$600M Grafenwöhr housing project is on site of medieval village

A scene from Netzaberg, Germany, early in the 20th century.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 18, 2006

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The site of a new town here for U.S. soldiers and their families was once a medieval village and later boasted a guest house where tourists came to watch the Bavarian army train on a nearby range.

The Installation Management Agency-Europe last month announced that a private contractor, Nordica, would build 830 houses for military families at the new town of Netzaberg — a block of land inside Grafenwöhr training area that administratively will be part of the nearby town of Eschenbach once the houses are built.

The project is part of a $600 million expansion of the Grafenwöhr training area that will see the base grow from a 1,000-soldier garrison with 2,000 military family members (according to an April, 2005 census) to a brigade-size facility with 4,500 active-duty soldiers and 7,000 family members.

Today the only buildings at Netzaberg, which is on top of a small pine tree-covered hill above the training area, are workers’ huts and the foundations of elementary and middle schools that will open for soldiers’ children in 2008.

However, records held by the Grafenwöhr Military Museum show Netzaberg was inhabited from medieval times, probably by potato farmers. And when the Bavarian army started training at Grafenwöhr in 1910, a guest house opened at Netzaberg to host tourists who came to watch the artillery.

The guest house, named Der Gasthof Zur Shönen Aussicht — which translates as: “the guest house with a beautiful view” — featured a telescope that guests could use to watch artillery troops at work and rounds explode in an impact area below.

The owner placed advertisements in a newspaper published in Weiden, the nearest large town, offering people the chance to see “sharp shooting.”

In those days training would have been a colorful spectacle with the Bavarian troops clad in blue uniforms and spiked helmets, museum curator Olaf Meiler said.

One of the guns that was fired at Grafenwöhr in those days, a 1905 Leichte Feldhaubitze howitzer and its 76 mm shells, are on display at the museum. Such guns were drawn by horses while the crew rode standing up on foot plates on the front of the guns, Meiler said.

Netzaberg was demolished in the 1930s when the training area was expanded to allow Germany’s new tanks more area to maneuver.

It was only one of dozens of villages and hamlets that were evacuated to make way for the tanks and artillery.

When the training area was created, in 1908, 300 people moved from villages inside the danger zone. By the 1930s 57 villages and hamlets had been evacuated. Almost 4,000 people left their homes, swelling the populations of nearby communities. Grafenwöhr’s population, for example, went from 900 in 1908 to 4,000 by the late 1930s, Meiler said.

The last people to live inside the training area were refugees who reoccupied some of the abandoned settlements after World War II. But when U.S. training ramped up during the Cold War in the 1950s, the refugees had to move, he said.

In summer, Meiler runs monthly tours of old towns inside the training area. The tours are popular with people who were born there or whose ancestors lived there, he said.

Most of the abandoned towns were farming communities, but there are sites of medieval mines, a brewery and a glass factory inside the training area, he said.

One of the most popular town sites to visit is Hopfenohe, where there are ruins of a 14th-century church. Langenbruck was another important village in the training area. Its population resettled at Vilseck, where the 2nd Cavalry Regiment Stryker Brigade will arrive in summer, Meiler said.

Tours of the training area also stop at the Wolfschutzen Kappelle, which commemorates the place where the last wolf in the district was shot in the 17th century. The tours also visit artillery observation towers overlooking Grafenwöhr’s main impact area and the cemetery at another abandoned town, Haag, where there are more than 100 graves.

The foundations of new U.S. elementary and middle schools rise on a site that was once home to medieval potato farmers and a guest house where tourists watched the Bavarian army train at Grafenwöhr, Germany.