Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Army for Sale, and Everything Must Go

FUERSTENWALDE, Germany -- They come in groups, and they come alone. They come from farms and villages in eastern Germany, or from Hamburg and Munich and other big cities in the west. They come by the thousands to a drafty warehouse in the middle of nowhere for what may be the world's biggest cash-and-carry rummage bazaar.

For sale: One army, slightly used.

Outside this rural town, 32 kilometers east of Berlin, the final dismemberment of the defunct East German army has begun with a huge clearance sale.

Here, the German government is amassing the more prosaic items once needed to keep a half-million troops in fighting trim: binoculars and buckets, tarpaulins and tire pumps, shovels and signal flags -- red, green, yellow or blue. Everything must go.

On a recent day, 1,500 buyers swept through the warehouse spending 108,000 Deutsche marks ($62,000). They paid $1.40 each for 5-liter jerrycans; $3 for big glass jugs suitable for fermenting homemade wine; and $11 for leather map cases, complete with colored pencils, stopwatch and straight edge.

Perhaps the most popular items are Zeiss binoculars at $85 a pair. More than 3,000 have been sold since the warehouse opened for business Dec. 16. Like latter-day field marshals, prospective buyers squint through the lenses at the German countryside, fiddling with the focus knobs. As customers laden with booty exit through one door in the F--rstenwalde warehouse, forklift trucks haul in new crates of pickaxes and tire chains through another.

Not to be found in the inventory here are the more lethal trappings of East German military power.

Since shortly after German reunification in 1990, the Bonn government has been selling, scrapping or refurbishing the immense armory inherited from the East. That includes nearly 600 modern tanks, 295,000 tons of munitions, more than a million pistols and 4,500 tons of rocket propellant. Less than 20 percent of the arsenal is considered usable by the German military or other federal agencies. That includes 24 MiG-29 fighters and nearly 900 armored personnel carriers. Consequently, the vast majority of East German material is excess, including 26,346 rocket-propelled grenades, 549 T-72 tanks and 251 MiG-21s.

Some equipment has been demilitarized and sold abroad, including many of the East German navy's 192 ships.

German officials stress, however, that they are taking pains to prevent surplus weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Bonn was embarrassed by allegations of German assistance in helping Iraq build its chemical-weapons arsenal before the Persian Gulf War.