“We have become the game ball of the powers”

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12,000 US soldiers are to withdraw from Germany, 4,500 of them from Vilseck in Upper Palatinate. The mayor explains what that means for the place.


German-American confessions: a US soldier at the public viewing of the 2014 World Cup in Vilseck © David Ebener / dpa

Because he thinks Germany spends too little on its military, US President Donald Trump wants to withdraw the US soldiers stationed here. Now he has fleshed out the plans, including Vilseck in the Upper Palatinate, where 10,000 Americans live alongside the almost 6,000 German residents. Vilsecker Mayor Hans-Martin Schertl from the Free Voters’ Association of Employee Homeowners explains how the US Army is shaping the place and what a withdrawal would mean.

ZEIT ONLINE: How did you find out about the planned withdrawal?

Hans-Martin Schertl: The US general in charge called me on Wednesday morning so I wouldn’t hear it from the news. However, there have been signals from politics and the military for some time that Vilseck could be affected. So I was not completely unprepared, but still surprised.

ZEIT ONLINE: What are the US soldiers doing in Vilseck and what do you get out of it?

Schertl: They live here, in the Rose Barracks on the outskirts of Vilseck and in a second facility on the outskirts of the neighboring town of Grafenwoehr. And they practice here. The Grafenwoehr military training area, which borders directly on Vilseck, is one of the crown jewels of the US Army. It is probably the most modern and largest practice site she has. That is why we hoped to be spared the withdrawal, also because all high-ranking American military officials had spoken out against it. Hundreds of millions have been invested in the training area and the base, they can really train everything here, right on their doorstep. There are flight exercises, mostly with helicopters, and above all shooting exercises. Sometimes, with larger exercises, it takes a whole week.

ZEIT ONLINE: And then you hear that in Vilseck?

Schertl: Sure, of course! Guests sometimes startle here when it pops and ask what it was. But as a real Vilsecker you don’t hear the shots anymore.


Hans-Martin Schertl © City of Vilseck / Others

ZEIT ONLINE: Still sounds like a bit of a burden.

Schertl: The US base was always accepted here. Because in return we also benefited a lot from it. The 4,500 US soldiers stationed in Vilseck and another 9,000 family members mean an economic power of around 700 million euros per year for the region. 2,500 Germans alone work directly or indirectly for the army. German construction companies and tradesmen have standing orders for the expansion and renovation of the buildings on the base, a bus company alone drives around 70 buses a day to bring the soldiers’ children to schools and back. The new soldiers live in the hotels here before they have found their own apartment, and many restaurants and cafes live on American guests, they are absolutely dependent on them.

ZEIT ONLINE: Have the restaurants also adjusted their menu, are there burgers instead of schnitzel?

Schertl: On the contrary, the Americans enjoy German food. They are very happy about a good schnitzel or a Sauerbraten and know exactly where to get both. No, the kitchen is German, but the menus are bilingual. But there are also three delivery services here that bring soldiers over a thousand meals a day. These are mostly tacos, cheeseburgers, something like that.

ZEIT ONLINE: All of this could now be eliminated.

Schertl: I can’t list everyone who would be affected by a troop withdrawal: the taxi drivers, the private landlords, in whose apartments the soldiers live with their families, and and and. To balance all of this, a master plan is really needed. The most important thing would be to create jobs, and no matter what. Prime Minister Markus Söder has already announced that there will be compensation in the event of a withdrawal. That’s right, because after all, we’re basically paying the price for the federal government not spending two percent of the economic output on the military, because that’s the reason for President Trump’s withdrawal. We have become the game ball of the powers.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you still have hope that this will not happen?

Schertl: I am in contact with the Bavarian State Chancellery, there will be another conference call today (Thursday, editor’s note). But we cannot exert direct influence from here. Two things still give me hope: I hope that US MPs will prevent the withdrawal because they would rather listen to the military than Trump. Both Democrats and Republicans have already criticized this. But my greatest hope is November 3rd. If Trump is then voted out, the deduction could also be withdrawn. I just got back on the phone with Ben Hodges, who was stationed here with us as a young soldier and later commander in chief of the US Army in Europe. He believes the withdrawal would also be a huge mistake militarily.

ZEIT ONLINE: Have you ever worked out exactly what that would mean financially, what income would you lose?

Schertl: That is hardly possible. But surely a large part of our 1.3 million euros in trade tax revenue per year, I don’t know if it is half, can be attributed to the US Army. Added to this are the falling key allocations, i.e. the tax revenue that is passed on to the municipalities by the federal government depending on the number of inhabitants. Because among the 6,000 German Vilseckern we count about 10,000 American citizens. Then they would disappear.

ZEIT ONLINE: The U.S. Army training area and housing complexes have been around for decades. Elvis Presley spent six weeks here on maneuvers. How did the US soldiers shape your city at that time?

Schertl: There are many friendships, especially among neighbors, when Germans have rented their homes to soldier families. And German women always married soldiers, then went with them to the USA or they settled here together. Then there are the soldiers who leave the army and settle here as civilians, buy a house. There are Americans who have chosen to spend their retirement here with us here in Vilseck.

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