Transport and Communication

Christopher Kopper
University of Bielefeld

English translation of: Christopher Kopper, Verkehr und Kommunikation in: Thomas Rahlf (Ed.), Deutschland in Daten. Zeitreihen zur Historischen Statistik, Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2015, pp. 224-235.

Christopher Kopper, Transport and Communication, in:, 15.03.2016 < >.

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The history of the 19th and 20th century is the history of the transport revolution. The construction of a country-wide railroad network multiplied the distances of transports and the quantities of transported goods. People got new opportunities for spatial mobility that had been unimaginable in the pre railroad age. After 1945, individual mass motorization suspended the difference between centrally located and remote areas and reduced the costs of transport considerably.

The beginnings of modern mass transport

The opening of Germanys first railroad line from Nuremberg to Fürth in 1835 did not yet mark the breakthrough, but the beginning of the 19th century transport revolution. Only the invention of a mechanical mode of transport with a low sliding friction reduced the transport costs of heavy bulky goods like ore and coal beyond navigable rivers and the few canals that already existed. The fast transport of persons, letters and newspapers did already play a significant role during the revolution of 1848, despite the fact that the railroads network was still wide-meshed and only had a length of 4 800 kilometers.
The breakthrough of the railroad to the leading sector of the industrial revolution in Germany can be dated back to the 1850s. In this decade, the mostly private railroad companies introduced the “penny rate” of one pfennig per ton and kilometer. Apart from the positive supply effect of cheap goods transports, the construction of railroad lines and the operations of the railroad companies generated a sustainable demand effect for the construction and the machine manufacturing industries. The most significant macroeconomic effect was the take off of the German economy in the age of industrialization.1 Railroads induced a tremendous growth of traffic and transport. From 1850 to 1870, passenger traffic on the railroads – measured in person kilometers – increased by the factor 16, goods transports – measured in ton kilometers – even grew by the factor 25.

The transport revolution of land traffic also accelerated mass media communication. Nation wide newspapers reached newspaper stands and subscribers within the same day, and letters were delivered the day after mailing. But despite the fact that roads in Prussia (and other German states) were systematically paved and upgraded for heavier loads2, long distance road transports of goods and passengers could not compete with railroads in regard of transport costs and speed. In Prussia, road tolls were not abolished until 1875. This was an additional incentive to ship goods by train over long distances.
The “Gründerkrise” (founding crisis) from 1873 to 1878 that was erroneously mislabeled “Great Depression” spelled the spectacular collapse of Bethel Strousberg’s railroad trust and temporarily slowed down the growth of rail transport. In these five years, freight transport grew by only 14 percent. This was an indicator of slower economic growth, but obviously not of a recession. At the same time, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck failed with his attempt to take all state railroads (Länderbahnen) into the property of the Reich. Since state railroads earned significant profits, the state governments built up insurmountable resistance against Bismarck’s attempt to increase the financial power of the Reich at the expense of the states.3 State railroads turned into important sources of public revenues and were directly integrated into the fiscal property of the states (Regiebahnen).
For fiscal reasons, the governments of Prussia and other German states used their contractual right to purchase the shares of major privately owned railroad companies at the end of the 1870s. According to her name, the Royal Prussian Railroad Administration (Königlich Preußische Eisenbahnverwaltung, KPEV) was not an independently operating public enterprise, but a heteronomous administration within the Prussian Ministry for Public Works (Preußisches Ministerium für öffentliche Arbeiten). The Prussian Ministry for Public Works used its financial agency to fund the construction of secondary railroad lines with the operational surplus of the KPEV. Apart from this, the Ministry subsidized the construction of secondary and narrow gauge railroads by regional territorial bodies such as provincial administrations (Provinzialverwaltungen) and counties (Landkreise).4 The construction of secondary railroads doubled the length of the German railroad network between 1878 (30 000 km) and 1914 (62 000 km). Apart from smaller countries like Belgium and Switzerland, Germany had the densest railroad network on the European continent. Mail communication also benefited from the synergy effects between the extension of the railroad network and the acceleration of mail deliveries. In 1870, the postal services of the German states processed 334 million letters. Until 1913, the number of mailed letters increased to 6 822 million. This number was not considerably exceeded in the following decades.

