Col. Les Corbett runs what he calls “the biggest flea market in southern Germany.” Corbett is commander of the Canadian Forces base in Lahr, home for a quarter of a century to the men, women and fighting machines that represented Canada’s commitment to help defend Western Europe during the tense days of the Cold War. But these days Corbett’s job is more prosaic. As Canada prepares to pull out after four decades with NATO in Europe, he is in charge of shutting down a Canadian community on the edge of the Black Forest that at its peak swelled to almost
20,000 people. He is moving thousands of tons of equipment back to Canada and selling off what is no longer needed—everything from teapots to typewriters.
There is even the occasional odd discovery, such as the complete chemical warfare suit for a horse left over from a time when the French army occupied the base. It is a job as big as packing up Corbett’s home town of Pembroke, Ont., and shifting it thousands of miles across the ocean. “Basically,” he said last week, “it’s like closing down a small town and relocating it back to Canada.”
For the forces, shutting down Lahr and their other German base at nearby Baden-Söllingen is the greatest logistical operation since Canadian troops returned to Europe in the early 1950s as the country’s biggest, and costliest, commitment to the NATO alliance. More importantly, withdrawing from Europe, along with bringing Canadian peacekeepers home from Cyprus after 29 years there, is the most dramatic measure taken by the defence department in its struggle to cut costs and adjust to life in the slimmed-down post-Cold War era. For the people of Lahr, a picturesque town of
38,000 surrounded by dark wooded hills
(twin city: Belleville, Ont.), the departure of the Canadians is little short of a disaster. Already hit hard by Germany’s sharp recession, they face the sudden loss of a quarter of their population. Some businesses have already folded, many others are struggling and local people worry openly that migrants from Eastern Europe will move into apartments vacated by well-behaved and well-paid Canadians. In his office in Lahr’s elegant town hall, a weary-looking Mayor Werner Dietz acknowledges that, aside from wartime, “this is the biggest challenge in the city’s history.”
This week, the city, the state and Ger-
many’s federal government are giving the Canadian Forces their official farewell in Lahr. German Defence Minister Volker Rühe and his Canadian counterpart, Thomas Siddon, were to watch a German fife and drum corps band and torchbearers performing an elaborate nighttime ceremony known as a “Grand Tattoo.” The Baden base will not officially close until the end of this year and Lahr is not scheduled to shut down completely until August, 1994, but by then there will be so few Canadians left that it would be difficult to gather an audience. Already, only
2,000 Canadian Armed Forces personnel remain in Germany, down from their 1990 peak of about 8,000. On July 30, the Maple Leaf flag will be lowered to signal the formal closure of the headquarters of Canadian Forces Europe. By the end of this summer, just 600 military men and women will be left—and their sole task will be to pack up the remaining equipment and turn the bases over to German authorities.
By last week, much of the Lahr base resembled a ghost town. At the compound that houses the Forces’ headquarters building, almost everything was shut up tight: the supermarket where homesick families stocked up on Export A cigarettes, Canadian snacks and newspapers from Toronto and Montreal; the outdoor restaurant that served as a gathering place; and even the Rhine Valley Curling Club. “This was Main Street Canada here,” said Lt.-Col. Ralph Coleman, the Forces’ % main spokesman in Lahr. I “Now, it’s all over, it’s finished.” For Coleman, a Sec| ond World War movie buff, it Q is an eerie echo of one of his favorite films, Twelve O’Clock High, in which an American airman returns to a deserted airfield in Britain and hears the ghostly voices of his wartime comrades: “I get that feeling now, walking around all these empty buildings.” For Lahr and Baden, the Canadians’ departure could hardly have come at a worse time. When the Canadians were at full strength, they pumped $400 million a year into the local economy—buying expensive German cars and stereos, filling many of the towns’ bars and restaurants and paying sometimes exorbitant rents for scarce housing. When Ottawa announced in September, 1991, that the bases would close, local officials seemed
confident that the booming economy of the Rhine Valley could absorb the loss. The unemployment rate was then just three per cent and Lahr quickly set up a task force to consider how to convert the airfield and vacant buildings to civilian use. Now, the picture is quite different: Germany is in its deepest recession since the war, unemployment is at eight per cent and rising and the city cannot find companies willing to move in. “If this had happened five years ago, I would have had a lot less sleepless nights,” Dietz said ruefully.
