On Horses and Bases: Traces of the American Occupation in Contemporary Germany
Adam Seipp, Texas A&M University
The horse is staring at me. I do not think that he has any ill intentions, but he is quite large and I am definitely an interloper in his territory. Whatever he may think of me, he is an impressive animal – stocky and broad with a brushy mane and faint brown and white stripes that make him look not unlike a zebra.
This is a Przewalski’s Horse, one of the last survivors of a species that once roamed the steppes of Mongolia and Central Asia. Now extinct in the wild, they live on in a small number of herds scattered around the world and carefully managed to maintain genetic diversity. This specimen was, until it saw me, calmly chewing on some grass in the shade of a concrete bridge foundation. If you look through a gap in the trees, you will spot apartment blocks in the distance. The horse and I are in Hanau, a commuter suburb of Frankfurt. A Mongolian horse and an American historian are face-to-face because of the story of the American military presence in Germany.
In 2008, the last American troops left Hanau after a fifty-year presence. The training area at Campo Pond reverted to the German federal government. The Munich Zoo learned about the departure of the Americans and proposed a joint project on the 100 hectare site to house a small herd of endangered horses. Today, there are seven animals here, living out their lives on an island of green amid modern concrete housing.
Visitors are allowed in, with guides, a few times a year. I’m here with a small group of curious Germans. We spend the afternoon wandering the grounds, where tank tracks are still faintly visible beneath the tall grass. The sandy soil is perfect for the horses, and the air hums with the song of birds. There are still a few American-built buildings here, though most are falling into disrepair. ‘Such a shame that the Americans used this beautiful land,’ one of my fellow visitors remarks. ‘No,’ responds our guide bluntly, ‘If the Americans had not been here, all of this would have been built over.’
Campo Pond is a perfect spot to consider the long and complicated story of the American military presence in Germany. The site became a training area for the imperial German army in 1908. After Hanau fell to American troops in the Spring of 1945, property belonging to the German state and its military was ‘confiscated’ by the occupiers. Occupying forces had different legal claims on German state property than they did when they ‘requisitioned’ private property. As a result, many former German military bases remained in the possession of occupying powers long after the Occupation Statute terminated in 1955.
Campo Pond continued to serve a new foreign army. American forces lived and worked in Hanau as part of NATO’s Cold War mission in Central Europe. They built the eponymous pond and used the site as a training area for military engineers. Hanau became one of the most important base communities in the Federal Republic, hosting up to 45,000 American personnel and their families while providing support for thousands of Germans through direct employment as ‘local nationals’ or by injecting vast amounts of dollars into the local economy.
The end of the Cold War was an economic and social shock to garrison communities in the Federal Republic. While much attention has rightly been paid to the trauma experienced during the reunification process in the German Democratic Republic, there has not been nearly enough research on the experience of base closure, unemployment, and economic uncertainty in garrison communities across western Germany. Within five years of 1989, the Americans removed about 50% of their military and civilian personnel from the city, while laying off 65% of the 2,000 German employees. The economic dislocation in the housing and retail sectors are much more difficult to calculate.
I have been writing about the long entanglement between the US Army and German society for more than a decade, beginning with a book about the extraordinary story of the Franconian town of Wildflecken after World War II. In villages, towns, and cities across southern and central Germany, I have looked at and walked over the physical remains of the American presence. In the years since 1989, German communities have debated what to do with property returning to German possession for the first time since the years after World War II.
Some conversion (Konversion or Umwandlung) projects, like the new Frankfurt S-Bahn stop at the Gateway Gardens site near the airport, reflect contemporary Germany’s self-conscious interest in sustainability and green design. Other efforts, like the conversion of Mannheim’s Benjamin Franklin Village into a hip young professional district dramatically called FRANKLIN, stem from the desire of many communities to promote affordable housing in a country where new construction can be prohibitively expensive. There are also sites where conversion converges with other developments in modern German history, such as the use of Patrick Henry Village in Heidelberg as a camp for thousands of migrants during the refugee wave of 2015. Finally, some projects, including the largely-unloved Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, a military airport built by the French, taken over by the US Air Force in 1952 and handed over to the Germans in the early 1990s, quickly became costly bureaucratic nightmares – not least because of the massive costs of cleaning up the environmental damage from years of military use.
Today, there are about 34,000 American troops left in Germany, a fraction of the 250,000 or so stationed there at the peak of the Cold War. Most of these are in the region around Stuttgart. The military footprint that began with the invasion of 1944-45, then shrank in peacetime only to expand again in the wake of the Korean War, is a shadow of its former self. In its wake, the American presence has left contemporary Germany with a remarkable physical legacy in addition to the changes in consumer behavior, popular tastes, and language. By studying the ways that German communities have used, or tried to use, the facilities left by the Americans, we can see the durable legacies of the Cold War and the multiple transformations of German society over the past few decades.
More broadly, we should pay attention to the historical experience of military bases and base communities because they offer us a window into larger processes. Many of the bases in the Federal Republic of Germany became military facilities during the imperial period, served the armies of the Weimar Republic and Third Reich, then hosted the armies of conquerors who remained as protectors. Garrison communities experienced the multiple violent and non-violent ruptures of German history, an important reminder of the critical intersections between the historical experiences of war and social change.
Adam R. Seipp, Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013)
Adam R. Seipp, “This Land Remains German”: Requisitioning, Society, and the US Army, 1945–1956.” Central European History, 52, no. 3 (September 2019): 476-495.
Adam R. Seipp, “‘We Have to Pay the Price’: German Workers and the US Army, 1945–1989.” War in History, 26, no. 4 (November 2019): 563–584.
Adam R. Seipp, “The View from Benjamin-Franklin Strasse: Politics, Society, and Conversion in Western Germany, 1989-1995” in Eleni Braat and Pepijn Corduwener, eds. 1989 and the West: Western Europe since the End of the Cold War(London: Routledge, 2019), 27-45.
Cover picture: © Adam Seipp