Auf Wiedersehen, Yanks!

🎵Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?🎶

– Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

Wise words, those! Surely the Germans are just as aware of such folk-wisdom; still, it could also have been useful had Joni put the song out back in 1970 in a German translation as well (as the Beatles had done previously, y’know: Komm, gib mir deine HAAAAND!)

Just in my last blogpost I mentioned how the quarrel between the US and Germany over the latter’s allegedly insufficient defense-spending has recently heated up again. US ambassador Richard Grenell brought this up in order to threaten that the US was considering moving those of its troops still stationed there (numbering around 35,700) to new bases in Poland.

That story now resumes with today’s early piece from Der Spiegel: “Federal government [Germany’s, to be clear] spends hundreds of millions for US troops.” And it does, if you’re willing to take a multi-year view: €243 million, total, from 2013 until the present. In addition, €480 million has been spent over 2012 – 2019 (so a slightly different time-frame; makes things confusing) on NATO-related construction, almost all of that devoted to American projects.

This information was released by the Finance Ministry in response to a request from a member of the Bundestag, Brigitte Freihold, from Die Linke Party, the party that is closest to being the successor to the former East Germany’s Communist Party. Naturally, people of that persuasion have the least interest in still having US troops based on German soil. Still, the Spiegel writer (or maybe s/he is from the DPA) also gets into the Die Linke spirit: “Real estate, buildings, supplies” reads that super-headline, then the lede: “Tens of thousand of US soldiers are stationed in Germany – and they burden the Federation with considerable costs.” And then in the first paragraph: “Nowhere in Europe are so many US soldiers housed as in Germany [true]. And that doesn’t come cheap, nor for the German taxpayer.”

Not true. Well, maybe true in the accountant’s-green-eyeshade sense of “true.” But that discounts all the other fringe-benefits gained by allowing a US troop presence. After all, for some strange reason the Poles are quite eager to welcome American soldiers permanently on their soil, going so far as to offer to name one of the new bases “Camp Trump.”

The Yanks have been in Germany ever since they invaded starting at the end of 1944, and yes of course, for the first years they were an occupying army in a prostrate land. Already then, however, worries started to grow about possible Soviet desires to send the Red Army further west to seize more territory to add to what they were doing in what was to become East Germany. That danger really persisted until the return of a semi-free government to Poland (which would no longer countenance aggressive Soviet troop-movements across its territory) with the historic Solidariność elections of June, 1989. True, by then most Germans no longer took the threat seriously anymore; for them, US bases mainly functioned as targets for anti-war, anti-nuke, anti-etc. demonstrations before their gates around Easter-time; but the many combat-ready Soviet and Warsaw Pact divisions stationed to the east just across the inter-German border were still a fact.

That’s the main thing you gain allowing Yanks on your soil: when the proverbial balloon goes up and the Russians are pouring in, any hesitation by the US president in reacting will be wiped away once Americans start being killed as well. But that’s hardly all there is to that. Note that this Spiegel piece, in addition to the 35,700 troops still stationed there (all paid by the US government), also lists 17,000 American civilian employees (ditto) and 12,000 German civilian employees (ditto).

Right: Somewhere around 12,000 Germans employed and paid from money coming in from the outside, from the US federal budget! But the economic impact of a US presence does not stop there: It’s basically an ongoing stimulus, by means of outside money, for the areas around US bases, as well as (the way economics work) far beyond!

Your favorite writer here, MAO, was himself stationed a number of years as a US soldier at a North German location, the surrounding area of which took a big economic hit when the entire base was evacuated by US forces. (For a while the premises served as a German Army training center, then as a shelter for refugees; I visited it again a few years ago and it just stood there behind locked fences, not abandoned but empty and unused. A sad sight.) But let’s go even beyond that, to the other benefits through the many decades: the US Army introduced Elvis to the Germans, in person, for example; more seriously, via Armed Forces Network radio it introduced Germans to jazz, rock music and the like straight from the USA; and how many millions of German-American married couples were formed over the years due to the propinquity made possible only by the US presence there (because it’s always expensive and time-consuming just to visit Germany on vacation; and very difficult to arrange on one’s own to live there for any substantial bloc of time, among other reasons due to residency laws).

Frankly, the US is also mainly responsible for Germany’s current form of government (federal, just as in America), and the American presence certainly helped to shepherd along German society as it recovered from Nazi depravity and the post-WWII ruins (with help from the Brits, to be sure; maybe not so much from the French).

Yes, Things Are Really Different Now

By 2019, though, the US-German relationship has become very different indeed. You remember Frau Freihold, who raised the question of how much these Yanks are costing us? (BTW the same information was also requested from US military authorities; they are under no obligation to report to German politicians, and they declined to provide same.) Frau Freihold’s resulting opinion emerged as follows:

Germany is a central turntable for worldwide US war-activities. Subsiding this through the German taxpayer must finally be ended.

As I write this, Trump has once again brought up tariffs on European auto-imports as a threat to use to get his way. (He’ll never be allowed to buy Greenland, though.) This other threat to withdraw/shift most or all US troops in Germany (if transmitted for now via his ambassador) is of the same crude nature. Yes, the US-German relationship is now quite different; Germany together with its fellow EU member-states needs to stand ready to call Trump on these bluffs, and to endure the consequences should he actually follow through on them.

But please, no more of this talk that the US presence in Germany is or ever has been too expensive or something to deplore! Please, no “good riddance!”

A linguistic note: I used Auf Wiedersehen in the title because it’s the commonly known German phrase for “good-bye.” But actually, it literally means “See ya!”, that is, “Until we see each other again” – as if US troops would ever return en masse to the country after completely leaving! Far more appropriate would have been Lebe wohl! or Lebt wohl! = “Farewell! We shall never see each other again!”

🎵Lebe wohl mein Schatz
Mich ruft die Pflicht🎶…

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