Osnabrueck picks up the pieces after British withdrawal | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.09.2009
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Osnabrueck picks up the pieces after British withdrawal

The northern German city of Osnabrueck was once the largest British military base outside the UK. The troops' departure last year left a hole in the community, but also presented new opportunities to the area.

Osnabrueck market square

The troop withdrawal has changed the town's atmosphere

Over 60 years after first taking up their post in Osnabrueck, the last British troops left the town in July. Their departure has had a massive impact, hitting some sectors of the local economy hard.

Osnabrueck Mayor Boris Pistorius said that even though the town is beginning to re-occupy and renovate former army buildings, the departure of the Brits has been felt in the local community.

"We are noticing more and more that something is missing in our town," Pistorius said. "I had a lot of contact with the British troops and I miss them because they brought a special culture to the town."

John Lindie, vice-chairman of the local branch of the Royal British Legion, said that emotions ran high among Brits and locals alike when they left. Osnabrueck was now no longer the place it once was, he said.

"For myself and for the members of the Royal British Legion, it was a very, very sad day," Lindie said. "It was also a sad day for thousands of Osnabruecker, who turned up for the farewell parade in the pouring rain to say goodbye. Osnabrueck is certainly a completely different place since the Brits have left."

"A fantastic opportunity"

But not everyone is downcast about the withdrawal of the British troops. For Peter Kronemann, managing director of the local retail trade association, the 1.6 million square meters of land (17 million square feet) and 1,250 buildings that the British Army left behind are reason enough for optimism.

Roberts Barracks

The Union Jack flew over Roberts Barracks for 63 years

"On the whole, the withdrawal of the British troops offers many opportunities for the development of Osnabrueck," he said. "Big, attractive sites have now become available to the private market. Many homes have been released and Osnabrueck is hoping that young families previously unable to afford local house prices will occupy these and thus lower the average age in town."

Kronemann is convinced that the science park set to be built on a former barracks site will be of great benefit to the town's university. He said that some of the other former army sites would be ideal for industrial use and therefore widen the town's horizons.

Every cloud has a silver lining, as far as Mayor Pistorius is concerned. He said that while the departure of the Brits was regrettable, it also presented the town with new opportunities and possibilities.

"Of course we miss our English friends," Pistorius said. "But the release of 160 hectares of land, some of it in prime locations, is also a fantastic opportunity for the town."

Impact on the local economy

Fears that Osnabrueck would face a slump when the British troops left have proved unfounded, Kronemann said. Of the 200 million euros ($284 million) the British soldiers earned per year, only 1.7 million euros entered the local economy - and less than one million euros went to retail trade. Given the total turnover of 1.3 billion euros, the British contribution was therefore negligible.

Boris Pistorius

Mayor Pistorius personally misses the troops, as well

"The effects weren't severe," Kronemann said. "As a whole, the withdrawal of the British troops has not affected retail trade because British purchasing power was relatively small in this sector."

But Lindie said that the economic impact has not been as noticeable as expected because most of the British troops had actually left long before the final withdrawal in July 2008. This meant that the British contribution to the local economy dwindled over a long period of time, making losses since last July less noticeable.

"Since the end of the Cold War and the start of the new local conflicts - Kosovo, Bosnia, the two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan - the garrison, for about the last 15 years, has actually never been here as a complete garrison," he said. "So the actual drawdown didn't affect the town as much as it could have done."

But some taxi drivers are reporting losses of between 6,000 to 8,000 euros per month because there are no longer hundreds of soldiers needing a lift back to their barracks on Friday and Saturday nights. The withdrawal of the British troops has also taken its toll on fast food restaurants, such as the KFC and Burger King branches near one of the big barracks, where many soldiers used to go for lunch.

Brits sorely missed

Leaving the economic effects aside, the locals are missing the British presence in Osnabrueck on a different level. There is a general sense that their absence has left a void. Dieter Willman, landlord of Osnabrueck's oldest pub "Olle Use," said he felt a sense of personal loss even though his turnover was not hit too badly.

pub olle use

British soldiers often had a drink at Olle Use

"I must say that I miss them, as does everybody," he said. "The whole of Osnabrueck misses them because we became very close over the years. I had a certain English clientele with whom I got on very well, but it didn't affect my business too much when they left."

Meanwhile, English culture has become so anchored in Osnabrueck that it will remain for many years to come, Pistorius said.

"There were many inter-marriages and many children here have at least one English parent," he said. "Some English families even stayed on after finishing their military service. So England will always be a part of Osnabrueck."

With an expatriate community of about 4,500, the Brits still have a strong presence in Osnabrueck. And given the popularity of the British soldiers and the loss that the locals feel at their departure, their legacy is set to linger here for a long time to come.

Author: Michelle Martin
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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