So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye…

The relationship between Germany and the US has a pseudo Machiavellian feel to it.  It’s a love and hate friendship that lasted 75 years.  Born out of the ashes of WWII, the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, and of course 9/11; the “on and off” surreal love affair managed to outlive politics and politicians.  But Donald Trump is not a politician. And even Frau Merkel was no match to his impulsive “cowboy diplomacy”.  But NATO acquiesced to an agreement, and the Secretary of Defense announced the 11,900 re-alignment of troops from Germany to other locations in Europe or back to the US.  The angst has started in earnest, and for good reason.

 Let’s not be fooled.  Although not as scathingly loud, brash, and often downright rude;   former Presidents from Clinton to Obama silently complained of the unfair contribution toward European and Gulf security by rich European nations like Germany, which barely contributes enough to manage its own military.

It’s common knowledge that Germany lacks behind in hardware. Old equipment and aircraft have rendered the German Bundesweher impotent in any conflict.  Their outdated armor can’t defend a brawl at a wine fest.  Once the pride of Europe, German military would not stand a chance deterring anyone coming across the borders not even red ants. Their air force is no better. The ranking in NATO contribution between 2013-2019 is an eye opener:

CountryGDP %

Germany and other elitist old Western European nations barely make it past 1.80%.  Turkey stands at 1.89%.  Germany’s percentage has remained steady at 1.38% with a left- handed promise from Frau Merkel that Germany would reach its 2.0% target by 2034! We should have warp drive by then.  In the meantime, the US pumps billions of Euros into the German economy, its defense, and the defense of the rest of Europe.  Albeit the fact that the US has self interests in keeping Europe safe, it has taken on the posture of the main parent in a family of dysfunctional children.

Those of us who have  lived and served in Europe since the 1970’s have a more down to earth perspective.   We lived through terrorist attacks in the 70’s and early 80’s which compelled the US military to teach us how to “inspect” our private owned vehicles for explosive devices.  We checked under the wheels and under our vehicles for anything that we might consider “unusual” lest we get blown up.   We attended NEO briefings in case of a Communist invasion. And we had to keep supplies and packed luggage at a ready in case of an immediate evacuation.

The German Red Army Faction and its “friends” in other Western European countries ran rampant and rogue.  Their objective was to kill Americans and those associated with them. Among their most nefarious deeds was the killing of several airmen on Rhein Main Air Base on the outskirts of Frankfurt. They stole a US registered vehicle and drove it on base to the HQ building and blew it up killing several airmen.  Another famous terror attack targeted a West Berlin nightclub frequented mostly by US service members. It was spring 1986 when an RAF bomb killed four Americans and injured 155.  That was Germany during the Cold War. That was the Germany we lived in.

Not a weekend goes by that a protest perpetrated by the far left or far right does not stop US Forces traffic through the gates at Ramstein Air Base, or Stuttgart, or even Wiesbaden. We’ve gone through anti-nuke protests, Army Go Home graffiti, and complaints in Stuttgart, Ansbach, Ramstein, and Spangdahlen citing aircraft noise, and military traffic.  The latest “persecution” of US Service Members and DoD civilians is happening within the Rheinland Pfalz region where the highest concentration of US soldiers and Airmen are located and live.  A few kilometers from Ramstein, Landstuhl Regional Hospital, Baumholder, and Kaiserslautern, the Rheinland Pfalz government is going after US Service Members married to German spouses for alleged tax evasion. Despite the fact that US Service Members and DoD civilians are exempt from VAT under SOFA, the local government chooses to “interpret” the SOFA agreement egregiously demanding thousands of Euros from US soldiers and airmen in back taxes.  The loosened interpretation conveniently assumes that once the spouse is German, the intent is to remain in Germany.  Germany is the only country with a SOFA agreement attempting such a nebulous attempt at collecting revenue from US Service members and their families stationed overseas.

Then there is the expense.  A few weeks ago, in a futile attempt at self promoting NATO-US support, the German government indignantly stated that in 10 years it had spent 1 Billion Euros in US Military support.  That equates to approximately 10 million Euros a year. A drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the approximate 8.125 billion Euros the US spends annually in salaries to local nationals, benefits to local nationals, utilities to local governments, fees to local contractors, leasing expenses to local landlords, local maintenance, repairs, and environmental regulation expenses. In the meantime, Americans contribute an approximate additional annual 2 billion Euros to local businesses in services directly correlated to their presence. These include rentals, restaurants, local stores, and travel. Tax Free car dealerships and local furniture stores sprout like weeds outside US garrisons and Bases. Their livelihood depends on the US presence in their respective areas.

That was the “hate” portion of the German-American relationship;  but there is also a lot of love.  We have lived in Germany since 1985.  From Bremerhaven to Frankfurt, and finally Bavaria; we made friendships and connections to last us a lifetime. Germans albeit reserved, once thawed, will remain the best of friends forever.  The ties between the US and Germany go back hundreds of years through immigration, WWII, and Elvis Presley. 

