In the German town of Eschweiler, just 25 kilometres from the Belgium border, stands the former Belgian army barracks, Camp Astrid. Spread out over 350 hectares in the Propsteier forest, the vast camp was set up after the Second World War by the occupying Belgian forces. It was created to form part of what was a large military corridor, stretching from the German Eifel on the Belgian border right up to the Sauerland in the East. From Aachen to Kassel, the corridor was 270 kilometres long and 190 wide.
Named Camp Astrid after Astrid of Sweden, the Queen Consort of the Belgians and first wife of Leopold III, the base was clearly one of the most important Belgian military camps in Germany. Up to 1,200 soldiers were stationed at Camp Astrid at any given time, most of whom belonged to 29th Logistics Battalion, a regiment responsible for the repair and maintenance of the forces’ military vehicles. Also based at Camp Astrid were the 1st Belgian Army Corps, which oversaw the administration and safekeeping of the Belgian Armed Forces ammunition. Separating the logistical side of the camp from the ammunition depot side was a wire fence. With as many as 40,000 Belgian troops serving in the military corridor in Germany, Camp Astrid’s task of keeping them armed and their vehicles in good maintenance was a large one.
In 1955, as the Cold War was starting to become a more permanent reality, West Germany joined the NATO alliance. In response, the Belgian Forces in Germany changed its mission statement from, an ‘army of occupation’ to an ‘army of protection’. From this point onwards, the Belgians worked well with the West German army, cooperating to protect the West German state from the Soviet threat to the east.
For the next 35 years, the Belgians played their part in what was the most apocalyptic military standoff the world has ever known. Worse, it was a standoff that appeared to have no peaceful conclusion, one that would continue indefinitely or finish in catastrophe. But in the late eighties things started to unexpectedly change. First came Perestroika and Glasnost, then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Belgium government reaped the peace dividend and restructured its armed forces. By 1995, all the Belgian troops in Germany had returned home and the bases were left abandoned.
In 1995, because the Belgian armed forces had worked particularly closely with the West Germans, the German Federal Minister of Defence, Volker Rühe, awarded those that had served at Camp Astrid with the German medal, 'joint work for peace and freedom'.
Since 1995, the barracks at Camp Astrid have remained empty and unoccupied. The ammunition warehouses and bunkers are still there, hidden and rotting within the forest. The city authorities in Eschweiler plan to turn the large forest into a recreation area, but to do so they would need to demolish all the former military installations. The church, casino, cinema, swimming pool, post office, shop, sports court, tennis court, gymnasium and fishing pond could all soon go, along with 50 years of physical Cold War history.