Foreign Troops in Germany during the Cold War

Experience, Relations, Conflicts

(Last modified January 2010)

One of the fundamental factors that shaped the development of the two
Germanys in the period after World War II was the presence of foreign troops in both countries. These troops represented, on one hand, the victorious powers and thus the outcome of World War II. On the other hand, they symbolized the divergent political developments in East and West Germany and their involvement in the Cold War bloc confrontation. On the backdrop of this Manichean worldview, relations between Soviet bloc troops and East Germany have been characterized as fundamentally different from relations between Allied troops and West Germany.

Even today, two decades after the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and German reunification, only a few extensive empirical studies have been published on the history of foreign troops in post-1945 Germany and none of these is based on a systematic-comparative approach. This research project was therefore conceptualized as a comparative analysis of official-propagandistic, institutional, medial, and private modes of dealing with the presence of foreign troops in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic and the conflicts that they generated from the mid-1950s to 1990. The main focus was on troops stationed by the
U.S. and the USSR, the two states that deployed by far the largest number of soldiers and exerted, as hegemonic powes, decisive influence on political and social developments in East and West Germany.

Analysis was guided by the following key questions. What was the image of each of the two hegemonic powers and its soldiers in the respective German society? How can the relationship between the formal and the de facto legal status of these troops be characterized and what were the consequences for relations between the military and the host country? What was day-to-day life like for foreign soldiers and civilian personnel and their family members in divided
Germany? What was the nature of their official, institutional, and private contacts with their German environment? What were the relationships between propaganda extolling binational friendship, institutionalized friendly contacts, and other institutional forms of interaction; what influence did these relationships have on responses to conflicts that arose as a result of the presence of foreign troops?

The study begins with a universal-historical review of the phenomenon of troop deployment and military occupation regimes from antiquity to the present. This section defines key terminology and then surveys relevant aspects of international law and agreements, the functions of foreign troops deployed abroad, relations between the autochthon population and foreign soldiers, and, finally, collective memories of such occupations. These issues are discussed to facilitate a historical interpretation of foreign occupation in divided, post-1945
Germany that reflects not only the Cold War era but the broader historical and theoretical context.

In a second step, these questions provide a framework for surveying the broader post-war landscape in the two
Germanys. The third section of the study offers an in-depth evaluation of military-civilian relations on a local level, based on case studies of a selected American garrison town (Bamberg in Upper Franconia) and a Soviet military site (Jüterbog in the former district of Potsdam).

Key results of the study are outlined below:
* From 1955 on, neither the American nor the Soviet military presence in
Germany can be correctly characterized as a military occupation according to the more precise criteria of international law. However, the term troop deployment is hardly appropriate in view of the fact that the Allies’ special rights remained in effect and in the face of obvious asymmetries in the relations between each of the two German states and their respective superpower. Instead, the constellation in divided Germany between 1955 and 1990 is best described, both politically and legally, as a form of "occupation in a broader sense".

* Analysis of Soviet and American troop deployment regimes reveals some significant differences but also a number of parallels, including the range of points at which encounters and friction in relations with the local population occurred, the formal legal status of foreign troops, and stereotypes in reciprocal perceptions. The two case studies, however, highlight the differences quite drastically. While the spectrum of problems in
Bamberg and Jüterbog was virtually identical, their duration, intensity, and especially the manner in which they were dealt with in each society were fundamentally different.

Bamberg grievances were generally discussed openly and usually made public; this practice can be viewed as the first and probably most important step in negotiating a mutual, German-American solution. Although such solutions were not always—and not always immediately—satisfactory, in the long run, nearly all problems were resolved, which led to a significant improvement in German-U.S. relations. By the mid-1960s, for example, maneuver damage had more or less ceased to be an issue. By the early 1970s, complaints in the vicinity of American barracks about excessive noise and deviant behavior by soldiers dropped sharply. Since 1990, Bamberg residents outside the immediate neighborhood of the U.S. garrison hardly notice the presence of American troops, since soldiers and military vehicles are almost completely absent from public view.

In Jüterbog, in contrast, problems with the Soviet military remained throughout the period studied and these issues were, in comparison with the situation in Bamberg, much more drastic and in part quite literarily more explosive, for example, with respect to the threat of injuries due to target practice.

* The image of the hegemonic powers and their armed forces was quite ambivalent. Among the older generation of Germans who had been adults during World War II, a feeling of cultural superiority towards "materialistic" Americans or "uncivilized" Russians was widespread. Nonetheless, each hegemonic power was portrayed as a role model for the respective German society. In the East, the discourse of Sovietization was imposed from above; in West German society, the impact of "self-Americanization" was at least as significant as educational and cultural policies implemented by the government. In the 1940s and 1950s, "Amerika" became a model linked to ideas like affluence, democracy, and technological progress, especially for youths and young adults. The Soviet model was by far less attractive, a fact that had its effect on perceptions of foreign troops. GIs, as ambassadors of the "American way of life" and representatives of an acknowledged, democratically legitimated political system, enjoyed considerable social appeal among West German youths, at least until the late 1960s. The same can hardly be said for Soviet soldiers, who lived under Spartan conditions in the East. The East German political system headed by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and installed by the Soviet Union remained, in the eyes of a large part of the population, a heteronomous regime and, consequently, the Soviet troops were perceived as "occupiers" rather than friends and allies. Older adults in the West harbored the same sentiments towards U.S. soldiers, who were regularly accused of exhibiting an "occupier mentality" [Besatzermentalität] in newspaper articles or complaint letters written when incidents occurred. As the Bamberg case study reveals, such accusations became extremely rare by the early 1970s, with the establishment of successful forms of German-American cooperation. But these differences between East and West were shaped in decisive ways by differences in each state’s formal and de facto legal status.