Despite the significant growth of inland navigation on rivers and canals since the 1880s, the volume of freight transport on rail increased by the factor six between 1878 and 1914. The growth push of inland navigation was to a certain extent caused by the construction of canals. Canals like the Rhein-Herne-Kanal (opened in 1914) generated a high transport volume by connecting the mines of the Ruhr Region with the big port of Duisburg at the Rhine. Since 1899, the Dortmund-Ems-Kanal provided a navigable connection between the North Sea harbor of Emden and the Ruhr Region. This canal reduced the costs of iron ore shipments from Sweden to the blast furnaces at the Ruhr. At the same time, the Oder-Spree-Kanal (opened in 1891) and the Oder-Havel-Kanal (opened in 1914) provided a navigable link between the Upper Silesian Industrial Area and the capital city Berlin – the German industrial capital until 1945.

Until 1900, the ports of Berlin counted the highest transshipments of all inland ports in Germany. Since then, the ports of Berlin and Duisburg remained on an equal level until the 1920s. Duisburg benefited from its position at the Rhine, the busiest inland waterway of Germany and Europe. Navigation on the Rhine grew as a consequence of the Mannheim Rhine Navigation Act (Mannheimer Rheinschiffahrtsakte) of 1868 which codified toll free navigation and free access to all ships of all neighboring nations. But the growth of inland navigation did not pose a problem for the state railroad administrations. Special transshipment rates (Umschlagtarife) for the combined bulk transport by rail and ship encouraged a functionally and geographically based division of labor between these two modes. But concerns of East German estate owners delayed the extension of the Mittellandkanal from Hanover to the Elbe until the 1920s. After its completion, the Mittellandkanal provided a link between the major rivers of Germany, the Rhine, the Weser, the Elbe and the Oder.

The gradual dissolution of the railroad monopoly

Already some years before the outbreak of World War I, the Prussian general staff designed secret timetables for the mobilization of troops in cooperation with the KPEV. The purpose of these timetables was the speedy transport of troops to the western and the eastern borders of the Reich. The mobilization transports of August 1914 proceeded with proverbial military precision, but the state railroads reached their capacity limits in 1917 due to a lack of material and human resources. The lack of train and track staff, of locomotives and railcars and of workers in the repair shops caused a transport crisis in 1917 that affected the supply of the civilian population and even military logistics. From 1917 on, the state railroads incurred growing deficits. During the drafting process of the new German constitution in 1919, the Länder governments agreed to transfer the state railroads to the Reich.
The hyperinflation between 1921 and 1923 caused a significant real decline of freight rates and contributed to a fake boom of the overall economy in general and the railroads in particular. In 1922, the newly founded German National Railway (Deutsche Reichsbahn) exceeded the pre war maximum of 57,3 billion ton kilometers (tkm) with a peak of 68,1 billion tkm, even despite the fact that the German territory had been reduced by ten percent.5 The Reichsbahn did not adjust freight rates to the actual inflation before the apex of hyperinflation in summer 1923.
As a consequence of the high operational deficits of the Reichsbahn, the Reich decided to turn the heteronomous railroad administration into an independent joint stock company under the new name Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft (DRG). From 1924 to 1929, a significant part of her profits were earmarked for the repayment of German reparation debts. Thanks to her high investments during the hyperinflation and in the second part of the 1920s, the DRG turned into one of the most modern and most profitable railroads of Europe.
At the end of the 1920s, the growth of road transport threatened the high revenues of the railroad for the first time. Despite its still limited size of 3,5 billion tkm in 1930 when the DRG transported 55,3 billion tkm6, road transport started to question the business model of the Reichsbahn. The long distance trucking industry and transports for companies’ own accounts (Werkverkehr) started their commercial breakthrough by transporting fabricated goods in the highest rate bracket. The trucking industry was free to charge competitive rates, whereas the DRG had to mind a commonweal rate policy to the benefit of low wage earners and the remote areas of Germany. As a consequence, the DRG faced a challenge of her traditional business model, of subsidizing discount freight rates for bulk goods (Ausnahmetarife) and commonweal commuter rates with the profits from fabricated goods shipments. In order to protect the DRG from unregulated competition by truckers, Chancellor Heinrich Brüning issued an emergency decree in October 1931 to equalize long distance freight rates.7 In 1935, the Ministry of Transport (Reichsverkehrsministerium) limited the licenses for trucks operating on distances of more than 50 km in order to curtail the capacities of this inter modal competitor.

