“A lost friendship”, “Living together has become difficult”, “It’s as if [the Americans] don’t exist”—these translated quotes taken from a 2017 documentary, Leben auf dem Pulverfass, paint a rather bleak picture of German-American military relations in the Kaiserslautern area. However, in 2022 when one walks or drives around Kaiserslautern, a more nuanced picture presents itself: “We speak English” signs on most major stores, TexMex style restaurants patronized by both locals and those stationed here, major hiking trails shared by Americans and Germans alike. Has living together truly become difficult for Germans and Americans? Or do signs point to strong transatlantic relations on a local level? Is it possible that the truth lie somewhere in between? These conflicting realities and assessments form the basis of my research question: What is the current state of affairs between German locals and American military members in the Kaiserslautern Military Community?
Kasernen im Kopf
My research project Kasernen im Kopf, produced under the mentorship of the Atlantic Academy and supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, aims to add to the current state of research regarding the U.S. military community in Rheinland-Pfalz. Just as parts and people of eastern Germany often experience Mauer im Kopf, when the history of the Berlin Wall still affects and influences the experiences of those that live there long after its demise, the Kaiserslautern Military Community often views their community and local German-American relations through the outdated lens of the Cold War and a more militarized time.
Since my Bachelor’s studies, I’ve found myself living and studying in these German-American civil-military contact zones. I was supported by the Federation of German American Clubs for one year of study in Giessen, the location of a former important U.S. Army Depot. I later returned for my Masters degree to Regensburg, another former U.S. Army station, and a city still important for Americans stationed in Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels. While I studied and specialized in European-American relations, German-American civil military relations continued to underscore my work. Civil-military relations were also at the forefront of my activities as an intern with the Atlantic Academy, and I also engaged in the topic in my work for two years as the International Education Program Coordinator at UNC Chapel Hill. With Chapel Hill’s proximity to the military installation Fort Bragg, I invited speakers, whether it be a professor from the National Defense University, or the German Liaison Officer to the Psychological Operations Unit, to speak to the wider North Carolina community, and explain the work of the U.S. (or German) military and how it ties into their region. It always surprised me, whether in Germany or in the United States, to see how these civil-military relations integrate themselves into the everyday life of these cities and regions, but yet how they are relatively unknown to even their own neighbors. When the opportunity presented itself to apply for a German Chancellor Research Fellowship supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, facilitating a project on these relations at a geographic hub for German-American military contact felt like the logical next step in my work and research.
The Research Area
Germany, like North Carolina, offers a valuable case study on civil military relations. The Kaiserslautern Military Community is home to the largest military community outside of the United States, with roughly 54,000 military and Department of Defense (DoD) supported members. While other historic and prominent bases have shuttered since the end of the Cold War, for example the military community in Heidelberg, the area around Kaiserslautern, including U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz and the US Air Force’s Ramstein Air Base, have remained critical locations for the U.S. and NATO at large. Most recently, Ramstein Air Base was used to coordinate the widescale evacuation of individuals from Afghanistan in 2021, and presently is being used as a Joint Command Center to help coordinate with the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Thus, the military community is a seemingly permanent fixture in the RLP landscape.
The current research field on German-American civil-military relations in Rheinland-Pfalz is dominated by scholarly research, first-hand accounts, and news stories that chronicle the early days of American occupation all the way until the Cold War. Scholars from near and far have written valuable works on the American presence in Germany. Professor Maria Höhn of Vassar College in the US has two prominent books on the region, GIs und Fräuleins (2002), and Over There (2010). More recently, Jörg Zorbach published Kaiserslautern Borderland (2014). Unfortunately, the research in recent years has been scarce, leaving an almost 10 year gap in new findings and conclusions.
Local and national German media outlets, like Die Rheinpfalz, SWR, and BR continue to produce documentaries, opinion pieces, and news stories revolving around the American presence in Kaiserslautern. Local newspaper Die Rheinpfalz writes prolifically on the American presence in Germany, using both researched and anecdotal evidence to characterize current relations in the region. The German documentaries focus more precisely on the earlier days of American “occupation,” and the Cold War, thus consistently comparing U.S.-German relations today to those from more than 30 years ago.
A New Narrative?
Kasernen im Kopf seeks to engage with today’s Kaiserslautern Military Community: soldiers, airmen, politicians, neighbors, business owners, youth; civil and military; German and American. It seeks to move away from the persistent narrative of comparison: the narrative that consistently compares life in the Kaiserslautern Military Community today to life during the Cold War, leaving a cognitive dissonance between the reality of civil-military relations today and those right after World War II. Through research, and interviews that look into the past as well as confront the present, this project will inform the community of the current state of civil-military relations in Rheinland-Pfalz, helping to fill the almost ten-year gap of research.
This project couldn’t be realized without the support of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung or my mentoring institution, the Atlantic Academy Rheinland-Pfalz. The expertise provided by the Academy, and their active work in the Kaiserslautern Military Community allows me to access the best networks, contacts, and research on the topic. I am looking forward to this research and sharing my findings, thoughts and impressions with the wider community throughout the year. Stay tuned to find out whether German-American friendships are truly lost as claimed in the documentary cited at the beginning, or if they have just transformed and can be found in different ways and settings.