Heidelberg, after the troops
The departure of 20,000 US troops from the university town left a hole. Innovative locals found ways to fill it
The lights no longer work in the sports hall of Patton Barracks, so building manager Heiko Müller uses bricks to prop open the doors and let in the sun. It reveals fraying basketball nets and blue gym lockers scarred with rust. The whistle blew on the hall’s last basketball game five years ago.
For nearly 70 years after the second world war, Heidelberg was the US army’s headquarters in Europe, and a Nato command centre. But in 2009 the Pentagon decided to reduce the number of American troops in Europe and pull out of the German city entirely. By September 2013, they were all gone.
Their departure stripped Heidelberg of a significant chunk of its identity. It had long been known for its medieval university and castle, but the link with the army had become inescapable: 20,000 soldiers and their associates had lived in a city of only 150,000 people, occupying more than 180 hectares – roughly the same size as the city’s historical centre.
“There was a lot of fear when the Americans moved out,” says longterm Heidelberger Carmen James. “They were a big employer and part of our way of life.” The mayor, Eckart Würzner, predicted their loss would cost the city €50m ($58m) each year, and even flew to Washington to try to persuade the US to change its mind.
The army’s departure did lead to job losses, and to a fall in trade, but gradually the city realised that the space left by the army was an opportunity.
Heidelberg’s university ranked highly for medical and life sciences, and was home to the software multinational SAP. But graduates would regularly leave for better jobs elsewhere, and the city’s nascent technology sector was having trouble getting off the ground, because it lacked space – for research to be spun out into companies, for startups to expand and for employees to live affordably.
The departure of the US army changed that. One victory came when a young company, Ameria, which develops digital shop floors, was considering leaving – until it was offered space in the former officers’ casino at Patton Barracks. The digs suited Ameria, and in 2021 it will move into new offices that connect to pop-up shops where it can test ideas on customers.
“There was no space like this in Heidelberg, or anywhere really,” says Ameria’s Johannes Tröger. “Innovation needs space, and the former Patton Barracks are the space to create a vibrant community of startups, established companies and corporations.”
The US withdrawal also came before the global migrant crisis, when hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Germany. Many cities struggled to accommodate the new arrivals – but Heidelberg had Patrick Henry Village, a 100-hectare site that once housed 16,000 soldiers. It became the registration centre for all refugees to the state of Baden-Württemberg. Twice as many refugees have since come through the
On guard A soldier at the US HQ in Heidelberg, in 2002
Empty tables The officers’ mess, now the Patrick Henry Village refugee centre