The National Socialist transport policy limited the growth of trucking, but encouraged the purchase of motorcycles and cars with generous tax breaks. The number of cars grew from 0.5 million in 1933 to 1.3 million in 1938. But despite all motorization propaganda, Germany was still far away from becoming a motorized society. In1938, there were just 19 cars for every 1 000 inhabitants. Even the mass production of the Volkswagen – which was suspended by the war – would not have changed this. The real price of the Volkswagen would have considerably exceeded the envisioned price of only 990 Reichsmark and would have been too high to encourage mass consumption of cars.8 At this time, the more affordable motorcycles were still the most common motorized vehicles. In 1938, about 1.5 million motorcycles were registered inn Germany. The popularity of motorcycles did not decline before the late 1950s when the number of registered cars exceeded the number of motorcycles for the first time.
Unfortunately, we have to cope with a lack of dependable transport statistics for the war years. But historians agree that the Reichsbahn was up to the transport demands of the Wehrmacht, the armament industry and the civilian consumers until summer 1944. Only the change of the allied bombing strategy towards targeting tracks and marshalling yards did increasingly paralyze the railroad since fall 1944.9

The breakthrough of motorized traffic

Right after World War II, the transport infrastructure was mostly disabled due to blown up bridges and the destruction of tracks. The labor intensive reconstruction of tracks, locomotives and railcars from 1945 to 1948 created the preconditions to support the economic reconstruction and to fulfill the transport demands of the population. But the newly founded German Federal Railways (Deutsche Bundesbahn, DB) incurred a competitive disadvantage towards the trucking industry. First, the DB had to bear her reconstruction costs herself, whereas the road network was reconstructed at the expense of the federal government and the Länder. Second, all administrative institutions in charge of regulating inter modal competition had ceased to exist after the demise of the German Reich. The federal government did not reinstitute the rate parity between rail and road transport until 1952. Apart from this, the DB incurred significant extra staff expenses through the reemployment of 45 000 refugees and former Nazis which were not needed for the operative business.10 As a consequence, the DB only made a profit in 1951 and had to cope with increasing deficits from 1952. Due to the tendency to ship high rate manufactured goods by truck, the railroad lost its ability to cross-subsidize losses of commuter traffic by profits from freight transports.
Trucking did constantly grow as a consequence of tax incentives such as high depreciations for investments. The manufacturing industries and the trade sector were keen to use tax incentives for the purchase of trucks. The number of trucks already exceeded the pre war maximum at the end of 1948 whereas the number of cars did not exceed the pre war peak before 1952. The federal parliament (the Bundestag) implemented a special levy for long distance transports in account of the own company in 1955, but tried to restrain the growing competition of trucks in vain. Transports on the own companies’ accounts only receded briefly and solely for bulk goods, whereas the road transport of manufactured goods continued its advance at the expense of the DB.

Until 1939, the structural change of traffic had just been visible in its infancy. The overall volume of road transport did nearly quadruple from 1938 (6,7 billion tkm) to 1955 (25 billion tkm).11 The citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany were literally overrun by the equally steep and unexpected rise of road traffic. The number of road fatalities nearly doubled from the pre war years to 1955 (12 000 fatalities). The German public became suddenly aware of the fatal price of auto-mobile progress. For this reason, the federal government introduced the first speed limits in 1957 and restricted the maximum speed in towns to 50 kilometers per hour.

Despite, the public discourse about transport policies still viewed speed limits as an unpleasant remnant of war related gas-rationing regimes that had existed from 1939 to 1949. Further speed limits could not be pushed through against a hegemonic discourse about the independent and responsible driver. The popular laisser faire attitude towards speed limits changed in the early 1970s when the German society was alarmed by an all time high of 19 000 road fatalities. The federal government enacted a consensual speed limit of 100 km/h on roads – but no restrictions on the Autobahn – in 1972.
The 1950s was the decade of the beginning mass motorization. Until 1960, the German society was still lagging behind the United Kingdom and France in terms of motorization. 1960 marked a turning point in several respect: For the first time, more than 50% of all cars were owned by wage earners, and not by companies and businessmen.12 The steep increase of car ownership from 0.5 million in 1950 to 4,5 million in 1960 can be explained by steadily growing real incomes and by constant and even falling prices for new and used cars. Volkswagen, by far the biggest car manufacturer in Germany, reduced the costs by car ratio through positive effects of scale and a successful export strategy. Already during the 1950s, Volkswagen sold 50% of the overall production abroad.13 On the other hand, the federal government only made a minor contribution to foster car ownership. In 1955, the Bundestag reduced the high car registration tax by 20%, but increased the gas tax in reverse. Since the extension of the Autobahn network only restarted slowly in the 1950s, Germany profited strongly from the high Autobahn investments of the Nazi Era.

