A handful of American, British and French troops pulled out of Berlin this week, leaving the German city without foreign troops stationed on its soil for the first time since the end of World War II.
The withdrawal was a symbolic gesture reflecting a reality that has existed since 1990 when the infamous Berlin Wall came down and a divided Germany was unified into a single nation once again - an unexpected and astonishing development matched only by the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.Yet with their departure, the Western allies also made history. They removed the last traces of World War II in Europe and also closed the book on the Cold War that had swirled around Berlin for a half-century.
The departing Western allies received a fond farewell in 10 hours of celebrations in the center of Berlin. Rather than occupiers, they have been friends and liberators who - among other things - helped keep the isolated and divided city alive with a massive airlift during a year-long Soviet blockade in 1948-49.
Russian troops pulled out of Berlin and the rest of former East Germany last week in separate ceremonies. The Russian departure was polite, but the Germans over the years always saw the Soviets as totalitarian occupiers, not as friends. German authorities insisted the Russian withdrawal be done separately from that of the Western allies.
During the Cold War years, some 13,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Berlin, a city-island 100 miles deep inside East Germany and surrounded by 340,000 Soviet troops. They could hardly defend Berlin under the circumstances, but their presence meant war with the United States if they were attacked.
Fortunately, it never came to that, although there were many tense moments over the years, particularly the 1948 blockade, a 1953 workers' uprising in East Berlin that was put down by Soviet tanks and the sudden erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Icy relations between the Soviet and Western occupying powers finally began to thaw slightly in the late 1960s. The occupiers settled in a cautious but relatively stable relationship that seemed destined to last as far into the future as anyone dared predict.
But all that is gone now. When Germany was unified in 1990, Berlin essentially was no longer an occupied city. The U.S. Berlin Brigade was deactivated and a pullout began. However, at least some American, British and French troops were asked to stay until the Russians had gone.
At this week's celebration, only 85 members of the Berlin Brigade were still in the city - mostly musicians taking part in the event. Practically all of the soldiers participating in the ceremonies were German.
Unlike the departed Russians, some thousands of U.S. troops remain in Germany and other areas of Europe, but as part of NATO defenses rather than an occupation force.
As the last soldiers leave Berlin, more attention inevitably will have to be paid to the future role of NATO, the justifications for its continued existence and particularly the continued presence of American troops in a markedly different Europe.