Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main Shuts Down After 60 Years
Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main Air Base is closing down to allow expansion of commercial traffic at Frankfurt International. It is the end of a long era for the American military in Germany.
Long known as the American military’s “Gateway to Europe,” the Rhein-Main Air Base is shutting down, the victim of both changing economic and geopolitical realities. The last planes flew out of here a couple of weeks ago, and a skeleton crew is packing up the 383-acre complex before turning it over to the Germans at the end of December. Rhein-Main is not the only prominent American institution with moving vans parked out front. Last week, the United States Consulate left central Frankfurt for a heavily fortified complex on the outskirts of town. And the consulate’s cultural center, Amerika Haus, moved its staff out of a landmark downtown building to join the consulate in its suburban redoubt. It adds up to a palpable lowering of the American profile in Frankfurt, a city that since World War II has been known, and occasionally derided by Germans, for being the most American in Germany.
While Rhein-Main’s operations are being transferred to other American bases in Germany, its closing after 60 years is particularly symbolic. From its role as a staging ground for the Berlin airlift shortly after the war to its recent use as a transit hub for troops bound for Iraq and Afghanistan, the base has been one of the most visible manifestations of American power in Germany. “This isn’t a normal base closing because there’s so much history,” said Col. Bradley Denison, the last base commander. “There’s a feeling of sadness that we have to say farewell to our German friends.”
For all the talk of friendship, the closing of Rhein-Main and the other changes come as Germany and the United States are still trying to thaw out a relationship chilled by their rift over the Iraq war. To some Americans who are longtime residents here, the recent moves are a melancholy reminder of how much things have changed since the height of the cold war, when Germany and the United States linked arms against a common enemy on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
Melancholy, indeed. Almost all of those of us who served in Germany came and went through Rhein-Main. German-American relations will come back from the recent lows, however:
While the closing of Rhein-Main comes at a time when the Pentagon is scaling back troops in Germany, the agreement to hand over the base predates that redeployment. Frankfurt Airport, which shares runways and taxiways with the base, has been pushing for years to take over the property. The airport – Europe’s second busiest after Heathrow in London – plans to bulldoze the site and construct a third passenger terminal. “This is more economic than political,” Colonel Denison said, “They needed to expand, and we were the only place they could go.” The airport and the German government agreed to pay nearly $300 million to upgrade two other American bases, Ramstein and Spangdahlem, to take over the airlift operations handled by Rhein-Main.
Colonel Denison, who also is married to a German, said he felt no ill will from the local people. “Some Germans may not have supported our war, but they supported us in other ways,” he said. Frankfurters, too, seem eager to turn the page. Mr. SchrÃƒ¶der’s departure as chancellor, they say, will clear the air, since his successor, Angela Merkel, is likely to seek closer ties to Washington. “German-American relations are moving into a new phase,” Mr. Paulsen said. “The cold war is over and there have been obvious differences between us. But that will change again with the new government.”
My dad also married a German girl when he was stationed there the first time in the early 1960s, a tradition that has been repeated thousands of times. While there are strong cultural differences between the two societies, notably the post-WWII German aversion to military force and America’s comparatively strong religiosity–our societies have a lot more in common than, say, the U.S. and France.