A German Town Remembers Life on the Cold War's Edge

Three years after the US base closed, Fulda looks ahead - but misses 'friends.'

Fulda doesn't look like the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen.

But for years, Western military planners braced against a potential attack from the east here - streams of Warsaw Pact tanks pouring through the so-called Fulda Gap at the border between the two parts of divided Germany.

Now that threat is gone - and so are the American troops once based here. After years of living on the edge - literally the eastern edge of West Germany - Fulda now finds itself in the heart of a reunified Germany.

During years of division, this border region was among the most heavily militarized places on earth. The West German Army was backed by more than 400,000 NATO troops. The East German forces were bolstered by about the same number from Warsaw Pact countries.

The Warsaw Pact troops are all gone, and the numbers of NATO troops fell to some 140,000 by the end of last year. About 75,000 American troops remain in Germany.

Three years after the US base here closed, this city of baroque church spires still feels the loss of the Americans keenly - in personal as well as economic terms.

But Fulda is coping. The high-rise towers that once housed American soldiers are filled by a different kind of Russian invader, ethnic Germans who have returned from the former Soviet Union to their ancestral homeland.

On a beautiful spring afternoon up at the old Observation Post Alpha, birds flit and dart where reconnaissance planes once followed the jagged border between West and East Germany so closely that the pilots knew each tree.

A few miles away, down in the village of Rasdorf, Gisela Budenz beams as she proudly shows some midday visitors the wall of her restaurant. It's covered with messages of greeting and thanks from US military units whose personnel once were some of her most faithful customers. "They were such good friends," she says.

Today the restaurant is all but empty at midday.

One merchant in Fulda with fond memories of the American soldiers can quantify the economic loss. "We were so disappointed when they left. We used to get 15 to 20 Americans a day," says Ilse Zeh, a lifelong resident. Since 1950, her family has had a flower shop not far from Downs Barracks, former home of the Blackhorse Regiment, an armored-cavalry (tank) unit.

"They supported a lot of businesses here: filling stations, bakeries," she says. Her home was even closer to the barracks, and she remembers the soldiers as good neighbors. "They were always ready to help, if anything needed fixing."

Downs Barracks itself is being developed as an industrial park. A few small businesses - skilled trades, small computer companies - have opened up there. But questions over land ownership of the site have hindered development, and for the moment the place looks much more like a former military base than a future something else. Base conversions elsewhere in Germany have had similarly tough going.

Fritz Kramer, county commissioner in Fulda, also has warm memories of the US troops but puts their presence in more apocalyptic terms. "At the border, the danger of communist imperialism was clear," he says. "I was and am convinced that without the Americans this country would never have been able to remain free."

Of all the German cities with a large US military presence, Fulda "has been known for having a particularly deep friendship with the Americans," Mr. Kramer says.

Elsewhere, the relations between American troops and local governments - especially those controlled by the left-wing Social Democratic Party - could sometimes be tense.

Not all German politicians were as enthusiastic about the American presence as Kramer, a Christian Democrat - especially those to his political left.

After the crushing defeat of World War II, some West Germans saw the stationing of huge numbers of foreign troops on German soil as an infringement of national sovereignty.

Today, the American military presence in Germany has shrunk to about 75,000 troops from 250,000 in 1989. The US Army has gone from more than 750 units at 80 bases to about one-third that many units at 39 bases. The Air Force has cut major air bases back from nine to two.

The people of Fulda understood that the end of the cold war would mean cutbacks, but they couldn't quite believe that their beloved Blackhorse Regiment would pull out in October 1993. Fulda officials flew to the United States to make their plea in person at the Pentagon - but to no avail.

Still, a look around Fulda makes clear that, with 60,000 inhabitants in the city proper and another 150,000 in the surrounding Landkreis, or county, life will go on.

Founded in the 8th century by St. Boniface, an English missionary, Fulda remains an important center of Roman Catholic religious education, and its impressive Baroque Quarter draws tourists.

The economy is relatively diversified, with a significant manufacturing sector (tires, food processing) as well as a heavy reliance on small businesses. Unemployment, at 11.7 percent, is better than that of the country as a whole - 12.2 percent - but still troublingly high.

Martin Moderegger, director of the Chamber of Commerce here, notes that US troops "were mostly economically self-sufficient - shopping at the PX and so forth. We estimate 15 percent of their income went into German tills."

Dr. Moderegger estimates that the yearly cost of the loss of the US presence - 3,000 soldiers, 3,700 dependents, and 325 mostly German civilian employees - to the community at about $30 million in purchasing power.

Still, the population of the Fulda region has grown by about 20,000 since the end of the cold war, according to Moderegger. About 6,000 are ethnic Germans whom President Mikhail Gorbachev began to allow to leave the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

As elsewhere in Germany, the former military housing has been used to lodge these "returnees." To the people of Fulda, however, the connection of these "Russians" to Germany can seem rather tenuous.

"There are families where, well, the dog may bark in German, but the rest of the family speaks Russian," says longtime resident Renate Stieber. And although many of the newcomers are skilled tradespeople or professionals, many still need state aid until they can get on their feet.

Some of the biggest excitement in Fulda is over the launch of a new sister-city partnership with Wilmington, Del.

"We're very much looking forward to this," says Klaus Sorg, an auto dealer who chaired the German-American Advisory Council in Fulda. "The American-German relationship is so important that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of it."

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