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Germany: Dismay In Some Towns Over Planned U.S. Troop Withdrawal

  • Roland Eggleston

This week's announcement by U.S. President George W. Bush that the United States will redeploy thousands of troops from Europe in the next decade to combat new threats was met with consternation in Germany, where U.S. troops have been stationed since the end of World War II. Many residents in the towns where the troops are based depend for their livelihood on the U.S. military presence. As RFE/RL reports, some Germans say they rely on free-spending Americans to help them balance the town budget.

Munich, 18 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kitzingen is a small German wine-growing town which is home to some units of one of the most famous infantry divisions in the U.S. Army -- the 1st Infantry Division, known to Americans as the "Big Red One."

The division has maintained troops in Kitzingen since the end of World War II in 1945, and the town profits financially from the American soldiers.

But now, it seems, they are preparing to say goodbye.

The Big Red One, whose troops are now serving in Iraq, is one of the divisions expected to be moved out of Germany as part of a new U.S. plan to deploy smaller groups of troops to locations closer to the international terrorist threat -- principally in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and potentially the Middle East.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck yesterday said the decision was regrettable, but neither surprising nor ill-considered. "It was completely clear why the American army would reconsider where they would place their troops worldwide, taking into account the new challenges they face. [U.S. Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld and [U.S. President] George W. Bush are doing exactly the same thing that we are doing here in Germany, and that is considering how to place our armies to fight the new threats effectively, whether or not we still need all the bases that we have."

U.S. military spokesmen in Germany declined to comment on when the redeployments could begin. But some suggested they could begin in 2006.

There are nearly 110,000 U.S. troops in Europe. About 73,000 of them are stationed in Germany, along with another 100,000 family members.

Germany has long been the center of U.S. operations, with about 95 military installations including infantry bases, airfields, hospitals, administration centers, and vast areas of countryside used for military exercises. Most of the troops are based near small towns like Kitzingen.

The plan announced by President Bush this week will also reduce the number of U.S. troops in Britain, Italy, and other European countries, as well as in South Korea.

Germans have heard rumors of the U.S. plans for over a year. But this week's confirmation still came as an unpleasant shock. Struck noted yesterday that the German government will try to influence U.S. decisions about which bases will close and how soon.

But he said the pullout, no matter how well organized, will be hard for local communities.

"At every location in Germany, where Americans are stationed, there has been a wonderful relationship between soldiers of the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force and the German population. It is a heavy loss for many regions, but it is the president's decision," Struck said.

Many of the small towns where the troops are based depend heavily on the Americans to keep the local budgets healthy.

Kitzingen is one of them. Margit Illinger, a spokeswoman for the town, says a withdrawal or even a major reduction in the number of Big Red One troops could be a severe blow for the town, which has a population of only 22,000.

"We have about 3,000 U.S. soldiers stationed here and they bring several million euros into the town each year. The taxes and other fees paid by the Army -- plus the money spent locally by the troops and their families -- provide about 7 percent of the city budget," Illinger says.

It is a similar story in nearby Schweinfurt, an industrial town of 55,000 people best known for its production of ball bearings. It is home to 5,500 U.S. soldiers plus about 7,000 family members.

Town officials there told RFE/RL this week that the Americans bring about 25 million euros ($31 million) a year into the town. Many small firms get contracts from the military and several hundred townspeople work for the American base -- as security guards, cleaners, and other positions.

One of the most sensitive cases is the village of Baumholder, not far from Kaiserslauten, where a tank division is stationed. Americans outnumber Germans almost 3 to 1. Local officials say there are only 4,500 local inhabitants, but 12,000 U.S. soldiers and family members plus 700 U.S. civilian employees.

Illinger says small villages like Baumholder will find it particularly difficult to recover if the U.S. troops leave. "You can imagine how much this village has depended on the U.S. troops for many years. Of course, we know that there are no problems now in Europe, and that the United States must send its troops where the new problems are to be found. But it will be hard for some places to begin a new life in different circumstances," Illinger says.

A preliminary estimate by a German economic institute this week suggested that as many as 80,000 local jobs could be lost if there are severe reductions in Germany.

It also warned that the economy of villages near the bases would suffer because the troops spend about 30 percent of their
pay outside the barracks.

A recent U.S. Army study estimated that soldiers spend about 29 million euros each year in German shops, restaurants, and places of entertainment.

The United States also pays about 30 million euros to the 4,660 civilian employees working at American bases in Germany.

Despite the uncertainty about how many troops will be withdrawn, it is clear that United States will not close all its military facilities in Germany. The major ones will be retained -- including the huge Ramstein air base near Kaiserslauten, the biggest air base outside the United States.

It has just been renovated, in an indication that the U.S. intends to keep it as a major transit point for troops on their way to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Another air base at Spangdahlem, on the Luxembourg border, has also been renovated and is expected to be maintained. The aircraft there were involved in Kosovo and in the Iraq war.

A military spokesman said this week the United States also plans to expand its already huge training area at Grafenwoehr in Bavaria. It is the largest U.S. training area in Europe -- more than 21,000 hectares of fields and forests.

Combined maneuvers involving infantry, tanks, artillery, and aircraft were held there just before the U.S. attack on Iraq. The U.S. has previously acknowledged that Grafenwoehr is equipped with the most modern electronic equipment for training officers in military tactics.

Earlier this month the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, General Burwell Bell, told Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber that the United States will spend $630 million to expand its facilities. German companies have been asked to bid for contracts to build 800 new apartments for the United States at Grafenwoehr.

A U.S. military spokesman told RFE/RL this week that Germany will remain important for the U.S. military despite the troop reductions -- but mainly as a transit center for troops on their way to new trouble spots and as a training center.