On Wednesday, Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière presented his plans to close and downsize German military bases across the country. Part of an ongoing plan to streamline the Bundeswehr into a lean professional force, the closures were "inevitable," he said.
With military personnel set to be reduced from 250,000 to 185,000, some 31 bases will be closed, while another 90 will be pared down to 50 percent of their posts or less. The cutbacks are the next step in reforms set in motion by de Maizière's now disgraced predecessor, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. They will affect 10 of the country's 16 states, the hardest hit being Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland.
De Maizière acknowledged that the "bitter" closures would take a toll on the surrounding communities, many of which rely on both civilian jobs provided by the Bundeswehr and the economic contributions of the soldiers and their families. But aside from a few isolated complaints by local mayors and residents, the storm of criticism expected in reaction to the reforms hasn't materialized.
Known as an adroit politician, the defense minister's extensive negotiations with state and community officials over the delicate issue seem to have paid off.
"We have been significantly affected," Erwin Sellering, governor of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, told daily Hamburger Abendblatt on Thursday. Still, Sellering said he had "the impression that the stationing concept was decided based on objective considerations and that it is fair." His state will lose some 3,600 soldiers.
Communities Want Funding
Meanwhile, Rhineland-Palatinate governor Kurt Beck said he was "absolutely in agreement" with the cutbacks. Hellmut Königshaus, the commissioner for the armed forces in Germany's parliament, also praised the proposals. De Maizière's plans had given soldiers' interests a "special weight," he told daily Rheinische Post on Thursday.
Just how the affected communities might handle the new plans will be discussed at a regular meeting of state governors on Thursday in the northern city of Lübeck. Military leaders, as well as regional officials such as Bavaria's governor Horst Seehofer, have said that the federal government should provide financial aid to ease the structural transitions. De Maizière, however, has insisted his budget can't accommodate these demands.
German newspapers on Thursday were also largely in agreement with the Bundeswehr reform plans despite the local hardship likely to follow.
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Thomas de Maizière is not the father of this reform, which his predecessor (Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg) set in motion. But he is the manager of the new adjustment, and the experienced bureaucrat is fulfilling his duties efficiently and thoroughly. Not every detail of the restructuring has been as radical as Guttenberg planned. But de Maizière found a consensus with the 16 state governors that is based on solid administration and discreet political management. In a government characterized by many mistakes in workmanship, this is no small thing."
"Still, on paper there is only the concept of a smaller, more frugal, but nevertheless more efficient Bundeswehr. Whether the promised operational abilities will be reached is far from certain. From cutting personnel and maintaining equipment quality to financing, a number of tasks await manager de Maizière."
The center-left Berlin-based Der Tagesspiegel writes:
"A major employer is leaving (31 municipalities) -- and with it the people that have shopped, built and become a part of society there. Families of soldiers will have to pack their bags, and careers are ending. That's all sad, but also inevitable. The fact that the eastern part of the country will be less affected than the west is justifiable because many of the bases in the east are newer and in better shape than their older counterparts in the western states. There don't appear to be any partisan or regional imbalances (in the decision), and complaints from state-level politicians are par for the course."
"De Maizière is taking advantage -- and this is particularly visible at the highest levels of the armed forces command -- of the opportunity to shrink in order to merge entire areas that were still divided across the country only for historical reasons. Even in the age of e-mail and video conferencing, that will save on money, nerves and travel times."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Shakespeare once wrote, 'There's not a soldier of us all, that, in the thanksgiving before meat, do relish the petition well that prays for peace.' For decades, it was the Bundeswehr's mission to preserve peace and prevent war. Even so, one hears the lamentations over the base closures announced by Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and feels reminded of those 16th century soldiers who were robbed of work in times of peace. However painful the loss of some barracks and the familiarity they brought may be, the armed forces do not exist to solve the infrastructure problems of their host communities."
"The amount of money the Bundeswehr will save on equipment alone will be far more momentous than from the closure of its sites. The overall concept is well thought out, and although people in the hardest-hit regions like the state of Schleswig-Holstein might see it differently, it tried to avoid the worst hardships. Historically, many people used to pray for fewer soldiers. In Lower Bavaria, candles are now being lit to thank God for the soldiers that remain."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The base closure plan that Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière presented on Wednesday was a solid one. On the one hand, it addresses the new requirements facing the armed forces. On the other, it takes into account the fact that troops have always played a role in regional economic development. Even though Schleswig-Holstein, tiny Saarland and Baden-Württemberg were hard hit, the minister did distribute the burdens of troop and base reductions across the entire republic in a relatively fair manner."
"Protests against de Maizière's decisions have been kept to a minimum, thanks to the minister's good preparations. However, it's a different story in the affected communities. They would be wise to remain skeptical of their state governments' promises of generous compensation. If previous instances of base closures are any indication, then they shouldn't hold their breath waiting for real help."
The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"It worked. No state has really been disadvantaged; a revolt is not to be expected. Is the biggest reform of this legislative period then a complete success?"
"Certainly not. With his politically meaningful announcement of base closures, the defense minister has carried out the project of his predecessor Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. But it will fall short of one target -- making the Bundeswehr more effective for foreign missions."
"Because one thing is clear: Posts and personnel are only being cut superficially by thousands. In reality the flexibility of the troops will increase. In the future more soldiers will be constantly available for missions. And a look at the supply list shows that lighter tanks like the Puma will replace heavier machines. The goal of national defense is giving way to the goal of mission readiness."
"Germany's army is now an intervention army. That's a historic break. It's bizarre that it's happening in the same year that the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan begins -- the end of a foreign mission that is seen as a failure by many in Germany and with today's knowledge would never be allowed to take place. Where is the acknowledgment of this insight in de Maizière's reform? Nowhere, unfortunately."