German town prepares tearful goodbye to British troops
News that Britain would pull out all of its 20,000 soldiers based in Germany by 2020 hit communities like this tiny northern town like a bombshell.Bergen lies in the shadow of the former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, which British and Canadian soldiers liberated in April 1945 just weeks after Jewish diarist Anne Frank died there at the age of 16.
It has come to rely heavily on the troops.
London says it will not unveil a specific withdrawal timetable until mid-2011 but Mayor Rainer Prokop already knows it will be a tearful goodbye when the time comes.
"They started out as an occupying force that taught us democracy but over time they became military partners, neighbours, friends and even spouses and parents to children here in Bergen," the 60-year-old told AFP.
"They are also of course an important economic factor."
This town of half-timbered houses north of Hanover, population 16,000, has been a neighbour for six decades to Bergen-Hohne Garrison, home to the 7th Armoured
Brigade in between deployments to Bosnia, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 4,100 Britons at Hohne station including soldiers, personnel and their families provide a vital economic lifeline to Bergen.
They frequent the Speaker's Corner pub serving Strongbow cider and Scotch whisky, Al's fish and chips shop, the Bergen Army clothing store and the town's four steak restaurants catering to soldiers' hearty appetites.
"It's obviously going to be an enormous blow for business," said Sonja Grabow, 33, straightening a display of Doc Martens combat boots at the army shop with her eight-year-old niece Laura, who came by for a visit after school.
Britain, the United States and France stationed troops in West Germany in the aftermath of World War II as a visible show of support for their NATO ally.
But the end of the Cold War and a yawning budget deficit has forced a rethink of military priorities. British Prime Minister David Cameron presented the pullout plans as part of a major defence review linked to a swinging austerity drive.
"The enormous contribution the British army made in Germany in the post-war period cannot be praised highly enough and I think many, many Germans are extremely grateful for it," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said after Cameron's October 19 announcement.
Army spokesman Mike Whitehurst said the 20,000 British soldiers, about 23,000 dependents and around 4,700 British civilian employees contributed about EUR 1.3 billion (1.8 billion dollars) to the German economy every year.
Prokop said he had known the day would come when the British would up sticks and leave but he said he had been led to believe in meetings with the command that it would take much longer than 10 years.
"What really surprised me was how radical the decision was," he said.
He noted that 200 new houses went up in the last three to four years for troops serving at the garrison, with many rental contracts running through 2025.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Norman Wilkins first came to Bergen in 1952 as a young soldier and later returned to live out his twilight years with his German wife. He is saddened by the looming end of an era.
"It is very difficult, when you are in the army, to make friends," said the 78-year-old, an elected member of the town council. "But that is what I did in Bergen. It's become home."
Wilkins, who served in 32 countries in 35 years, said despite the fresh memories of the war and the proximity to Bergen-Belsen where some 70,000 died under the Nazis' brutal conditions, he took an instant liking to Germany.
"It was a happy-go-lucky time in fact. We were so used to austerity after the war in England then we came here and we had allowances, we had money, everything was cheap," said Wilkins, switching effortlessly between English and German.
"We were more worried about the Russians than the Germans."
Erika Slatter, who has run Al's fish and chips shop for 23 years with her British husband, a former soldier, said she feared for Bergen's future.
"Some businesses will go under, that is certain," the 58-year-old German said.
"But I think the British who are being sent home will also miss living here, where the cost of living is lower and we really worked well together."
Raimund Nickels, 72, a former driver for the British, fondly remembers Christmas parties, choral concerts and countryside excursions organised by the Anglo-German Club.
"If you ask me, they could happily stay but of course we are facing our own military spending cuts so we understand," he said.
AFP/ Deborah Cole/ Expatica