came late, at least to my recollection, was the sense of giddy anarchy that characterized the act of driving on American crime shows and movies. The sheer destructiveness of the great chase sequences of 1970s cinema in the US were carnivalesque counter-imaginaries to everyday suburbanites’ boring morning commute. Their screeching tires and misused curbs were expressions of all the insane stuff you might daydream of stuck in traffic, but would never do. Not by accident did many of the most classic chase sequences lay waste to cities many US moviegoers had abandoned between 1950 and 1970, but often still commuted to. But even small gestures, such as Michael Douglas and Karl Malden being able to pull up to any store and double park – with pointed shoddiness – in The Streets of San Francisco (1972–77), were about what cars could be in principle, even if they were never that for you.
Starting in the early 1970s, Germany’s ARD television station began airing the weekly procedural Tatort, which continues to run – more than a thousand episodes later – to this day. Fielding multiple teams of investigators across various German cities at any point in time, the series is something of an ice core sample. Over its long run, it has further submerged – and at other times gently interrogated – barely acknowledged national anxieties and obsessions. In the early 1970s the show implicitly grappled with what it meant to root for a cop who may or may not have been on the clock under National Socialism; in the 1980s with erstwhile 1960s radicals finding themselves a cog in the machine of state; questions of immigration, religion, privilege, feminism all find their way into the ninety minutes on Sunday night.
Cars feature everywhere, and while it’s impossible to speak in absolutes about 1,200 episodes, it’s noticeable that cars are hardly ever used with the kind of sloppy, anarchic joy with which American TV cops drove, parked, crashed. Their make could speak volumes about an investigator’s attitude to the German past, to authority, to privilege, to culture. Differing driving styles provided a quick portrait of the personalities involved. It spoke about gender and autonomy. Cars are important in Tatort, but they are important as stolid icons. They were shorthands at characterization and social location, they were brands and they moved the plot from A to B.
The twenty-first century has created a conundrum for Germany’s relationship to the car: what if that object which always embodied what went without saying or thinking about, becomes the thing one must talk about? German media today is full of car talk, and a system of value and signification that was previously experienced as self-evident and not requiring defense, has become a site for endless culture wars. What happens when an identification that you never much reflected on hits a limit? When your conception of freedom becomes fused with the potential for maiming and destruction?
To even the most gentle suggestion that certain aspects of German car culture need changing, more and more Germans react with absolute hysteria. When the conservative CDU entered a coalition government in Berlin last year, their number one target – amid record heat, drought, forest fires – were bike paths. The very notion that the state might subsidize cargo bikes became a political landmine for Germany’s Greens. The new German government has persistently frustrated the EU’s attempts at comprehensive climate legislation in an attempt not just to safeguard Germany’s auto industry, but, it seems, in an attempt to shield that auto industry from having to change anything about their design and production. The car lobby’s favored futuristic phrases – ‘clean diesel’, ‘biodiesel’, ‘carbon capture’ – all appear to be largely code for things staying exactly the same at a time when everyone acknowledges they can’t. What is being defended is not so much a way of life, a car culture in the strict sense of the term, as a more general right to thoughtlessness.
The transition to electric cars, whether smoothly or not, whether gradually or suddenly, is under way across the globe. In Germany it’s accompanied by newspaper editors lamenting that ‘anyone can build an electric car; gas cars are High Culture’. As the world continues to burn, most countries face some kind of reckoning. But Germany’s spectacle is in a sense both universal and unique. Not because the car is central to national identity (though of course it might be). Not because the car industry employs so many Germans (though of course it does). But the sheer fever pitch of car discourse stems from another fact: that the impact one’s car had wasn’t just something one put out of mind, but rather that it was the very quintessence of everything one put out of mind. Through the car, the world champions in memorialization preserved for themselves the reassurance of a broader amnesia. The ability – to quote another novel that famously culminates in a car crash – to smash up ‘things and creatures’ and then retreat into ‘their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together’. In the absence of this ‘whatever it was’, they may be coming apart.
Photograph © Eva Leitolf, Parkplatz, Helmstedt, 2007, From Deutsche Bilder – Eine Spurensuche (German Images – Looking for Evidence)