Elvis Presley: Ray Barracks, Friedberg, 1958

My short stint on Friedberg’s Ray Barracks, taught me that the 3rd Armor Division liberated Hessen, but Elvis liberated the Germans.  Elvis spent two years on Ray Barracks, Friedberg, as the personal driver to the Brigade Commander.  He also spent a few weeks training on Grafenwohr Training Area. Every year, the love of Elvis gathers thousands of Germans and Americans at Bad Nauheim, four kilometers from Friedberg, to celebrate  his birthday or memorialize his death. Elvis lived in Bad Nauheim with his father for the duration of his Army tour in Germany. This was where in the summer of 1959, Priscilla was driven over from Wiesbaden to meet him, where a shrine still stands at the front door of the hotel Grunewald where he lived at, and  where “Wooden Heart” still plays loud in English and German.  Elvis chose to live off post to deter unnecessary commotion at the front gate of Ray Barracks where screaming girls became the norm.

Hotel Grunwald, Bad Nauheim

Except for this COVID year, one of the largest German-American Fest is held in our military neighborhood of Grafenwoehr. Over 150,000 Germans brave the elements for a taste of hamburgers cooked by GI’s, American Ice Cream, American Country and Western Music, and a look at some US Army hardware on display. Such fests are held on all US facilities all over Germany.  That’s when nukes, climate change, politics, and Army Go Home are put aside for a good ol’e fashioned shindig which only Americans know how to throw. It’s not unusual to see Germans in cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and country shirts and skirts doing line dancing with the best of them.

In many locations where US presence is predominant, local vendors accept dollars instead of Euros.  US families send their kids to local German kindergartens.  Eventually the kids will learn German and start translating for their parents. Omas and Opas in small neighborhoods and villages become the ultimate day care providers, teaching American kids how to speak German and liking German food.  It’s not unusual to see teary eyed German neighbors wave goodbye to American families as they pack and leave their neighborhoods to go back to the States. They hug as they invite each other to the opposite side of the pond. Let us not forget the many German spouses who married Americans and moved to the US only to return and retire in Germany. Germany has the largest number of recorded military retirees in the world. Most of us chose to retiree in Germany close to a US military installation for the continual connection to the US military which we had known all our lives, but also for the tranquility of German life.  We live and thrive in German neighborhoods where we are accepted with love by German neighbors.

Americans in Germany contribute to the local lore that most US installations past and present provide German communities.  My neighbors recall Americans on the German Caserne in our neighborhood. They fondly recall  American families who were stationed here many years ago and returned for visits.  They tell of attending American Thanksgivings, and 4th of July .  There isn’t an American family that does not own at least one Dirndl or Lederhosen.  There are no Bretzels like Bavarian Bretzels.  Sorry NYC.  Schnitzel, kase spatzle, leberkase, and beer are extraordinary, especially if eaten at a local Gasthaus or fest in beautiful Bavaria.

The reality is that our presence in Germany was not supposed to be permanent.  The Marshall Plan was a startup attempt at getting a devastated country on its feet.  But the Cold War changed all of that.  Eventually families started accompanying service members, and the rest is history. But closing a US installation is psychologically devastating for local populations. I recall the town of Bamberg in tears as the US Installation that had been there since WWII closed its doors for the last time.  After the speeches and the rhetoric, the local German population sat with the remaining Americans and reminisced and cried.  A family had been broken.  This was 2012.  I was there for the closure.  Locals still walk past the locked gates of USAG Bamberg wistfully and sad. 

Germans remember when Americans numbered in the thousands, bringing with them an American way of life they only watched on a movie screen and often yearned for.  In contrast to the quiet and disciplined German characteristics, Americans are loud, brash, and often undisciplined.  But most Germans, especially older ones, remember and appreciate the fact that it was these Americans who kept them safe in places like Grafenwoehr, only 35 kilometers from the former Communist Czechoslovakia border. They remember Cold War West Berlin, where flights from West Germany kept the population fed and warm right after the Russian blockade.  They remember Fulda, where the famous “Fulda Gap” was located. A nickname derived from the fact that it was the determined point of entry of choice by Communist Eastern Bloc should they have chosen to invade.  From the North, to the South, to the East, and the West; during the Cold War, US presence in Europe numbered approximately 250,000. 

We made Germany our country of choice because we have always felt “at home” here.  Our small Bavarian neighborhood nestled in the hills and valleys of the Oberphalz is picture perfect. It brings to us harmony and peace in a world full of crazy.  Many Americans in Germany feel safer than in their own country.  COVID and other insane happening in the land of the free prompted some of them to extend their stay in Germany. Is it the end of an era?  Probably. It had to come sooner than later.  One thing for sure: every administration from Bush senior downwards could have prevented a Putin in Russia, but the pressure for “peace” and dismantling of US assets in Germany after the Cold War, left an open path for Russia to regroup. That’s politics and politicians. Votes outweigh common sense.

As gates to US Installations start closing, thousands of Germans are now anticipating the inevitable. Loss of income. I’ve grown to love and respect many local nationals who I worked with in my capacity as DoD contractor. Many have worked and supported the military since they were teens. They are our neighbors and friends. Not much to do at this point but wait and see. Is it goodbye or Auf Wiedersehen…till we see you again!