The Magazine

Diminishing Europe

The good life in Germany does not include children.

Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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A  saying from the German Middle Ages suggests that a couple who cannot have children may be more burdened than a couple who do have children.

Die Kinder machen Weh und Leid Zerstören offt der Elter Frewd, Kein Kindt/Kein Sorg/klag nit so sehr ob schon dein Weib nicht Kindbar wer. (Children bring grief and woe and often disturb parental peace: 'no child, no worry.' So do not complain so much just because your wife cannot bear a child.)

Historically, couples without children have, indeed, grieved. Although birth control has been practiced since antiquity, barren couples viewed themselves as truly cursed, like Hannah in the Bible (1 Sam. 1). Yet for almost a half-century a great many postwar European families have enthusiastically embraced either a "no-child" or a "no-more-than-one-child" family model.

In Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, native birth rates barely leave a single offspring behind to replace its two parents. As a result, large and growing numbers of foreign workers--predominately Bosnian, Turkish, and African Muslims--have immigrated to Western Europe to work the vacant, or unwanted, jobs native Europeans now lack the manpower to fill. The economic and social costs of European reluctance to be "fruitful and multiply," as the Bible puts it, are high and going higher for Europeans. Denmark's immigrant population is only 5 percent Muslim, yet that 5 percent receives 40 percent of the state welfare budget, and those families are just beginning to grow.

The civic and political costs promise to become even more frightening as immigrant populations grow unchecked and assimilation to European languages and culture remains partial and increasingly tactical. Should there be successful Muslim proselytizing among German youth--many of whom do not share their elders' flight from the traditional family, religion, and work ethic--Germany could become, religiously if not yet politically, a mixed Muslim state within a quarter-century.

In Germany's large Muslim communities, speaking German and mastering the German Basic Law are proving to be effective tools not only for immigrant assimilation to German culture, but also for the ascendancy of immigrant culture over German. With the continuing growth of these communities, and the construction of mammoth mosques within them, will come increasing demands by the inhabitants to govern by sharia law rather than by German Basic Law.

One might have expected that Germans, who have been historically Europe's most theologically literate people, would have rediscovered and reembraced the lessons and resources of their own Catholic and Protestant heritage in coming to terms with European Islam. The misdeeds and shortcomings of those Christian churches in the 20th century do not merit their present oblivion. This is especially true in light of Christianity's vital historical contributions to European law, culture, and polity, without which Germans might still today be wandering across Germania in search of an Arminius.

Despite some countervailing evangelical straws in the wind, Germans today have hardened their agnosticism and atheism against established religion, apparently believing, counterintuitively, that the sermons of Luther and Bonhöffer are a less mighty fortress against Germany's gnawing problems (low native birth rates and bleak existentialism) than the old tin drums of Günter Grass and Jürgen Habermas. It is a good German question to ask today: Which of the two are more likely to assist new mothers with child-care and child-rearing and keep Germans' sunny-side up?

A year and a half ago, in a gripping interview with Die Zeit, Matthias Platzeck, Franz Müntefering's successor as Social Democratic party chairman, complained about the large numbers of Germans who no longer believe in the traditional German family, religion, and work ethic. One need only count late-20th-century Germany's historically low birth rates, scant church attendance, and mini-work-weeks with early retirement and cushy pensions, to see the gravity of Platzeck's complaint.

Meanwhile, unlike their hosts, Europe's growing Muslim immigrant communities are more devoted than ever to their traditional family, religion, and work ethic--thanks, in part, to the war in Iraq and to European political correctness. Given this state of affairs, and presently lacking a good alternative, it is not too far-fetched to ask whether new young, antimaterialistic generations of Germans might find a beacon in the new Muslim communities.

Like Chancellor Angela Merkel, Platzeck is an East German and a trained natural scientist. Raised in the Evangelical faith (his father was a pastor), he left it early, only to return to it a few years before the interview in Die Zeit.

In step with the great majority of West European intellectuals, Platzeck, disappointingly, insisted that his return to the faith of his father was more for "earthly reasons" than out of any deep spiritual insight or naive religious belief.

He could not say whether faith, or the lack of it, had anything to do with Europe's low birth rates and regressive family formation, although he wished to know whether, or how, the three might be linked. Clearly, unemployment and poor job prospects for highly educated Germans, especially talented German women who understandably do not wish to sacrifice their jobs to become mothers, are contributing to falling German birth rates. Those conditions have also created a modest brain drain of well-trained Germans to countries with desirable jobs at fair skill and salary levels, an ominous parallel to the steady flow of low to moderately skilled immigrant labor into the German workforce.

At the end of his interview, a refreshingly candid Platzeck blamed low German birth rates on a contemporary desire to live "a fun-filled life in the moment" (Spass am Tag). For both good reasons and bad, the typical German wants an untrammeled life, which child-rearing in every age and culture makes impossible.

In his best interview moment, Platzeck, echoing a more famous German, admonished his fellow countrymen and Europeans to let the tempting, ephemeral, self-indulgent moments go, and reach out for something larger and more lasting, what he called prolonged "joy in life" (Freude am Leben). Training a new generation in the way it should go, he allowed, is the supreme challenge of a people and a nation.
Living for the moment does not help a society develop itself. It is children who give meaning to life. A society without children is a society without a future.

Let us hope that many Germans silently share Platzeck's challenging vision for his country, and will join him in the recovery of German purpose and nationhood.

Steven Ozment, professor of history at
Harvard, is the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.