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Germany

Germany's Population Problems No Longer Taboo

The German government wants to combat the falling birth rate with better family policies. Tainted by controversial associations during the Nazi era, the issue was all but taboo until a few years ago.

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Germany has a birth rate of just 1.4 percent

Grappling with a shrinking and graying population, Germany sometimes looks with envy towards its neighbor, France. Since the end of the 1990s, France has been enjoying a baby boom.

The French newspaper Le Figaro recently proudly proclaimed: "We are 62 million French." Indeed, the French population is growing while the German one is declining. Today, France has the highest birth rate in Europe with more births every year than Germany.

As opposed to that Germany, which is home to 82 million people, has a birth rate of 1.4 percent, making it one of the most rapidly shrinking populations in the world.

Frankreich will Wunsch nach drei Kindern fördern

France took further measures this year to encourage women to have three children

There are several reasons for the differences in the demographic structures of Europe's two largest countries, the policies practiced by both governments being just some of them.

Troubled past

But what remains indisputable is that pursuing an active population policy in Germany was frowned upon after World War II and the end of the Nazi regime.

The opposite was true in France: President Charles de Gaulle demanded 12 million babies from his countrymen- and women -- something that the French didn't in the least bit find offensive.

But the same was unthinkable in Germany at the end of the Nazi era, said Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for World Population and Global Development.

"When it came to demography, the German debate oriented itself very much on the past. And our Nazi past had loaded the topic with terms like race research, race ideology and that's why there was a great reluctance to even deal with the issue after World War II," Klingholz said.

Misuse of the issue by the Nazis

This hesitancy to tackle demographic issues is evident in all formerly fascist-ruled countries in Europe because family policies were a means to an end there: the own nation was meant to be highly bred in order to dominate others.

1940: Befehl zur Kinder-Landverschickung Kalenderblatt

The Nazis offered perks to German mothers to have children

In a radio address broadcast on Mother's Day in 1935, Hitler's Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, left no doubt about the murderous racial delusion propagated by the Nazis.

"You all know very well how worrying the falling birth rate of the German people since the turn of the century has been: how the sad fact of wrong selection and the mixing of races began to have an impact because the honest families in all social classes had fewer children while those less worthwhile and the bastardly uninhibitedly multiplied or irresponsible German people coupled with alien races," Frick said.

The Nazis used demographics as a tool for their own purpose: German mothers with more than three children were honored with a special "Mother's cross" starting 1938. Adolf Hitler described motherhood as a "battlefield of the woman" because German women were meant to give birth to German soldiers.

With a combination of economic perks and ideological elevation of the role of the mother, the Nazis tried to inspire German women to have as many children as possible.

Postwar Germany wary of population policy

It was this delusion of the Nazis for a racially pure population that later made family policy a taboo topic, said Klingholz.

"German politicians of the postwar era actually consciously kept their distance from the issue," said Klingholz.

"Konrad Adenauer once said 'people are going to get kids anyway.' Helmut Schmidt said that politics had nothing to seek in people's beds, even Helmut Kohl and the Schröder government in the beginning didn't want to get involved in family issues," said Klingholz, adding that the issue, for many, still reeked too strongly of Nazi associations.

Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen, family minister in Merkel's cabinet is a mother of seven herself

It's only recently that Germans have begun to debate the issue of a falling birth rate and raise questions about whether the greater desire of the French to have children has anything to do with better child care opportunities in the neighboring country.

Debate free of ideology

According to Reiner Klingholz, the current debate in Germany has its roots in tangible material reasons.

"The debate only kicked off properly in Germany about two years ago, and interestingly had to do with the crisis of the social systems," Klingholz said. At the same time he pointed out that the present crisis of German social systems still has nothing to do with demographic factors.

"That is still to come, and only in the year 2015 when the last baby-boomer generations retire" will the results be felt, he said.

According to Klingholz, there is a huge advantage in the current debate, particularly in the past weeks and months.

"Today family policies are discussed almost entirely free of ideology: the importance of all-day child care in kindergartens or in schools is suddenly acknowledged by everyone, and suddenly it's possible."

Though this new openness and neutrality regarding population policies is a positive development in Germany, there is a flip-side to it.

Like with most other political topics, there is a tendency to emotionally heat up the topic. Many commentators and sections of the media paint a bleak picture of German society in graphic terms words like "Geburtenkollaps (birth collapse) and "Gebärstreik (birthing-strike.)"

It's prompted scientists such as Jay Winter at the American University of Yale, to urge Germans to "lower the ideological temperature of these debates."

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