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Ramstein Air Base anti-drone protests: The Germans taking on the US military

A weeklong protest against the US drone program drew over 5,000 to Ramstein, its most important air base in Europe. DW's Kathleen Schuster met with several of the people taking on the world's most powerful military.

Protests at the Ramstein US army base in Germany (picture-alliance/Sputnik/V. Melnikov)

"To be or NATO be": Protesters hoped to capture the attention of the transatlantic military alliance and the German government

At first it's difficult to reconcile the week's itinerary at the "peace camp" — yoga, reggae, poetry slam — with the gray-haired audience gathered in this dusky room.

Taking up every seat and windowsill, the crowd of at least 150 listens intently as each speaker outlines how the US government is leading an 'illegal war" in their backyard. The city is Kaiserslautern, the Air Force base in question is Ramstein and the war is that waged by US's drone operations, which they say violate German law.

"Our government must review and prohibit the drone war," Otto Jaeckel tells the crowd to loud applause. He called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to take action: "Ms. Merkel and Ms. von der Leyen bear personal responsibility here!"

Under the banner of "Stop Ramstein Air Base," a nationwide campaign has drawn peace activists from across Germany and other countries to Kaiserslautern, calling for the base to be shut down.

The audience of protesters comprises mainly of the over-50 crowd, however. The ethics of using drones are the draw for these activists, but for the local organizers, the problem with Ramstein Air Force Base runs deep. To them, drones are just one symptom of a larger problem they've been warning about for years.

Read also: A guide to military drones

Silent partner in a silent war

Already controversial for its extrajudicial killing of several thousand suspects on foreign soil, revelations that Ramstein played a vital role in the US's drone program sparked a frenzy among German politicians and peace activists in 2013.

Upon parliamentary inquiry, the German government said it had no information about the program. Only later did Angela Merkel's government confirm that no drones were being directed or flown from US's most important air base in Europe - which is, incidentally, also the headquarters for NATO's Air and Space program (AIRCOM).

Ramstein does, however, house satellite relay stations, which whistleblower Brandon Bryant, along with subsequent media reports, allege are key to drone operations. According to these revelations, the signal sent from drone operators on Creech Air Force Base in Nevada travel via transatlantic fiber optic cables to Ramstein, where they are then transmitted to satellites positioned above the Indian Ocean — thus allowing them to strike targets in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia by way of drones.

The founding principles of post-war Germany were "never again war, never again fascism," Konnie Schmidt told DW.

"It's not only the right, but the duty of every German" to rebel against a government violating these principles. "That's our inheritance."

Read also: Berlin powerless to challenge US drone ops at Ramstein air base

In 1983, Germany's then-capital, Bonn, saw massive demonstrations against the atomic weapons held on US bases in Germany (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Wieseler)

In 1983, Germany's then-capital, Bonn, saw massive protests against the atomic weapons held on US bases in Germany

'Living on a powderkeg'

Schmidt, like many of the peace activists of his generation, marched against the Vietnam War. Revelations during the 1980s of atomic bombs, Pershing-2 ballistic missiles and the storage of poisonous gas at nearby US bases unleashed another wave of peace protests still well-known in Germany today.

The native Ramsteiner, now a retired teacher at 69, shares a similar story to other local activists of how he became aware of the US military presence near Kaiserslautern. 

"I'll put it this way: my mother was very conservative and so was my father. And my mother always said, if things heat up, we're the ones sitting on the powder keg."

Ramstein airshow catastrophe in 1988 (picture-alliance/dpa/Füger)

Ramstein airshow disaster in 1988 claimed 70 lives

For Erika Christmann, 73, the key moment was in August 1988. Almost 30 years later, she like most locals still shudders at the mention of the air show disaster.

Billed by critics at the time as a display of militarism, the spectacle turned deadly when three Italian fighter jets collided while trying to perform a stunt. The collision left 70 people dead and more than 1,000 injured.

"It's difficult to talk about," she says, taking a long pause, her rainbow necklace expanding and slowly relaxing around her neck. It's hope that people are waking up and deep anger about what people do to each other in the name of security that keep her going.

US Air Base Ramstein (Getty Images/AFP/J.-C. Verhaegen)

Activists take issue with the existence of the base and the activities carried out there - and thus want it shut down

US 'protector image' in question

Indeed, the man credited the most often in local peace activities is Wolfgang Jung, 79. The vivid memories of a childhood shattered by WWII have left the 79-year-old impatient with the military's agenda.

Along with his wife, the native Ramsteiner documents information about the controversial military base on his own website, Luftpost.de. The log has annoyed many politicians, he says gruffly, then letting a rare smile escape.

The air base scares him for a number of reasons. Although he sued the German government for allowing the US to use Ramstein in its drone operations  a suit he ultimately lost because he personally was not affected by the drones, three different courts ruled — he considers Ramstein's function as the headquarters of NATO missile defense more dangerous.

He still has hope of informing the public that a continued US military presence doesn't protect Germany. On the contrary, it puts Germany in the middle of any missile scenario. "They could be dead within five minutes."

Protests in Ramstein (picture-alliance/V.Melnikov)

This was the second year in a row that the Ramstein protest drew thousands

Withdrawal unlikely

Even after years of protest, Jung, like Schmidt and Christmann, consider a US withdrawal unlikely.

The area counts roughly 22,000 military and Department of Defense personnel in total. With family members, it's 54,000, the largest concentration of US citizens outside of the US.

Local residents and officials see an economic benefit to hosting American troops. Not only do 7,000 German civilians work for the US military, but the housing sector alone brings in an estimated 220 million euros annually, according to a German parliamentary report about Ramstein's effect on the local economy.

State officials do not have data on how much the military community contributes to the economy annually. However, the 86th Comptroller Squadron in its 2013 Fiscal Report put the number at $2.26 billion (€1.87 billion), according to the same parliamentary report. Other estimates, for example by the Handelsblatt in 2016, have put the number as low at $1 billion.

Nevertheless, the three have no intention of giving up their decades-long fight. This time it's a call on the German government to prohibit the drone program.

Or as Jung put it: "I'd like to make the most of the few years I have left and not suddenly sink into an atomic crater, you know?"

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