Although similar rules, provisos, and limitations to German sovereignty existed in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the fact that West Germany was a state governed by the rule of law—and the implications this had for foreign troops stationed there—proved to be a decisive difference. In the West, state authorities and a critical public were keenly aware of whether legal practices conformed to agreements reached with the Allies. In the East, the SED regime’s chronic lack of political legitimacy and an unrealistically positive representation of the Soviet model meant that the position of the East German authorities in negotiating with the Soviet hegemon was always weak. This promoted the tendency of Soviet forces to operate arbitrarily as a state within a state on GDR territory and to disregard existing international agreements and the sovereign status, which the
USSR had formally pledged to uphold.

* The special legal status of foreign troops stationed in
Germany was also reflected in their living conditions. The daily lives of Soviet soldiers and most American soldiers and civilian employees and their families were largely shaped by the fact that they spent most of their time separated from the German population in barracks and residential areas that created a kind of parallel world. Their largely autonomous infrastructure and special legal status meant that these areas were "primary neighborhoods", in which residents could maintain their own national way-of-life. But daily life in these towns also meant there were numerous opportunities for Germans and members of the foreign military power to meet; such encounters could be private in nature or within the realm of commercial, institutional, or official/representative affairs. Closer contact Germans and American or Soviet soldiers and civilians tended in many cases to intensify the perception of foreignness. Such encounters were in effect an opportunity to experience first-hand the structural foreignness that came with language barriers and differences in mentality, despite official rhetoric extolling “steadfast” friendship. For most soldiers, visual contact with the German population, for example, in restaurants and bars or during festivities held to celebrate German-American or German-Soviet friendship, was the only contact they ever had. Opportunities for establishing and cultivating personal contacts differed considerably. Personal contacts, friendships, amorous relationships, and binational marriages between Germans and American soldiers became a normal part of life in West German garrison towns and often endured after the soldiers’ tour of duty in Germany ended. Such relationships between Soviet soldiers and the citizens of the GDR were the exception, due both to the restrictive policies of the Soviet military leadership and the soldier’s limited social attractiveness. This contrast was reflected to a certain extent in the economic role of the troops for the two garrison towns studied in this project. American soldiers were welcomed as consumers, whereas their Soviet colleagues formed a labor reservoir that was drawn on almost regularly, especially by local agricultural cooperatives that faced periodic personnel shortages.

* In contrast to the private sphere, similarities in East and West were much greater in the realm of official relations maintained chiefly to serve propaganda goals. This is most obvious when two phenomena are examined: the establishment in various West German cities of institutions called "Amerikahaus" and their counterparts in the East, which were devoted to German-Soviet friendship; and the annual events—festivals, discussions, cultural and sporting events—organized within the context of German-American friendship weeks and German-Soviet friendship months. In the West, representations of the
United States and its armed forces disseminated in this context generally avoided any critical comments. In the East, SED propaganda about the Soviet Union and its army was inflated ideological whitewashing and decidedly doctrinaire and ritualized. For Germans living in the vicinity of Soviet military installations, there was a nearly unbridgeable gap between propaganda images of the "noble Soviet personality" and their practical experience with Soviet soldiers in day-to-day life. This gap became most obvious when institutions had to cooperate to solve concrete problems such as maneuver damage. Priorities, institutional practices, and views on legal issues diverged and regularly lead to resentment on both sides. Rather than negotiating with the GDR’s state authorities as equal partners, the Soviets treated them as if they were supplicants. Caught in their own propaganda and their fundamental dependence on Soviet protection, GDR representatives generally accepted this role.

West German authorities enjoyed a much stronger position in their negotiations with the American military. This strength was derived from the fact that the
U.S. military had, for all intents and purposes, recognized West Germany and its state authorities as equal partners, with whom they wished to find constructive solutions to common problems in the interests of both parties. On the level of local and state [Bundesland] governments, this was reflected institutionally in the creation of the deutsch-amerikanischen Beratungsausschüsse [German-American Advisory Committees]. West German authorities were often supported by quite critical reporting in the German media, which proved an effective means of stimulating their American counterparts’ willingness to cooperate. In contrast to the situation in East Germany, where frustration over the realities of life in Soviet garrison towns all too often contradicted official propaganda, the fact that conflicts were played out in public in West Germany testifies to the successful functioning of German-American relations in the Federal Republic.

* World War II and the Cold War shaped public perceptions of troops stationed in divided
Germany, as well as the troops’ self-understanding and status. These two historical periods were significant determinants of collective notions about “Amis” and “Russen” and of standpoints on American and Soviet military presence. But the legacy of World War II weighed much more heavily on East German society and the Soviet soldiers stationed there than on West Germans and GIs. The high numbers of Soviet citizens who died in the war, widespread rape and plundering perpetrated by Soviet soldiers after the war ended, and the official culture of memory established in East Germany and the USSR all contributed to this effect.

World War II was much less important as a point of reference for American troops in the Federal Republic in the post-war era. By the time the Paris Agreements determining the status of West Germany went into force in 1955, the American military presence was being shaped by the necessities of the Cold War. West Germany was increasingly seen as an equal partner in defending the West from what was perceived as the Soviet threat. Although the German fear of "the Russians" was also directly linked to the mental legacy of World War II, it was now framed in Cold War terms as the "Communist" threat to "freedom". And while the sovereignty of both German states was limited considerably until 1990 by Allied rights and the legal status of Allied occupying forces, so that it would be incorrect to refer to foreign troops in the East and West as merely "stationed" there, the Soviet military presence continued to be perceived as an occupation until the GDR ceased to exist, whereas the American forces had managed to lose this image by the early 1960s.

This study was completed in December 2008 and submitted to the
University of Potsdam in March 2009 as a "Habilitation" thesis.