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Swords and Ploughshares in Germany

What was once East Germany's challenge will shortly become an issue for the whole of Germany.

In 1990, East Germany had to handle the delicate issue of the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This was no small question. There were 380,000 Soviet troops stranded by the fall of the Wall and the unification of Germany. When I was in Berlin in spring 1990, you could already buy the fur hats and insignia and various other military paraphernalia of the Red Army piled on the ground outside Checkpoint Charlie. More ominously, the soldiers were also selling their weaponry on the black market to arms dealers.

It took four years to negotiate the withdrawal of the last Soviet soldiers. "The withdrawal of more than half a million Russian troops and dependents from Germany since 1991 is described by historians as the biggest pullout ever by an army not defeated in battle," wrote Stephen Kinzer in The New York Times in 1994. "Along with soldiers and civilians of the former Soviet armed forces, Russia has removed more than 1,300 planes and helicopters, 3,600 artillery pieces, 4,200 tanks and 8,200 armored vehicles. It has withdrawn 677,000 tons of ammunition, including an unknown number of nuclear-tipped tactical shells."

The Soviets also left behind large tracts of land they had used as military bases and testing grounds.

"The nicest one is right here between Berlin and Potsdam," David MacBryde told me in an interview in February. "It is a large heath area that was first used by a military in 1713. There are pictures of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse out there. The Red Army took this area when they captured Berlin, and it had been a major tank exercise area for the Soviets, right across from the British and the French sectors. There was a small non-profit environmental club out there that had already existed before the Wall came down. They had convinced the Red Army base commander, during bird-breeding season, not to do tank exercises in this particular area. So there had been some environmental efforts there. Also, it's on the west side of West Berlin. For regional and city planning reasons, a lot of folks wanted to prevent urban sprawl there after the Wall came down. So there were a lot of reasons to turn that large area into a nature preserve, which was very successfully done. Now it's a foundation."

When I met David MacBryde in West Berlin in 1990, he was working on a variety of projects connected to military conversion and economic development. He still lives in Berlin and still follows these issues. He looks back at that critical period of 1989-1991 as a missed opportunity to retire the two-bloc system and create an entirely different security structure in Europe - conversion on a grand scale. He shares with me an article from The Wall Street Journal from March 12, 1990 entitled "'European Peace Order' presses NATO" that describes the support from the foreign ministries in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union for a new European peacekeeping structure. NATO eventually sidelined the proposed alternatives, and those three countries disappeared off the map.

But the experience that eastern Germany went through in the early 1990s may prove useful for the united Germany as it faces significant cuts in U.S. military presence in the country. By 2015, major U.S. bases in Heidelberg, Mannheim, Bamberg, and Schweinfurt will be closed. Sequestration and further Pentagon cuts may mean even sharper reductions. What will happen to the land once occupied by the U.S. military, and what can the German government do to help out the communities so economically dependent on the bases?

Perhaps David MacBryde and his partners from eastern Germany can go back into business turning swords into ploughshares in the western part of the country.

The Interview

You've been watching the transformation of Eastern Germany over the last 23 years. I'm curious your overall impression of the transformation of East Germany.

I'm very impressed that it happened. I'm curious why the East German economy still has not quite caught up to the West German economy. Wages are lower. Productivity, the way it gets measured, is lower. One thing that struck me was that the productivity in West Germany was so high that it really didn't need the factories in East Germany, didn't really need the employment. I myself was working from project to project and was very aware of employment issues, including my own.

What does it take for a country that's been outside the market system to come into it? And can you come into a developed market very easily or not? I helped work on a whole bunch of economic development programs, including military bases that were being shut down. I participated in German efforts to use Work Project Administration (WPA) kind of programs, stuff that we did in the States in the 1930s to try to generate work.

Both in the East and the West, or just in the East?

There had been some efforts in the West before, because the economy in West Germany had actually been in somewhat of a recession. When the Wall came down, there was a tremendous economic boost in sales of West German goods. But to try to get the East German employment going, there were huge efforts to do what they call ABM (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahmen or job creation schemes). In the little non-profit I worked with, one point we had 34 very highly paid lawyers and other kinds of folks on ABM projects. This was not just a cyclical downturn. It was a structural change. So, how do you do economic stimulus programs in that context, not only in Germany, but also more generally for economies in transition?

Can you give me a little bit more in detail, for instance, about the specific conversion projects you were working on: where it worked well and what the challenges were?

The nicest one is right here between Berlin and Potsdam. It is a large heath area that was first used by a military in 1713. There are pictures of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse out there. The Red Army took this area when they captured Berlin, and it had been a major tank exercise area for the Soviets, right across from the British and the French sectors. There was a small non-profit environmental club out there that had already existed before the Wall came down. They had convinced the Red Army base commander, during bird-breeding season, not to do tank exercises in this particular area. So there had been some environmental efforts there. Also, it's on the west side of West Berlin. For regional and city planning reasons, a lot of folks wanted to prevent urban sprawl there after the Wall came down. So there were a lot of reasons to turn that large area into a nature preserve, which was very successfully done. Now it's a foundation.

So, it wasn't a conversion to an economic productivity site but a green conversion.

Yes, a green conversion. It got turned into an educational green nature preserve area. A contrast is in Southeastern Brandenburg. Mullrose was a Soviet town. Part of our group went down there, and it didn't work out. The whole area was depressed, economically depressed, and we couldn't stabilize it.

What did you hope to do in that town?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.