Historians have correctly labeled the 1960 and the early 1970s as the era of an infrastructural planning euphoria. Expectations in steadily growing tax revenues manifested themselves in ambitious large-scale programs to extend urban street networks and subway/train networks in metropolitan areas. Thanks to the commercial breakthrough of jet planes, air trips became affordable for wider strata of the German society.

Until 1973, the economic boom resulted in high growth rates in the rail transport intensive basic industries. But the end of steady economic growth after the first oil price crisis of 1973/74 and the ensuing structural crisis of the iron and steel industry in 1975 contributed to a pronounced decline of rail transport. Even the steady growth of car ownership slowed down considerably between 1973 and 1975 and confronted the German car industry with the new challenge to adjust to a fluctuating demand. The second oil price crisis of 1979/80 and the world wide recession at the beginning of the 1980s triggered a similar decline of rail transport. The growth of road transportation was not negatively affected by rising fuel prices.
The process of structural change in transport had been mostly completed before the German reunification in 1990. Road transport had replaced rail transport as the dominant transport mode between the 1960s and the 1980s. Although the railroad could increase its output – in passenger kilometers and in freight kilometers – thanks to faster and more frequently running trains, the rail fell far behind the truck and the car. Closures of secondary railway lines with low passenger frequencies made additional contributions to the structural change of mobility. Since the statistics include partially closed railway lines where freight transports have not been discontinued, the numbers in table no. 1 do not fully represent the railway’s retreat from secondary lines and rural areas.
The 1993 reform of the Bundesbahn relieved the national railways from its pressing debts and implemented sufficient compensations for commonweal passenger services. The opening of the rail transport market for the competitors of the DB and the call for bids of local passenger services contributed to improvements of transport quality. They generated incentives to exploit the technological and the organizational potentials to enhance labor productivity.
The completion of the free European transport market until 1992 should even increase the trend towards road transport. The open European market abolished the quantitative restrictions of cross border trucking licenses and the barriers for foreign competitors to national and trucking markets. The revolution of logistics, especially the trend towards just in time deliveries, generated an additional stimulating effect.
In the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the demise of the centrally planned economy also finished the central allocation of supply and demand in the freight transport sector. Until 1990, a great percentage of freight transports beyond 50 km had been allocated to the Deutsche Reichsbahn. The newly established market economy finished the severe supply bottlenecks for cars. Before, potential car owners were compelled to wait more than 10 years for the cars they had ordered. As a consequence, the number of cars per 1 000 inhabitants doubled during the short period between 1988 and 1996. But even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, West and East Germany showed a significant difference of one wealth indicator: Car ownership per 1 000 inhabitants was still 35% higher in former West Germany.
Thanks to the breakthrough of the telephone, the post war era saw a growing density of virtual communication. The telephone had used to be a means of business communication and turned into a widely available consumer good. The Federal Republic of Germany counted only 2-4 million extensions in 1950, but 43.1 million extensions in 1989. Since the beginning of the 1990s, significant technological changes in telecommunications accelerated the economic change of the telecommunication industry. The transition from analogue to digital telecom technology triggered the commercial breakthrough of mobile telecommunications and the multiple use of phone lines for phone, fax and the internet. But the dramatic fall of telephone fees was also a consequence of the liberalization and the intensive competition in the telecom market.

Statistical base

The volumes of the “Statistisches Jahrbuch für das Deutsche Reich” (edited by the Statistisches Reichsamt) contain the most important data about traffic and transport by rail, on the roads and via inland navigation until 1945. For the time after 1945, the Statistisches Bundesamt published the relevant data in the “Statistisches Jahrbuch für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland” and in more specific publication series (Fachserien).14 The relevant data about traffic and transport in the GDR were published by the Statistisches Amt der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik and printed in the “Statistisches Jahrbuch der DDR”. In 1994, the Statistisches Bundesamt released a comprehensive statistical overview about the GDR.15 Additional data is available in the annual reports by the Federal Ministry of Transport (“Verkehr in Zahlen”). Data about civil aviation is available at the Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscher Verkehrsflughäfen.16 Already in 1957, the Federal Ministry for Postal Affairs published a historical data collection.17
The most comprehensive data collection about railroad and rail transport from its very beginnings to the German reunification in 1990 has been published by Rainer Fremdling.18 The historian Andreas Kunz collected historical data about the development of inland and maritime navigation.19 Data about car registration and car ownership until 1933 have been published by Rainer Flik.20

