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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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.