A Sept. 19 article about U.S. troop withdrawals from Germany incorrectly stated that Switzerland is the only country bordering Germany that is not a member of the NATO alliance. Austria, which shares a frontier with Germany, is also not part of the alliance. (Published 9/22/04)
At Ulrich Jung's hair salon, rumors are flying about the future of this small town in the rolling hills of southwestern Germany. One customer with a buzz cut has heard that all the U.S. troops will leave by 2007. Someone else has information that they will be gone sooner, perhaps within a year.
Under either scenario, the town is in big trouble. There are more Americans in Baumholder than there are Germans; about 12,000 U.S. soldiers and their family members live here, compared with about 5,000 local residents. Other than the military, there is no other industry or major employer to speak of. If the U.S. Army leaves, many Germans say they might as well pack up and abandon the place, too.
"We're standing with our backs against the wall," said Jung, whose family has cut the hair of American soldiers since the first of them arrived in 1951. "We feel like everything is out of our control." Added Bruno Braun, a leather merchant whose store has catered to the U.S. military for a half-century: "Baumholder is an American Army place, and that is it. There's nothing else."
Last month, the Bush administration announced that it was planning to withdraw up to half of the 71,000 U.S. troops in Germany as part of a broad post-Cold War restructuring. A top candidate for redeployment is the 1st Armored Division, whose units are stationed at Baumholder and several other small and medium-sized towns in western Germany.
On a national scale, the Americans' packing-up will have a serious impact on an economy that in the post-World War II era has come to take military dollars for granted. Thousands of Germans work on U.S. bases; the U.S. military estimates that it adds more than $1 billion annually to the economy just in the southwestern Germany's Kaiserslautern region, which includes five major Air Force installations and 10 Army bases, including Baumholder.
By other estimates, military dollars account for about 20 percent of the economy of Baumholder and the area around it.
It remains unclear where the Americans will go. But the U.S. European Command has been considering opening bases in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, whose governments are lobbying hard to attract the forces.
During the height of the Cold War, more than 500 towns and cities in West Germany hosted American soldiers, who helped rebuild the country after World War II and stayed around to deter an invasion from the east. But the United States has been reducing its footprint in Germany for 15 years, ever since the Iron Curtain that divided the European continent came down.
While small towns such as Baumholder are lobbying against the U.S. withdrawal, it has been greeted with general acceptance by many Germans, who say the moves are inevitable and perhaps even overdue. It's hard to justify so many foreign tank and infantry units when the only country on Germany's border that does not belong to NATO these days is Switzerland, which is not exactly a threat.
"People say, Why do we need so many soldiers in Germany when we are in the middle of Europe?" said Winfried Hermann, a member of the German Parliament from the Green Party. "It's a kind of peace dividend that people expect." In fact, the security calculus in the world has changed so much in recent years that some Germans fret the Americans could present more of a target than a deterrent.
Hermann told of a recent visit to Heidelberg, where residents told him that they were worried that the city's U.S. Army post might become a bull's-eye for Islamic radicals. "People nowadays fear that the American Army or American military installations could be the target of a terrorist attack," he said.
While polls show that a large majority of Germans are opposed to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and anti-Americanism has become more pronounced, there has been little public objection to the continuing presence of U.S. troops, many of whom have rotated in and out of Iraq since last year's invasion.
Rather, many Germans say they will always appreciate what the U.S. armed forces did to rebuild their country and open the way for reunification.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose government has opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, said last week in a speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of the U.S. military's departure from Berlin that many Germans perceived the withdrawal of Allied troops as a loss.
"It was not about protection anymore, but about human beings to whom one would not be as close any more," he said.
Some German cities that served as longtime hosts for U.S. forces have reinvented their economies. In Hahn, for instance, a small town west of Frankfurt, local leaders converted the old U.S. air base into a civilian airport that is bustling these days with business from low-fare airlines.
Leaders in other former military towns say it can take years to recover economically, but that it can work out for the better in the end. In Bad Kreuznach, a city of about 44,000 people that is about an hour's drive from Frankfurt, local officials predict that it will cost as much as $500 million over 15 years to clean up and redevelop about 405 acres of land that the U.S. Army used for a half century before departing in 2001.
More than 400 civilians in Bad Kreuznach were thrown out of work when the U.S. military pulled out, but Mayor Andreas Ludwig hopes that a new industrial park and other businesses will eventually provide more than 2,000 jobs. In an interview in his office, Ludwig pulled out a giant map to show off the plans for the former military sites: the old heliport is being turned into a giant supermarket; the officers' club is now a Chinese restaurant and the school for the children of U.S. soldiers now educates German students.
"In the long run, we hope to have many more jobs," he said. "Generally, the economy is coming back. This size city could deal with it."
Ludwig, however, is less optimistic about the fates of smaller military towns in more remote locations, such as Baumholder. "For Baumholder, it will be an apocalypse," he said with a shrug.
Indeed, the mayor of Baumholder, Peter Lang, threw up his hands when asked what the town will do if the U.S. Army departs. He acknowledged that other businesses or industries are unlikely to come here to fill the void. He said it would be up to the German government to step in and come up with a solution to keep Baumholder from withering away.
"If the U.S. troops were to leave completely, this would be a task that would be too big for us to handle by ourselves," said Lang, a Baumholder native who is a military man himself, serving as a lieutenant colonel in the German army. "The main problem is that this area has been too focused on the military for 50 years."
Until a final decision is made about which troops in Germany will leave, residents of Baumholder said there was little they could do. But they figure a little goodwill can't hurt. Businesses all over town have posted banners and posters with intertwined U.S. and German flags, proclaiming in English: "Baumholder -- We Belong Together!"