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Germany

German base village fears effects of military reform

The German government is set downsize its military by close to 100,000 soldiers. The reform won't only affect soldiers, however; many communities that are home to bases, like Augustdorf, fear they will be downsized, too.

Generalfeldmarschall Rommel military base in Augustdorf

Half of Augustdorf lives here: the Rommel military base

German military commanders and politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, were convening in Dresden on Monday for an annual military conference that was expected to pass sweeping reforms that will see the Bundeswehr drastically restructured - and reduced.

In the run up to Monday's conference, Guttenberg reiterated his stance on the necessity of military reforms, saying "all analyses show that the Bundeswehr is at a point where profound changes must be made; merely cosmetic revisions will not get the job done."

Street sign at the entrance to Augustdorf

Cars go straight through, tanks turn left and right

The restructuring, according to defense ministry plans, means, above all, downsizing the military, from 250,000 to around 165,000 troops. Military bases in Germany will be reduced in size and, in many cases, shut down completely.

For the communities where these bases are located, this is grounds for real concern. In Augustdorf, where Germany's largest base is located, a closure would devastate the town. Close to half of its inhabitants live there only because the base is located there.

Town dependent on military

Even before entering Augustdorf, one has a pretty clear sense that this is Bundeswehr country; here, street signs not only direct the traffic of cars, but also tanks.

The dampened sound of gunfire in the distance is the auditory clue that the military is home to this little town on the outskirts of the Teutoburg Forest - incidentally the site of the ninth century battle of the same name, which is regarded as one of the decisive battles for Germanic tribes in their prevention of Roman expansion into northern Europe.

For over 50 years, troops have been stationed and trained at the Generalfeldmarschall Rommel military base in Augustdorf, which currently accounts for 4,000 of the community's 9,000 people.

Mayor Andreas Wulf openly admits that his town lives with - and from - the military base.

Augustdorf Mayor Andreas Wulf

Mayor Wulf won't lie: his town needs the military base

"The Bundeswehr, even without the soldiers, is our largest employer and the biggest provider of training," says Wulf as he looks out the window of his City Hall office onto the complex in the distance.

"The soldiers themselves, they provide Augustdorf with over three million euros ($4.1 million) in revenue through their private purchases alone."

Wulf stresses that the consequences of the military reforms could be social just as well as economic; the five schools and four kindergartens would have to be reduced if the active soldiers were discharged or displaced.

Businesses face threat

In Augustdorf's tattoo parlor, the great majority of Esra Pollman's customers are from the Rommel military base.

"Almost every single one was in Afghanistan," says Pollman, whose parlor smells of disinfectant spray, akin to the sterile scent of a regular hospital wing.

Esra Pollmann

Soldiers come to Pollman for therapy - and more pain

"They come to me, pour their hearts out, and let me subject them to more pain," jokes Pollman, adding that "most want the names of their children, but there are some who want provocative symbols like naked women or weapons. One time, a soldier wanted the entire map of Afghanistan on his back!"

When asked what it would mean if the soldiers left, Pollmann retained her optimistic spirit: "I am not scared, but, yeah, if the soldiers are moved elsewhere, I doubt I will have any clients."

Across the street, at the town snackbar, Elke Thiem prepares French fries for three soldiers on lunch break. For her, the situation is similar; without the soldiers, she wouldn't really have a business.

Elke Thiem

Elke Thiem fears she will have less customers in future

"From the town baker to my french fry shop, it would be really sad around here," she replies to the same question asked of Pollmann.

Thiem says she fears that Augustdorf could face the same problems faced by other communities where military bases have been closed.

"They have real problems there: we don't want that to happen here."

Optimism remains

The reforms announced at Monday's military conference are scheduled to begin taking effect during the middle of next year.

Mayor Andreas Wulf, who has heard rumors of the Rommel base being downsized since before the last structural reform in 2004, says he won't give in to any unspecific fears.

"In 2004, [Defense Minister Peter Struck] said cuts would be made to the Bundeswehr base here, but we appealed to parliament and, in the end, we even succeeded in enlarging our base."

However, despite his optimism, Wulf does not appear to be as confident this time around.

"We don't know if Augustdorf will be affected by these reforms. In the end, we certainly can't count it out."

Author: Nicolas Martin (glb)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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