Suggestions for further reading

Lothar Gall/Manfred Pohl (eds.): Die Eisenbahn in Deutschland. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, München 1999.
Dietmar Klenke: “Freier Stau für freie Bürger”. Die Geschichte der bundesdeutschen Verkehrspolitik 1949-1994, Darmstadt 1995
Christopher Kopper: Handel und Verkehr im 20. Jahrhundert (= Oldenbourg-Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte, Bd. 63), München 2002.


  1. Rainer Fremdling: Eisenbahn und deutsches Wirtschaftswachstum, Dortmund 1975.
  2. Clemens Wischermann: Chausseebau und Landverkehr in Westfalen während der Frühindustrialisierung, in: Wilfried Reininghaus/Karl Teppe (eds.): Verkehr und Region im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Paderborn 1999, p. 71-94.
  3. Christian Henrich-Franke: Gescheiterte Integration im Vergleich, Stuttgart 2012.
  4. Dieter Ziegler: Eisenbahnen und Staat im Zeitalter der Industrialisierung. Die Eisenbahnpolitik deutscher Staaten im Vergleich, Stuttgart 1996.
  5. numbers according to Alfred C. Mierzejewski: The Most Valuable Asset of the Reich. A History of the German National Railway 1920-1932, Chapel Hill 1999, p. 53. These numbers are based on the annual reports of the Deutsche Reichsbahn for 1921 and 1922.
  6. numbers according to Walther G. Hoffmann: Das Wachstum der deutschen Wirtschaft seit der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1965, table 88.
  7. Frank Lippert: Lastkraftwagenverkehr und Rationalisierung in der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt 1999; Heidi Rohde: Transportmodernisierung contra Verkehrsbewirtschaftung. Zur staatlichen Verkehrspolitik gegenüber dem LKW in den dreißiger Jahren, Frankfurt 1999; Richard Vahrenkamp: Die logistische Revolution. Der Aufstieg der Logistik in der Massenkonsumgesellschaft, Frankfurt 2012, p. 74-123.
  8. Hans Mommsen: Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich, Düsseldorf 1996.
  9. Alfred C. Mierzejewski: Bomben auf die Reichsbahn, Freiburg 1993; ibid.: The Most Valuable Asset of the Reich. A History of the German National Railway 19331945, Chapel Hill 2000.
  10. Christopher Kopper: Die Bahn im Wirtschaftswunder, Frankfurt 2007; ibid: Der Durchbruch der Massenmotorisierung und die Bedeutung des Gebrauchtwagenmarkts, in: Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte 2010/1, p. 27-44; Dietmar Klenke: Bundesdeutsche Verkehrspolitik und Motorisierung, Stuttgart 1994.
  11. see footnote 6, table 88.
  12. Klenke (see footnote 10), p. 354.
  13. Volker Wellhöner: Wirtschaftswunder – Weltmarkt – westdeutscher Fordismus. Der Fall Volkswagen, Münster 1996; Heidrun Edelmann: Heinrich Nordhoff und Volkswagen, Göttingen 2003.
  14. for example: Statistisches Bundesamt: Verkehrsunfälle. Zeitreihen, Wiesbaden 2011.
  15. Statistisches Bundesamt: Sonderreihe mit Beiträgen für das Gebiet der ehemaligen DDR, Heft 18 (Verkehrsstatistische Übersichten) 1950-1989, Wiesbaden 1994.
  17. Bundesministerium für Post- und Fernmeldewesen: Zahlenspiegel der Deutschen Reichspost (1871-1945), edited by Richard Maetz, Bonn 1957.
  18. Rainer Fremdling/Andreas Kunz/Ruth Federspiel: Statistik der Eisenbahnen in Deutschland 1835-1989, St. Katharinen 1995.
  19. Andreas Kunz: Statistik der Binnenschifffahrt in Deutschland 1835-1989, St. Katharinen 1999; Andreas Kunz/Lars U. Scholl: Statistik der Seeschifffahrt in Deutschland 1835-1989, St. Katharinen 1999.
  20. Rainer Flik: Von Ford lernen? Automobilbau und Motorisierung bis 1933, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2001.