TCS Daily

Bye Bye, Belgians

By Jens Kyed - June 13, 2002 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- Nearly 60 years after the Second World War came to a close, and twelve years after the end of the Cold War, Belgium has decided it is time to end its occupation of German soil.

"One important page in the history of my country and its armed forces has today been turned," declared King Albert II of Belgium in the German town of Spich, as he oversaw the official ceremony that marked the beginning of the end. After nearly sixty years on German soil, time has come to call the last troops home. Last Friday the Belgian King and the German President Johannes Rau met in one of the last remaining Belgian garrisons in Germany to oversee the closure ceremony. The Belgian sovereign insisted that the departure of his troops does not mean an end to the near defence cooperation between the two states.

"Our countries are engaged in the necessary construction of a truly European defence system. That is an indispensable element in the process of making our Europe a respectable peace broker on the world stage," the Belgian King said.

The calling home of Belgian troops is not well regarded by all of the enlisted personnel. Many have married Germans, they have their families in Germany and have gotten used to the organised German way of life. Belgium has become a holiday destination, but Germany is home. The Belgian press writes that many of the officers and troops will choose to leave the army and remain living in Germany, a fact not too bothersome to the defence authorities that are seeking to reduce the number of troops and streamline the defence forces for a future very different from the past. For those who chose to return to Belgium, there will be problems finding places to live and getting settled in a new and often oddly strange environment. There is a huge cultural difference between Germans and Belgians.

In Germany the dwindling of the Belgian presence is being felt. Many Germans have come to rely on their income from providing services to the Belgian military. Their jobs are now in peril.

Having been one of a number of allied countries to be run over by the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War, Belgium - liberated by the advancing US and British troops in 1945 -- was swift to make amends after the end of the war. Like most of the Western European countries that the German army had occupied during the war, Belgium quickly decided to send troops of its own to guard the fate of the collapsed German state.

In 1946 Belgium sent 115 000 troops to guard a Belgian controlled sector of Germany that had been carved out in the area near the city Cologne and which was within the British controlled sector. The Belgian troops had a high level of autonomy, and did mostly what they pleased within their sector without much British interference. As a consequence the Belgian authorities in Brussels soon started naming the Belgian controlled sector of Germany as the tenth province of Belgium.

While the Danish and Norwegian troops -- that also were sent to control their chunk of Germany after the war -- returned home in the 1960´s as the Federal Republic of Germany was established and well on its way, the Belgians remained. From having been guarantors of security against renewed German aggression against the Belgian state, they became closely intertwined into the NATO early defence plans against a possible Soviet invasion. The large number of Soviet troops lined up in the eastern and Soviet controlled sector of post war Germany -- the German Democratic Republic -- had become the main concern of the defence organisation of the allies, of which the Federal Republic of Germany now was becoming an equal partner.

The consequence of this shift was to enlarge the Belgian sector to stretch almost all the way to the German border. This way the Belgian troops were better placed to guard the frontier of the "iron curtain". With this move, whole new communities of Belgian citizens grew up around the new garrisons. But it did not last long. In 1969 the Belgian troops were withdrawn back to the core areas of 1946 and the following years the number of troops gradually was reduced.

After the fall of communism, further reductions gradually took place. In 1995, an infantry unit was called home and the only unit to remain was the 17th mechanised brigade. Now time has come also for this unit to leave Germany. The gradual withdrawal of this last Belgian unit started already in January this year. It is however estimated that the last troops will leave Germany towards the end of 2004.

Since the end of the Cold War, the number of NATO troops in Germany has dwindled from 500 000 to 120 000 at the end of 2001. Of these, the Americans had by far the highest number of troops with 90 000, Britain had 26 000 troops, France 3 900, the Netherlands 3 000 and Belgium had 2 000 troops.



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