A museum exhibit opened here Thursday with a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army’s occupation of Germany at the end of World War I, a period in the interwar years that historians said is often forgotten.
Held at Hachenberg’s Landschaftsmuseum, the ceremony included speeches from Helen Patton, granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, and Maj. Gen. John Williams, mobilization assistant to the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
While it highlighted the successes of the U.S. presence in Germany over the past century, it comes amid tensions between the two countries. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized Germany and other European NATO allies, who he has said rely too heavily on America’s military might. In July, a YouGov poll found that 42 percent of Germans wanted U.S. forces out of their country.
At Friday’s event, U.S. officials emphasized the continued importance of the partnership between the two nations.
“We were here and helped settle the peace following WWI. We departed for a little while and we did the same thing during WWII,” said Brig. Gen. John Phillips, a staff officer with U.S. Army Europe. “(Germany’s) prosperity is our prosperity.”
The Army entered what is now Rheinland-Pfalz province to begin its four-year occupation in December 1918, after the Nov. 11 armistice that ended the fighting. The agreement also called for hundreds of thousands of U.S., French, Belgian and British troops to occupy the left bank of Germany’s Rhine River.
Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, created the U.S. Third Army for the job. This involved controlling several bridges in the occupied territory around Koblenz.
Along with crossings in the French and British sectors, the Koblenz bridgeheads would have been key to an Allied offensive should negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the Great War break down.
The Americans, nicknamed “doughboys,” made the trek from France to their zone of occupation — some marching hundreds of miles through late November into December. The exhibit showcases photos and artifacts from their arrival and occupation in Koblenz and other areas of Rheinland-Pfalz.
The ceremony provided an opportunity to reflect on those events at the end of an “ugly war,” Phillips said. It also allowed for recognition of what he called “visionary emphasis” on non-retribution, rule of law and cooperation outlined in guidelines military leaders established for troops and the local populace.
“Those visionary leaders, between 1918 and 1923, ensured that the new chapter was framed by positive and mutual respect and cooperation, for the benefit of all,” Phillips said.
Helen Patton, whose grandfather was a tank commander during the war, recalled stories her grandmother told about the occupation.
“I remember having trouble sleeping one night, and my grandmother just kept me awake until I became drowsy with her incredibly beautiful memories of a place called Koblenz,” she said.
Patton volunteered to donate a medal, to help the exhibit reach more people and remind them of how the American soldiers’ efforts affected the German people. She said the exhibit’s photos “can really inspire.”
The occupation helped “avert or stop human disaster by providing food to an ailing population,” said David Elmo, an official from the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, who spoke of American support to Germany during several challenging periods of the 20th century.
More than 33,000 American troops are currently stationed in Germany, many in Rheinland-Pfalz. More than 15 million Americans have lived in the country in the past 70 years, he said, calling it a sign of the closeness between the two countries.
The U.S. will continue to invest in European security, he said, urging stronger German defense spending — a measure Trump has repeatedly called for, but which many Germans oppose.
“We want to see a stronger Europe, a more prepared Europe and therefore a stronger trans-Atlantic alliance,” Elmo said. Defense spending “is not a burden [but] an investment that pays off in both the short and the long term … because security provides peace, stability, and we need it for economies to flourish.”
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