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Celebrating US-German ties — despite Trump

Ben Knight Grafenwöhr, Bavaria
August 5, 2018

At the US military's annual American-German friendship fair in Grafenwöhr, Bavaria, most fairgoers and service members were careful to ignore recent comments by the US president.

Micheal Suffenfield on a motorcycle at the Deutsch-amerikanisches Volksfest
Image: DW/B. Knight

The trappings could hardly be more stereotypical: Elvis burgers, deep-fried Oreos, square dancing, T-shirts with phrases like "Warrior Ethos" and "We the People" printed on them, and guns of all sizes.

The intoxicating combination of country music, cholesterol, patriotism and heavy artillery once again attracted around 100,000 visitors to the military exercise ground at Grafenwöhr, Bavaria, this weekend as the US Army hosted its 60th annual Deutsch-amerikanisches Volksfest ("German-American Fair"). 

The fair's purpose, as Grafenwöhr Mayor Edgar Knobloch said at the ceremonial keg-tapping on Friday, was to symbolize US-German friendship. Its other purpose, which takes up around half of the fairground space, is to showcase impressive pieces of military hardware.

So, in the scorching August sunshine, US Army and Bundeswehr personnel watched as visitors clambered into their Leopard tanks and Apache helicopters while children got to peer through the sights of their armor-piercing sniper rifles, and sweltering "Star Wars" stormtroopers mingled incongruously among the crowds.

Read more: Germany's military reluctance rooted in history

Men with guns

Among them, German soldiers talked shop with their US colleagues. Bundeswehr Lieutenant Colonel T., who wouldn't disclose his name but who described himself as a "hobby sniper," got some tips from Specialist Shannon Long, who wields an M107 semi-automatic rifle "designed to disable light-skinned vehicles" from 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

"I have my own private rifle, and I wanted to learn from a professional how to enhance my capability of firing it," said a beaming Lieutenant Colonel T.

"I love it here in Germany!" Long chipped in, after offering some advice. "I love the environment, I love the people, it's just an awesome place to be. It's so diverse."

Deutsch-amerikanisches Volksfest
Bundeswehr soldiers got sniper tips from US counterpartsImage: DW/B. Knight

The US military community here does indeed appear very well-settled. Grafenwöhr, barely 40 kilometers (25 miles) from what used to be the Iron Curtain, is the Bavarian village that Washington chose as the headquarters for the US Army Garrison Bavaria at the start of the Cold War.

It soon became a magnet for American symbolism: Elvis Presley spent six freezing weeks of his military service here in the winter of 1958, scouting communist positions and doing sniper practice up to his ankles in Bavarian snow. The King's visit is lovingly documented in the Grafenwöhr Military and Cultural Museum.

A US Army helicopter is surrounded by fairgoers
US military hardware is always a big draw at the fairImage: DW/B. Knight

Now the Grafenwöhr exercise ground, which covers some 225 square kilometers (140 square miles), is the largest US military training area outside the US. It is also used by soldiers from other NATO countries, but the American presence dominates the town, where the miliary community is served by its own bank, mall, post office and Taco Bell restaurant. For decades, several thousand service members and US Army employees have made this picturesque corner of Germany their home.

"Germany is a very good ally, and this is a chance to come together and intermingle our cultures," said Command Sergeant Major Micheal Suffenfield, clad in lederhosen, who spends spare weekends touring Europe on his vintage Indian motorcycle. "I'm from the southern United States, and Bavaria is very similar. The dialects are a little different from the rest of the country, there's more farmland, and it's more friendly."

"The fair is important for the people here, because it means they know where they are and why they're here," said local Karl Helml, who also pointed out that the US Army had brought extra investment to local infrastructure.

Patching things up

But US-German relations have become strained lately, especially when it comes to military issues. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly singled out Germany among NATO partners for its failure to meet the 2-percent mark — the percentage of GDP that the alliance wants its members to spend on defense.

Read more: German politicians rally round Angela Merkel after Trump's NATO tirade

Trump: 'Germany, as far as I'm concerned, is captive to Russia'

The response from some in the US military community in Europe has been, with all due loyalty to the commander-in-chief, marked by disapproval. Retired General Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, told DW last month that the president's "openly disrespectful and dismissive" attitude to the US' most important allies "worries every military professional I know."

Nathan Van Schaik, spokesman for the US Army Bavarian Garrison, struck a more careful tone, insisting that Trump's hostility to the German government hasn't made any difference to the active service members stationed here. "Germany is host to the largest US force presence in Europe — that hasn't changed," he said. "Americans share common values, a special bond with Germans in general, but particularly with Bavarians. That hasn't changed either."

"The strength of the US Army in Europe is in its training areas at US Army Garrison Bavaria. And what enables the army to train here in Bavaria are the relationships," he added. "The Volksfest is evidence of that. In fact, it's US Army Europe's largest open public event."

No politics, thanks

The fairgoers didn't have much appetite for political comment either. One German man, who was selling merchandise for the scandal-hit German gunmaker Heckler & Koch, told DW that everyone had tacitly agreed not to discuss politics at the fair.

"What you have here is the defense technology of the US Army and the Bundeswehr, and that's why it's a magnet — food over there, technology over here," he said. "The whole issue of politics is very touchy — some prefer Trump, others don't. But try and bring politics here? Not good. This place is politics-free. Two years ago it was different."

Fabian Engl, a young Bavarian who had come dressed as a Star Wars Sith character and was preparing to display his lightsaber skills with some Jedi friends, agreed. "At the moment, on the government side it's not a very good relationship, and I think a few Germans don't know whether Germany should be maintaining its relationship with the US, but I think the real friendship between the two countries hasn't suffered," he said.

Meanwhile, Adia Haywood and Chelsea Robin, two US military spouses pondering which "heart attack" burger to go for ("Double Bypass with cheese or Triple Bypass?"), said they always enjoyed the fair. "We haven't had a negative experience here at all," said Robin, who has lived in Grafenwöhr for a year. "We're very embarrassed about our current president. Not all Americans are what Trump represents."

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight