Today the IntercityHotel sitting on the edge of Frankfurt Airport offers a respite for travelers. Few of its guests know they are staying at one of hottest sites of the Cold War.
A large portion of what makes up Frankfurt international airport was until 2005 part of Frankfurt Am Main Airbase – the most important airbase in Europe for NATO forces and a location which played a key role in the 1948 Berlin Airlift.
The transition of the air base into a civilian airport is an apt metaphor for U.S.-German relations since World War II. On the surface, it seems to represent important change. It is no secret that many Germans are concerned about President Trump, especially regarding his mixed signals regarding NATO and his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Change Accord.
“The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an apparent reference to American security guarantees following a G7 summit that included Trump
However, beneath these visible ripples, America’s military relationship with Germany runs deep.
In fact, Germany’s role in America’s defense strategy will likely expand in the coming years. Germany is home to a number of U.S. military assets including hospitals, air bases, and command center which will remain critical to America’s fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups.
The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, for example, is the main treatment center for wounded U.S. soldiers fighting in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. In support of that mission, the Department of Defense is spending nearly $1 billion to expand the site.
That facility is located close to Rammstein Air Base another vital installation for America’s ongoing wars. Rammstein plays a vital role in support of drone strikes launched in support of U.S counter-terrorism efforts in Africa and the Middle East. Germany also hosts a special facility where former kidnap victims are rehabilitated in some cases after years of psychological trauma at the hands of their captors.
Germany is also host to United States Africa Command, a major subdivision of the Pentagon known by the acronym AFRICOM. Based in Stuttgart and home to some 1,500 people in Germany the importance of the command has increased in recent years with U.S. involvement in operations across the continent from Libya to the Central African Republic.
Earlier this year Africom was host to a minor diplomatic news when in April, for the first time, a Sudanese delegation attended a major AFRICOM conference in Germany. A sign that Sudanese-American relations were improving. Following that meeting Khartoum and Washington D.C. agreed to exchange defense attaches despite the fact that Khartoum remains under sanctions since Osama Bin Ladin lived there in the early 1990s.
There could be even more U.S. military assets deployed to Germany.
Despite what he describes as “unfortunate tensions” in U.S.- German relations, Adib Sisani, a former senior staffer with the German government observed that “the people in this part of Germany [where the bases are located] from Frankfurt to Heidelburg all are overwhelmingly pro-American.”
However, for a small minority of Germans, the American presence is worrying. Leftist groups have protested what they see as Germany’s support of America’s wars. Several hundred protesters demonstrated outside of the Ramstein Airbase over its role in supporting the U.S. drone strikes campaign. A petition along those lines has circulated online. Following the protests, a mid-level member of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrat Party called for ending American access to the base.
“It’s ironic that the U.S. ally which hosts AFRICOM did not take part in AFRICOM major military operation which was the war in Libya but, we felt it was the right call to not get involved in that one,” said Sisani in an interview with American Media Institute, “I think there were those in the German military who regretted that move but, I think it was the right one.”
A Senior American diplomat in Germany believes that most citizens value America’s presence. Many small towns are dependent on American military presence for their economies. However, due to terrorism concerns American personnel in many locations are not allowed to go off base in uniform – a policy which has impacted local businesses.
“There are those who will make the argument that we could do everything we can in Germany cheaper in one of the countries of Eastern Europe but, I think in the long-term there is no alternative to bases in Germany,” said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity in an interview.
In recent months the status of other vital U.S. overseas bases in a number of countries has come into question. In Turkey, an opposition newspaper has called for ending American presence at a critical key base. President Trump has suggested that the United States is open to considering relocating U.S. military assets from Qatar to other countries. Experts say in such a contingency additional American military units would be stationed in Germany – at least temporarily.
Indeed unlike in other countries, the American presence remains popular. For older Germans, there is no doubt that the U.S. remains a vital ally and America’s use of Germany for current missions is no cause for concern.
“Most Germans of a certain age undoubtedly had their first hamburger and most American sweets during a visit to Ramstein Airbase or Frankfurt Airbase, “ says Roy Watson, who works for Frankfurt Airport Services.
The former Frankfurt Airbase is a short-drive from his office. Watson observed that it lives in memory through a small memorial located there and the memory of the 1948 Berlin Airlift in which American pilots attempted to resupply a West Berlin that was under a Soviet blockade – conditions which nearly started World War III. “The daily tonnage that was being lifted from this airport in DC-3s and other aircraft was not matched again until 2005” Watson said.
“Noise, noise, noise that was the primary complaint about the Americans when Frankfurt was an airbase. It is part of the reason they relocated their assets from Frankfurt. Plus they had to always worry about the civilian airport,” Watson said, “However, I do not doubt that American forces will remain in Germany. The current air bases are located in a strategic location and besides the American presence is very welcome.”
The reporting of this story was funded via a Transatlantic Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in 2017. You can learn more about that program and the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation here.