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As U.S. Army closes bases, Germans bid sad farewell

BUEDINGEN, Germany — Sixty-two years after they arrived in this medieval village — and 17 years after it ceased to be the front line in the Cold War — U.S. troops are leaving and preparing to hand their base back to the town.

The 640 soldiers in the 1st Squadron of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Regiment will be gone by mid-August. Most have already left, the latest in a rush back to the States that's seen American troop levels in Europe fall by about a third since 2005. The U.S. also is shutting down bases this summer in Gelnhausen, Darmstadt and Hanau and a barracks in Mannheim.

At a time when two-thirds of Germans view the U.S. unfavorably, it sounds like perfect timing. That's not the view in Buedingen, however.

"I can't think of a negative thing to say about America," said lifelong resident Ursula Schmueck, who helps run a 1950s museum in town. "I don't know anyone who could. We all love America here. I think that's because we know it."

Buedingen is a fairy-tale town of 8,500 people. It has its own Witches Tower, a Jerusalem Gate and Schwan (Swan) Inn, all dating from before 1600, as well as its own legend. According to the story, 500 years ago a new countess refused to consummate her marriage because of the din from the croaking of frogs. That set off a wild night of frog-catching by the entire town.

Buedingen today is filled with frog statues in honor of that night.

Schmueck's experience is shared by many people in the German towns that have played host to U.S. forces since Nazi Germany fell. Buedingen, where Americans took over old Wehrmacht barracks, fell without resistance. After the instability of the 1920s and the horrors of the Nazi era in the '30s and '40s, ending in the vast destruction of World War II, the town credits Germany's rebirth to the United States.

Schmueck's museum is an homage to that rebirth, and it's filled with American tidbits from the '50s, from old movie posters to a bookshelf that hides a swinging liquor cabinet. She noted that Elvis Presley was stationed about 20 miles away during his military service in the '50s.

"For decades after the war, we went to sleep every night thanking God the Americans were still here, because if they'd pulled back even a little ways, we would have been under Soviet influence," she said.

There's also the not-inconsiderable economic impact — although town officials said they had no exact figures — for the troops had some 3,000 family members with them.

A sad "auf wiedersehen" can be heard around the region.

In 2005, there were 59,000 American soldiers in Germany. Today, there are about 41,000. By next year, the number will dip below 40,000. Most of them are being relocated to bases in the United States, though some have moved into vacant positions at other overseas bases.

The reason has been clear for 17 years: Once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, Germany was no longer a front-line nation. The U.S. military refers to troops in Germany as "an ocean closer" to international threats. But with the demise of the world's only other superpower, the response has changed from force-on-force to quick-reaction. As the Middle East has become the hot spot, Germany no longer is ideally located. As U.S. Army spokesman Bruce Anderson noted, "We're not massing for war in central Europe."

Christian Schwarz-Schilling, a former German Cabinet minister who's from Buedingen, said German bases these days had become no more than midway points between the United States and the areas of conflict.

"For the United States, there is no logical reason to remain in Germany," he said. "They can no longer be justified to the American taxpayer."

Richard Whitman, a European policy expert at the University of Bath in England, said that moving U.S. troops back to the United States or to other bases around the world forced European nations to confront defense issues they'd largely ignored since 1945.

"On the one hand, the U.S. presence was comforting, a very visible sign of the U.S. commitment to Europe," he said. "On the other, it was a reminder that we were not trusted to take care of our own security issues."

European nations are ready to step up again, he said. European troops have taken the lead role in security recently in the Balkans, something that never would have happened in the 1990s. They've also committed troops to Afghanistan, much less so to Iraq.

"For decades, every time the U.S. started discussing troop reduction, there was panic across Europe," Whitman said. "What's healthy this time is that no one is bothered."

Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin's Freie University, talks of "deep-seated" connections between the countries, in large part nurtured by the size of the American presence in Europe. He noted that European distaste for President Bush's foreign policy doesn't reflect general anti-Americanism as much as anti-Bushism.

"The relationship between the United States and Europe, and in particular Germany, had to change," he said. "The U.S. and Germany are still friends, a very close friend. But it's no longer a bodyguard."

The animosity toward the Bush administration, however, shouldn't be underestimated. Der Spiegel magazine described this week how American exchange students have been forced to become ambassadors in their classrooms, defending policy and motivations, even when they disagree with them.

A recent Pew Research Poll showed that while 78 percent of Germans held positive opinions of the United States in 2000, today that number has fallen to 30 percent. Pro-American feeling is higher in Venezuela (56 percent), Russia (41 percent), France (39 percent) and China (34 percent).

That's not the case in Buedingen. Here, people see losing the U.S. influence as a bad thing, and not just because they're losing friends.

Real estate agent Lothar Kanitz said, "I don't even want to know what the market will be like in six months. It's already bad."

As Mayor Erich Spamer said in a speech last spring, "The soldiers brought us peace when they took Buedingen in March 1945. They gave us new perspectives and lasting support for our town. And on top of that, chewing gum. But more importantly, they met us with unbelievable friendship."

Richard Appel, who as City Hall superintendent helped set up an annual American Christmas celebration, said some of his oldest memories were of large American cars snaking through the town's narrow streets.

Horst Dieter Breidenbach, 68, who works in the city museum, housed in the old city hall, constructed in 1458, said: "Dining out, shopping, walking the streets in the evening, we've come to expect Americans to be a part of our lives here. And just as after the countess insisted on removing the frogs they remained a part of our lives, so will the Americans."