German town fears loss of U.S. Army base

(Michael Birnbaum/ The Washington Post ) - An American flag flies off a German bar in Baumholder, Germany, where 4,500 Germans are surrounded by 13,500 Americans on a U.S. Army base slated for cutbacks. Many of Baumholder’s German residents fear that a base closure would radically change their town’s character and economic livelihood.

(Michael Birnbaum/ The Washington Post ) - An American flag flies off a German bar in Baumholder, Germany, where 4,500 Germans are surrounded by 13,500 Americans on a U.S. Army base slated for cutbacks. Many of Baumholder’s German residents fear that a base closure would radically change their town’s character and economic livelihood.

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — For more than half a century, this garrison town in the rolling hills of southwest Germany has been a small version of America, with Ford Mustangs and pickup trucks from the U.S. Army base next door threading through its medieval streets.

Now, with the Pentagon’s announcement last month of major troop cuts that will slash by a quarter the Army’s presence in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, a long-standing institution of American cultural, political and military influence is slimming down. Thousands of informal U.S. ambassadors are returning home.

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Cutting back on U.S. bases in Germany
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Cutting back on U.S. bases in Germany

Towns whose identities are tied up in red, white and blue are being cut free with the pullback. Four of 12 Army bases in Germany will close, and Baumholder, a town of 4,500 Germans surrounded by 13,500 Americans on base — 4,300 troops, plus their families and other staff members — faces a turbulent future. Many Germans here doubt the base will remain open much longer, although the Army has said it will eventually replace half of the 3,700 troops who will depart by October.

In a town where American uniforms fill dry cleaners’ racks and one restaurant has clocks for three time zones — Baumholder, Baghdad and New York — residents say a closure might shake loose their longtime tilt toward America.

“We think more American — what they are doing here, where are they going, what’s going to happen — a lot more than other German cities. Because it affects our lives,” said Ingrid Schwerdtner, a town council member.

Many fear that the diminishing of the American presence would spell the end for them, too.

“If they leave, Baumholder is going to turn into a ghost city,” said Thomas Kiefer, 44, a German tattoo artist who speaks English with a Mississippi drawl and was eating Popeyes chicken at his shop one recent evening. Eighty percent of his customers come from the Army base. “I got a lot of friends up there. I’m going to miss my buddies.”

Like many in the town, Kiefer is an amateur anthropologist when it comes to the differences between Americans and Germans. Americans rate favorably, Kiefer said.

“Germans, they come into the shop and they think it over again and again,” deliberating over what kind of tattoo they want, he said. “Americans, they come in and they know they want something.”

Kiefer said he has seen closures and disruptions related to the Americans. Years ago, he was a police officer on Hahn Air Base, which closed in 1993. It sat empty for years until it was reopened as an airport for budget airlines.

Just a few miles away, a shuttered U.S. military hospital in the village of Neubruecke was turned into an American-style college campus that focuses on sustainable development. But few in Baumholder are optimistic that they could find a use for the base if it closed.

Picking up the stakes

The American cutbacks are just the latest in a long drawdown since the end of the Cold War, when 277,000 soldiers were posted to Europe as a defense against a land war with the Soviet Union. Thousands of Americans poured into Germany in the years after World War II, spreading more than military might — culture, cars and music came, too. After the latest cuts, the Army will have about 30,000 soldiers on the continent. Other military branches will have an additional 40,000 people.

The Army estimates that the changes, which will eliminate two of the remaining four combat brigades in Europe, a plan similar to one in 2004 under President George W. Bush that was shelved, will save money at a time when the Defense Department is under increased budget pressure and U.S. commitments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. The European cuts are part of a larger Pentagon effort to trim $487 billion in projected spending over next decade. The Army estimates that spending from the base in Baumholder contributes about $150 million every year to the local economy, from hiring local workers to renting off-base apartments for soldiers to buying local products.

In town, where almost every German has a relative who has married an American and moved to the United States over the six decades the base has been here, many talk of picking up stakes, too.

“I’m heading to Texas,” said Irmtraud Goettel, 64, who runs a hotel and open-pit barbecue restaurant with her husband. Longhorns are mounted above the bar, a reminder of her granddaughter, who’s about to graduate from college in the Lone Star State.

“You know what I do in Texas?” Goettel said. “I like to pop open a big can of Natural Light” — much better than German beer, she said — “sit on the back porch, fire up the grill.”

Among her customers, she said, Americans come out on top.

“The Americans are easier,” she said. “They go out twice a week. The Germans go out maybe once a month, and it’s a little party.”

The presence in Europe

In 2004, Baumholder was on the chopping block but was saved after heavy lobbying from the German government. Now, some take solace in American vows to stay open for the time being.

“For sure, the American people will spend less money here,” said Peter Lang, Baumholder’s mayor, who retired from the German army in 2008 after a 28-year career. “My hope is that the U.S. Army troops will have the chance to stay here longer.”

Lang is working with Schwerdtner, the council member, and others to build a museum about the German-American relationship that is slated for completion in 2014, and they hope to draw American tourists who were once posted in the town. He’ll also travel to Washington in May to lobby to keep the base open.

The American forces in Europe say they serve an important presence, as the international mission continues in Afghanistan, tensions between Israel and Iran rise, and questions about reform linger in Russia.

“Europe is the hallway to all the rooms of the world,” said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. “Europe serves as the hallway to Africa, to Russia, to Turkey.”

And the presence of American troops in Europe reminds countries that are reining in defense budgets of the importance of maintaining adequate forces, Hertling said. Long a pet peeve of many Americans, who think that European countries count on the United States to bail them out if they get into trouble, lagging European defense spending has dropped even more during the financial crisis.

“Being part of the club means more than standing up an army. It means building alliances and working together before there’s a threat,” Hertling said.

Among Germany’s top ranks, few are mounting a serious effort to oppose the American cuts, which they recognize as similar to their own major reforms in recent years, in which the size of the military was sharply cut back and the draft was eliminated.

“The impact will be moderate,” German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said last month after the cuts were announced.

But in Baumholder, many worry that these cuts are not the last.

“Miami, here I come,” said Kiefer, the tattoo artist. “For the area around here, it’s probably going to be bad.”

 
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