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.