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The idea for the construction of the autobahn was first conceived during the days of the Weimar Republic, but apart from the AVUS in Berlin, construction was slow, and most projected sections did not progress much beyond the planning stage due to economic problems and a lack of political support. One project was the private initiative HaFraBa which planned a "car only road" crossing Germany from Hamburg in the North via central Frankfurt am Main to Basel in Switzerland. Parts of the HaFraBa were completed in the 1930s and early 1940s, but construction eventually was halted by World War II. The first road of this kind was completed in 1931 between Cologne and Bonn and opened by Konrad Adenauer (Lord Mayor of Cologne and future Chancellor of West Germany) on 6 August 1932. The road is currently the Bundesautobahn 555. This road was not yet called Autobahn, but instead was known as a Kraftfahrstraße ("motor vehicle road").
Just days after the 1933 Nazi takeover, Adolf Hitler enthusiastically embraced an ambitious autobahn construction project and appointed Fritz Todt the Inspector General of German Road Construction. Soon, over 100,000 labourers worked at construction sites all over Germany. As well as providing employment and improved infrastructure, necessary for economic recovery efforts, the project was also a great success for propaganda purposes.
The autobahns formed the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world, with the first section from Frankfurt am Main to Darmstadt opening in 1935. This straight section was used for high speed record attempts by the Grand Prix racing teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union until a fatal accident involving popular German race driver Bernd Rosemeyer in early 1938. The world record of 432 km/h (268 mph) set by Rudolf Caracciola on this stretch just prior to the accident remains one of the fastest speeds ever achieved on a public motorway.