East Germany's Vanishing Babies

Article excerpt

"If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have had my second child. But it's too late to have second thoughts, isn't it?"

Elke Grosser, a 28-year-old shop assistant in the east German town of Potsdam, had her second son in November 1989 - just as the Berlin Wall came down. But she is not alone in feeling that the brave new world of the united Germany is unsuited to having babies.

By having two children, Ms Grosser marks herself out as a survivor from the past. Now, almost nobody in eastern Germany has two children; many do not have even one.

According to Rainer Munz, Professor of Demography atHumboldt University in east Berlin, "the Vatican is the only place in the world that has a lower birthrate than east Germany today". The collapse in birth rates is the most dramatic the world has ever seen.

In response to the crisis, the state of Brandenburg last month began offering a special "greetings bonus" for every baby born. But the one-off payment is unlikely to change much. In the words of Elfi Wiedemann, of the Brandenburg social affairs ministry in Potsdam, "There's been a womb strike."

In Brandenburg, babies are virtually an endangered species. Only 12,000 were born in the region last year - barely a third of the number born in 1989. The same pattern is repeated, throughout the east.

Young women do not hesitate, when asked whether they see a difference between the situation now and in the old days. "Of course it is different," says Annette Patatz, 25. "Before the Turn {the collapse of Communism in 1989}, things were much simpler. It is a pity: now, one has to think of questions of survival, when thinking about having a baby. It wasn't like that before."

The most obvious reasons for the collapse are to be found in the downside of German unity. East Germany had offered a lifetime's security, which vanished overnight. Women have been especially hard hit by unemployment, and financial worries are real. In addition, the abandonment of comprehensive child care - which was taken for granted in the old East Germany - means life is much tougher for working women.

Barbara Theek, a GP who works at a women's advice centre in Potsdam, talks of the new Germany as "a child-unfriendly society". She says: "Many women who come to me feel frustration and rage. They are physically and mentally exhausted. They say: `I haven't got the strength to change completely.' "

Beyond the fears and worries, however, there is another explanation for the vanishing babies. The birth-curve began to plummet in August and September 1990 - just a pregnancy after the collapse of the Berlin Wall the previous November. …