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The Rise Of The "bourgeois Family": The German Family In The Early Twentieth Century

In preindustrial Germany, family formation (through marriage) happened late in the lives of men and women, in line with the European marriage pattern (Hajnal 1983). Family formation was always also an economic decision. Many households included unrelated members, such as manual staff and servants (Laslett 1977), and only in modern times did families lose their function as a place of production, with fundamental changes in individual and social life.

The new model of the bourgeois family emerged, with the family as a married couple with children characterized by private, intimate parent-child relationships, and by a strict gender-specific role segregation of men and women. The man, as the sole breadwinner, worked outside the family, whereas his wife was responsible for rearing children, for domestic work, and for the recreation of the family members. One may characterize this family model as a somewhat smaller version of the preindustrial agrarian and aristocratic family— without maids and servants, whose jobs were taken over by the wife.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century an increasing portion of the population—the A mother helps her children open a present in the former German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. Government policies in the republic encouraged couples to form families early. OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS majority of the middle classes and civil servants— were able to live according to this ideal of the bourgeois family, whereas in rural areas the pre-modern pattern persisted. The proletarian working classes still lived in family forms different from the bourgeois ideal (Rosenbaum 1992): Poverty and the bare necessities of life forced proletarian women and children to work in factories or otherwise contribute to the family's subsistence. Until the 1920s, many proletarian families in urban centers had to share their small dwellings with nonrelated roomers, and were unable to maintain minimal privacy (according to the bourgeois model).

In the same time, the number of children declined, in urban areas. German women born in 1865 had an average of five live births in their lifetimes, whereas those born in 1900 only had two (Marschalck 1984). This decline of fertility began in the wealthy and educated upper and middle classes. As soon as the economic situation and residential standards improved after World War I the working classes began to reduce the number of their children. John E. Knodel (1974), however, demonstrates persistent differences in family size between the social classes and also among regions. The latter only demonstrated a gap between urban and rural ways of life, but also persistent differences in religious Protestant and Catholic milieus, which held true in the early twenty-first century, to some extent, with considerably larger families in Catholic regions than in the Protestant areas.

After World War I the breadwinner-homeowner model of the bourgeois family was adopted by an increasing part of the population, and became dominant among the working classes. Female labor force participation was low and the family ideal of the majority was a patriarchal, authoritarian type of family (Sieder 1987). Social policy and housing programs improved the living conditions of the urban working class and familialized this part of the population. The Great Depression, however, brought severe hardships for a large part of the population and led to high unemployment. It was family solidarity that helped most to survive and it was women that shouldered the burden, working in poorly paid jobs and in informal employment—often earning the families' only income. During the Depression birth and marriage figures tremendously declined. That was the situation when the National Socialists (Nazis) took over in 1933.

As a way out of a perceived national crisis they reemphasized the traditional family, also intending to promote population growth and dominance of what they called the Nordic (Aryan) race. Women were removed from the labor market, and state propaganda made them heroines of procreation. Pro-natalistic and racist policies supported marriage (e.g., by offering special loans to young married couples), large families (by means of child allowances, presents and moral incentives), and the male breadwinner model. The mastering of the economic crisis of the early 1930s gave many families, particularly in the lower classes, stable employment (for men) and confidence in their future. The traditional family model dominated and marriage and birth rates grew.

However, the war effort (World War II) needed women as workers in factories and in other positions previously taken by men. Nazi propaganda consequently shifted its focus, and now praised women as mothers and heroines of industrial and agricultural production, doing their part in the fight against the numerous enemies of the Reich. Thus, Nazi propaganda paradoxically (and unintentionally) supported a modernization of gender roles.

After World War II, when the defeated men returned from war and captivity, the women willingly withdrew again from the labor force and other male positions they had held temporarily. In West Germany, a golden age of marriage and the family began in the 1950s, as the bourgeois family, as in many other European countries, gained unprecedented dominance as virtually the only generally approved pattern of family life. The role of marriage was unquestioned. In this model, only a mother staying at home was a responsible mother, whereas her husband had to provide the financial support of the family. Thus, the improving economy, together with strong (and legally codified) inhibitions as to unmarried cohabitation, worked in favor of early marriage and family formation. The First National Family Report of the German Federal Government (Deutscher Bundestag 1968) devotes a large chapter to teenage marriages. East Germany, at the same time, followed an alternative path incorporating the women into the labor force and building up a system of extra-family day care institutions for children.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsGermany - The Rise Of The "bourgeois Family": The German Family In The Early Twentieth Century, From Institution To Choice: Family Change In West Germany Since The 1970s