‘Little America’ provides never-before-seen snapshots of U.S. military members in West Germany

‘Little America’ exhibition at the Allied Museum shows lives of U.S. military members in former West Germany through never-before-displayed photographs. Omnified contributor Linda Mannheim brings us a snapshot.

Allied Museum / Photo Collection Provan / (c) U.S. Army

A post for Omnified by Linda Mannheim

 

 

When John Provan received a phone call from the director of the military broadcast service, the American Forces Network (AFN), asking him to take a look at some of the material they were getting rid of, he had no idea what he was going to find.

“It was all quite harmless at the beginning,” said Provan, who has a doctorate in history. “The basement was just full of records – about 600,000 to 700,000.”

Among the items, Provan found a number of discs that were used to record audio before audio tape was widely used.

“These are individual,” Provan said. “These are unique. There’s only one copy of this. And on this record it simply said: AFN Munich Nuremberg War Trials. Well excuse me, as a historian, I realized immediately what I have in my hand here.”

Provan had found a recording of one of the 20th century’s most important war crimes trial: it was the first prosecution of Nazi leaders after the war. Many such records had ended up in the National Archives, but in that moment, it became clear to Provan that not all of them had been properly stored.

That was in 1988, and Provan has been saving material ever since then. When the U.S. military shuts down a facility in Germany – and they have been shutting down many since the end of the Cold War – Provan goes to collect historic material before it can be discarded.

And, among that material, he’s discovered photographs chronicling the lives of U.S. military members and their families stationed in Germany. He’s rescued more than 320,000 prints and negatives over the years. For the first time, those photographs – 200 of them – are being displayed publicly in an exhibit at Berlin’s Allied Museum.

The exhibit, “Little America,” shows what life was like for members of the U.S. military and their families stationed in West Germany during the Cold War. Little America once consisted of more than 800 U.S. military installations across former West Germany, according to Stefanie Eisenhuth from the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, in a publication that the Allied Museum has produced for the exhibit. It’s estimated that between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, some 15-20 million American soldiers, families, and civilian employees lived in Germany.

Provan, who describes himself as an “Air Force brat” knows that world well. He was born in Ohio in 1956 but has spent most of his life in Germany. His father, a Chief Master Sergeant of the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in West Germany.

“We had life just like we did back stateside,” said Provan. “That is, we had American films, we had popcorn with salt, we had doughnuts. We had pumpkin pies, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July.”

The exhibit, said Jürgen Lillteicher, Director of the Allied Museum, allows us to “look behind the fence, because it shows the daily life in American garrisons and American stations — not only the military part, but also the daily life within the living quarters. And these are photographs were made by the Signal Corps of the Americans, but not for a German public. Let’s say for their own papers, like ‘Stars and Stripes.’”

Photos in the exhibit show some of those military families leading idealized versions of American life in Germany: in modern housing complexes built specially for the forces, with playgrounds and barbecue grills, families could settle in spacious apartments with balconies.

Not all military families lived the same kind of life though. The exhibit notes that the U.S. Army only granted soldiers above a certain pay grade financial support for their families. Many other families lived “on the economy,” in rented apartments near the military bases.

In some cases, the subjects look almost comically posed: an aproned housewife pours coffee for her uniformed husband in the kitchen of a newly constructed apartment complex in 1961 Wiesbaden. In others, late 1970s nightlife in West Germany appears to be almost electric: two men in wide-legged trousers dance with a woman dressed in white. Disco lights shimmer just beyond.

Other photos chronicle cross-cultural interactions: in 1953 Mainz, two German children wearing traditional clothing curiously look at American military equipment while an American soldier stands by.

The Allied Museum itself is housed in buildings that were once at the heart of Berlin’s American Sector in Dahlem: a library constructed for military families and a former cinema known as the Outpost Theater where troops once watched Hollywood movies and a notice above the entrance warns audiences not to enter if the American national anthem is playing. A neon sign for RIAS, the radio and television station that once broadcast to Berlin’s American Sector, glimmers in a shadowy corner.

If the relics of the GDR found in spaces like the DDR Museum — old Trabbis, restaurants recreating Ossi menus, remaining panels of the Wall — offer one version of Berlin’s divided history, the Allied Museum and its “Little America” exhibit offer another.

Provan said that he knows of no other photo collection like “Little America.” The exhibition shows a world that was only seen by the U.S. military families who lived in Germany during the Cold War – one that doesn’t exist anymore.

The “Little America” photo exhibition will be at the Allied Museum through 2019. 

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