Commentary: US military is a part of the history of Berlin

Veterans Day 2019 coincides with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and flyers, Berlin’s history over the last century has been linked with their service and sacrifice.

More than 100,000 American soldiers died in the fields of Europe in World War I. That number more than doubled in World War II, where 277,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in the European theater out of more than 2 million who served there.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Following its surrender in World War II, Germany was divided into four sectors, one of which included the United States. When the Soviet Union blocked all land and water connections between Berlin and the non-Soviet zones in June 1948, the Cold War heated up in a hurry.

While there were 98,000 American troops in Germany at this time, only 31,000 were combat forces and only about 9000 were stationed in the western sector of Berlin. Despite the challenges posed by being far outnumbered by Soviet troops along with weather and logistics, American flyers joined pilots from

Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in saving Berlin. After the 15-month operation, the U.S. Air Force had delivered 1.7 tons of goods with a minimum number of casualties: 17 American aircraft were lost and 31 Americans killed.

In 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed to prevent East German citizens from fleeing to the West, as 1.2 million had done during the 1950s. The features of the wall included eight official border crossings, 300 watchtowers, and 20 bunkers. While the U.S. faced off against Soviet tanks at several checkpoints, the Americans acquiesced on the wall’s construction.

However, the episode convinced President John F. Kennedy to beef up the American presence in the region. Among his directives were to increase the authorized strength of the active service personnel, call for a doubling of draft calls, extend tours, and activate selected reserve units to be stationed in Germany. Over the next 28 years, 5000 East Germans successfully crossed to West Germany, though at least 200 were killed attempting to do so.

With the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader, a wave of reform began. This was followed by political and economic protests throughout the communist bloc. When Austria removed its border defenses in August 1989, it seemed only a matter of time before similar restrictions on travel would be lifted elsewhere. By November of that year, the Berlin Wall became the target of East German protesters, who on November 9th scaled it without penalty and began the process of tearing it down. All the while, thousands of U.S. troops as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization witnessed the spectacle.

Presently, there are over 35,000 American military personnel from all branches serving in Germany, the most in any European nation and second only to Japan in total U.S. overseas deployment by nation. There are 37 existing U.S. military installations in Germany though as many as 222 previous bases have been shuttered.

Still, there is contemporary criticism associated with the number of U.S. troops stationed there, the cost of keeping them there, and the level of assistance being provided by the host nation. This negativity is shortsighted considering Germany’s strategic location, its economic interaction with America, and its owning up to its past transgressions.

As we commemorate Veterans Day, we should acknowledge and thank those Americans and their families who have served in Germany and elsewhere abroad during times of peril and peace alike.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. A previous recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dr. Hoff served as DSU’s ROTC director from 1993-1999.

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