Already, local people complain that migrants from the east are moving in. Most are ethnic Germans from Russia, Poland and elsewhere, who under German law have an automatic right to settle in Germany and take immediate advantage of the country’s generous social legislation. Often, however, they speak little German and are regarded essentially as foreigners, with their large families and unfamiliar customs. For the straitlaced burghers of tidy Lahr, the great fear is that several thousand migrants may soon flood in, bringing with them a jump in petty crime and what local people regard as disorderly behavior—like hanging out their washing at the wrong times.
All this has made Germans positively nostalgic for the Canadians who have lived among them for 40 years in Baden and 26 years in Lahr. They once griped about Canadians allegedly poor driving habits and their
ignorance of the strict German rules that forbid doing chores like washing cars or cutting lawns on Sundays and holidays. A small minority of left-wingers and Green Party activists also protested against the presence of the military as well as noise and pollution from low-flying CF-18 jet fighters. Now, however, there is genuine regret about the departure—as well as more selfish motives. “The more Canadians left, the more people realized how much money they brought in,” says Ursula Kearney, a Lahr nurse who married a Canadian soldier, Sgt. Richard Kearney of St. John’s, Nfld. “Once it comes to someone’s pocketbook, they become a lot friendlier.”
For the military, leaving Germany eliminates a plum posting that gave tens of thousands of soldiers and airmen an opportunity to travel in Europe and work closely with other NATO forces. Under the plan that Ottawa announced in 1991, prompted by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the elimination of the strategic threat to Western Europe, Canada would have left a mobile task force of 1,100 troops in Germany. But in the February, 1992, federal budget, even that was eliminated. Once Lahr finally closes next summer, the only Canadian troops based permanently in Europe will be 150 attached to an AWACS air surveillance contingent in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and another 250 posted to several NATO staff offices. Canada remains committed to keeping a 5,000-member brigade and two CF-18 squadrons ready
to come to the defence of Europe at short notice. But independent analysts have no doubt that closing the bases is a fundamental change in Canada’s military posture. “In the strategic sense, it’s the end of an era,” says Alex Morrison, director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies in Toronto. “When you keep 1,100 troops over there and you want to send more, it’s a matter of reinforcing.
When you don’t have any, it’s a brand new decision.”
In public, at least, senior officers loyally support the decision to close Lahr and Baden, which at their peak strength cost Canadian taxpayers $1.2 billion a year.
Corbett, the Lahr base commander, noted that all Western powers are slashing their troop strengths in Europe. The United States, in particular, is closing dozens of bases in Germany and cutting back to just 100,000 troops there from a late-1980s peak of 350,000. “The threat is no longer mechanized forces, but small brushfires,” said Corbett. “From a Canadian point of view, that does not require troops stationed here.”
Canada dispatched troops from LahrBaden to the Persian Gulf in 1990 and to Croatia last year, but planners say that they could have been sent directly from Canada. Other analysts, though, maintain that withdrawing from Europe will have subtler diplo-
matic, strategic and even trade effects. Canada, says Morrison, is leaving a vital area of influence at a time when the government is searching for ways to assert a leadership role in the new era of international peacekeeping. And in NATO, he says, Ottawa’s influence will
certainly shrink, although Canada remains a full member of the alliance. Said Morrison: “People are saying that we can’t expect to have high-level officers at NATO headquarters if we don’t have troops over there.”
In Lahr and Baden, however, the concerns are more parochial. About 350,000 Canadians—military personnel, their families and civilians—have lived in the area over the past four decades. Thousands of Germans have visited Canada on “friendship flights” from Lahr’s airfield, and some have seen their daughters marry Canadian soldiers and go off to raise families in Canada. Some local people are working to make sure that the long connection does not disappear entirely next year. Canadians who have stayed on in Lahr say that they will try to keep the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion open. Others are seeking money to open a permanent Canada House in Lahr to serve as a centre for information and future contacts—as g well as a reminder of the Canadian presence there. “Just because the military leaves, it doesn’t mean everything should disappear,” says Reiner Hildebrandt, president of the city’s 175-member German-Canadian Friendship Club. “We want the links to survive.” Whether they succeed or not, l^ahr will be coping with the aftershocks of its Canadian experience for many years to come.
ANDREW PHILLIPS in Lahr with E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa
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