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  Their outdated armor can’t defend a brawl at a wine fest.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!

6 thoughts on “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye…

  1. We left in 2008… and went back to visit our Germany family years later… it was not the same… I went on so many MWR trips, especially to Poland for the POTTERY.. and food… but that too has changed.. the crystal shops, one abundant in Germany are all closed but for one… we will always look back at our time in Germany fondly( we were there for 10 years!) we miss our brochen and liberkase… kasekuchen… beer… the list goes on and on… but, we have our German family forever and still remain in touch( maybe someday they will actually take us up on our offer to visit across “the pond”) …it’s been 12 years, but still all my American military friends from Graf and Hohenfels talk about how much we miss our beloved Germany… the impact of leaving will definitely change even more and I hope the economy of that area survives this decision

  2. Judy,
    Thanks for the great summary of the situation with American forces in Germany. My husband and I were lucky enough to serve at two US garrisons in Ramstein ands Stuttgart for a total of 10 years together, and my husband served in Germany for three tours pre marriage. We both came to love Germany and the Germans and left a big part of our hearts, and many dear friends, there when we moved back to the States.

    Over the years, the various squabbles with Germans about the SOFA Agreement resulted in hardships to US personnel including being unable to receive their US medications by mail, even if they were documented to be necessary to the service members life, such as anti cancer medication (true story). An inside source we knew at the time said that yes, the DOD could fix the situation, but to do that would have to reopen negotiations on the SOFA Agreement with the Germans. But since the US was only too aware that the current SOFA Agreement was decidedly in the best interests of the US, the Americans who were the casualties of these SOFA Agreement disputes would just have to accept it, as the DOD was never going to agree to renegotiate the SOFA Agreement. Thus it seemed the Germans resorted to increasingly extreme ploys to try to force the hand of the US govt to renegotiate. This latest attempt at taxation of the Americans married to Germans sounds like another chapter in that squabble, unfortunately, with probably a predictable end of no resolution.

    Also unfortunately, this decision by trump to draw down troop strength in Germany will come at the expense of relationships with key NATO allies. Many of us also wonder how this will affect America’s ability to combat terrorism, Russian aggression and expansionism and work on mutual security. Three just are some advantages to have a footprint in the heart of Europe when it comes to handling issues in Africa, Eastern Europe, etc.

    The billions of dollars spent on the US installations that end up vacated will just be thrown away. And you’ve already mentioned the huge impacts to the local German economies. Case in point, Heidelberg when a reputed pissing contest between a US general and the mayor of Heidelberg resulted in closure of all US bases there, a garrison with recently modernized failures, and relocating the personnel to Weisbaden, a garrison with a crumbling infrastructure and lacking key facilities such as a PX.

    As Americans who purchased a home while living in Germany, which we rent to Americans serving there, we are paying close attention, if the number of Americans in the community drops significantly, we will be unable to find Germans willing to pay what we have to ask for rent. We hope to hold on to our home somehow so we can someday return to Germany and live there in retirement.

    So, we hope the US and Germany can work out this bump in our relations.

    • Having lived and worked here since 1985, and earlier on in the 70’s, the impact of these closures are normally overlooked. I spent 25 years with Community Bank. Started in 1991 in Bremerhaven, until my retirement as Manager of Grafenwohr Community Bank in 2016. I spent 12 years in Friedberg as the Manager there as well. Unfortunately, our country never seems to learn from past rash decisions. We closed everything after 1990 and now we spend billions in rotation brigades and their equipment shipped to Europe. The worst impact is on the German communities. Here in the Grafenwohr/Vilseck area, the Germans adore the Americans. These two small town literally exist because of the US Army. I also bought a house close to Grafenwohr, and my husband and I would never think of living anywhere else. We are all waiting to see what will happen. Keep in touch.

  3. My first assignment as an Army PFC was in Germany. After my AIT, I was initially sent to Grafenwoehr, but upon determining that they had no use for a Public Affairs Specialist/Broadcast Journalist, I was sent to Kleber Kaserne in Kaiserslautern. I only did six months there, then was sent back to Grafenwoehr because there was, in fact, a slot for me. That was November 1985 through May 1987. Fast forward ten years and I was back at Rose Barracks once again as a Sergeant First Class. This time, though, I returned with an American wife and two sons. All the same German civilians I knew previously were still there. After we settled in, I took them to a place called Gasthof Hammer. Frau Hammer still remembered me from before. I introduced her to my wife and family and she was in love with them. Our sons called her “Grandma Hammer.” Each time we would go there for supper, she would bring the boys back into the kitchen and would let them select the vegetables for their salads. We have tons of great memories from our time there. But, time marches on. Gasthof Hammer is closed now because Frau Hammer…a friend to all in 7th Army Training Command at Grafenwoehr… has passed away and her son didn’t want to take over the business. It’s time we moved on. There will be other places for which we can make equally good memories.

    • Frau Hammer is still there! And the restaurant, too. She takes care of the bed and breakfast place and a young man, Mr Kreuzer, continues the tradition with really good Bavarian food in the Gasthof Hammer. –

  4. I lived in Munich for 3 years as a Brat and later in Heidelberg as a civilian “on the economy” Except for the following I agree with everthing in the article: “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”. I don’t think any US President could have stopped Putin from coming to power.

    Otherwise- wonderful article that brings back so many memories!

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