A Country's Changing Face On Becoming Un-German

Germany's population is growing older -- and shrinking. But the baby gap is slowly being filled by the country's immigrant population. Some predict Germans will become a minority.
Von Rose-Anne Clermont

How do you get couples in Germany to have more babies? That is a question the Berlin government has been asking itself for years -- and one the current governing coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel has seemingly made something of a priority. This week's answer? You pay them off.

On Tuesday, lawmakers decided to introduce Elterngeld -- tax money paid to parents so they can stay home with their baby. The change makes it easier for parents to stay home longer with their newborn without having to sacrifice their entire income. It also provides more incentive for the main breadwinner to remain at home. 

The change is just one of several incentives dreamed up by Germany's own hero mother, family minister and mother-of-seven Ursula von der Leyen. In a Merkel cabinet so far characterized by docility, von der Leyen has been stirring the waters as she tries to unleash a baby wave on Germany. To help families once they have children, she has proposed a "Alliance for Upbringing" -- part of which involves teaching German and Christian values as early as preschool. “Christian values like reliability, helpfulness, respect and fairness are at the basis of our society,” she said at a press conference last month.

Perhaps she is right. For now. But if current baby-making trends continue -- and there is currently no indication that they won't -- German pre-schools will soon be filling up with children who are neither German nor Christian.

Just 1.3 babies per German woman

“The German population is permanently shrinking while the foreign population is permanently growing,” says Dr. Herwig Birg, a demographic expert who just retired as head of the Institute for Population Research and Social Politics at the University of Bielefeld and authored "The Demographic Time Change." “Germans will soon become a minority in major German cities [like Berlin] in the under 40 age group."

A quick glance at birthrates in Germany highlights Birg's point. Immigrants in Germany -- those of Turkish origin make up the largest immigrant group in the country -- have about 1.9 children per woman. A modest rate given that demographic experts say a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman is necessary to maintain population stability. But it's productive compared to ethnic Germans. They only have a paltry 1.3 babies per woman. In other words, a dropping population isn't the only societal change currently going on in Germany.

Demographic statistics released in March by the Federal Statistics Office provided the most recent wake-up call. Only between 680,000 and 690,000 babies were born in Germany in 2005 -- the lowest number since World War II. And a quarter of the kids, according to a New York Times article, were born to women with immigration backgrounds.

Even more striking are some nuts and bolts statistics that have remained true in Germany since about the 1970s: Births here have registered somewhere in the mid 700,000s while deaths come in at around 850,000 according to Birg’s research in his latest book "The Missing Generation." Meanwhile, net immigration into Germany adds up to about 200,000 per year. In other words, Germans are not only dying out, but they’re slowly being replaced by non-Germans.

Dramatic effects

It's a trend that will likely only accelerate. According to projections from the Federal Office of Statistics, the country's population will shrink from its current 82 million to 70 million by 2050 assuming an annual influx of 200,000 immigrants. The population drop, combined with Germany's aging society, is likely to have dramatic effects on the country's social system and labor market.

But what to do about it? Von der Leyen's "Alliance for Upbringing" has been criticized for focusing entirely on Christian values -- her team includes both Catholic and Protestant leaders but no Muslim leaders. She has defended herself by pointing out that 73 percent of daycare centers in Germany are run by either the Catholic or Protestant church.

“There are very few Muslim daycares,” she said in an interview with Der Spiegel last week. “Of course, we have to concern ourselves with these as well, but their situation differs greatly from Christian influenced daycare.” She has also maintained that the German constitution is essentially a legal summary of the Ten Commandments.

But if she really wants to up German baby output, there is reason to believe that von der Leyen would be advised to promote Muslim values. According to the Federal Statistics Office, only 11 percent of Germans have three or more children whereas 20 percent of immigrant families produce at least a troika of toddlers.

"Religion, regardless of which, promotes children," Burhan Kesici, vice president of the Islam Federation in Berlin, says diplomatically. But then he cuts to the heart of the matter. “We’re not afraid of not having enough money for children. We believe that Allah takes care of everything.”

Adapting to realities

The trend of foreign communities expanding rapidly is not exclusive to Germany. The United States watched the Hispanic population swell by 58 percent from 1990 to 2000, making it the fastest growing minority group in the country. Much like present-day Germany, the 1990s in the US were also marked by debates about American family values and the inclusion of religious virtues in public schools. As the American population continues to become less and less white, immigration issues continue dominating the headlines.

Paradoxically, however, the US -- with 2.1 kids per woman -- has managed to avoid the low birthrates suffered by most European countries. Population studies demonstrate that the more industrialized a country is, the lower its birthrate. Most of Germany’s immigrants come from Turkey, which has a significantly higher birthrate of 2.5 per woman -- and a significantly more rural economy. Once they arrive in Germany, however, immigrants from Turkey tend to adapt to the economic realities of their new country and the birth rate drops.

Angelika Mette-Dittmann, a project leader at Woman Future, which provides basic skills to both German and immigrant women and is located in the Berlin district of Wedding, points out that many immigrant women are not only intent on making babies. “A lot of foreign women want to work,” she says. Plus, challenges facing German mothers can be doubly difficult for newcomers. The public daycare system in Germany, for example, doesn't provide enough spots for children under three and even families with children over three often have difficulties finding daycare.

National anthem in Turkish?

But even given the difficulties faced by working mothers and young families in Germany, the country's immigrant community still continues to reproduce apace. The cliché of a Turkish mother in a headscarf trailed by her brood may be inaccurate, but a lack of ethnic German children is a reality.

And given the US experience, von der Leyen's return to Christian and German values is perhaps predictable. But what are German values? The country has spent years searching its soul to find what exactly it means to be German -- a process that has stirred up a number of ghosts from the past. And given Birg's scenario, the search isn't likely to get any easier. What is German culture when the immigrant population becomes the majority? Will the German national anthem one day be sung in Turkish?  Will "The Thousand and One Nights" become as essential a part of the canon as "Faust"?

Von der Leyen was all smiles on Tuesday when commenting on the decision to boost Elterngeld. “Today," she said, "is a good day for families in Germany.”

But Kesici suspects it won’t make much of a difference in the Islamic community. “For us, a hundred extra euros per month won’t change how many children women have,” he says. “It’s a mentality.”

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