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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

In modern Western society, family formation is based on (regularly strong) personal emotions, such as romantic love. Moreover, given that family life is practically a synonym for private life, families are the primordial social contexts of privacy and intimacy, as well as of love and solidarity. Nevertheless, although each family operates in that essentially private manner as an intimate social group, there are public statistical indicators that permit us to observe some of the intimate functioning of families. Family demographers study such indicators, and Dutch demographer Hans van den Brekel (1999) describes the subject of demography as "sex, death and passion, wrapped in indicators," referring to birth and death rates, and marriage or divorce rates, as the visible, measurable, and computable outcomes of the private and intimate human behavior in families. Comparative family demography provides one with information on cross-national and cross-cultural differences, as well as similarities of family development and family life in different places of the world.

The gap between the low fertility in the developed Western world and the high birth rates in Third World countries is well known (Birg 1995). However, even within the West, and even within Europe, there is considerable variation in birth rates, family size, and family structure (Kuijsten and Strohmeier 1997). There is diversity in a cross-sectional perspective (comparing societies) and change in a longitudinal perspective (studying one society over time). Sometimes these two perspectives get intermingled when actual differences between nations are interpreted as indicating different stages in a developmental sequence. The most prominent example of such a fallacy is the concept of the demographic transition, which will be dealt with in greater detail below.

Nevertheless, demographic indicators as well as other statistical (family related) indicators, such as female labor force participation, are important tools of historical and international comparison in family research, and such information can be used to characterize the German family and to distinguish it from other types of family life.

In terms of demographic trends, such as changing fertility and marriage behavior, there are some aspects of German family development that are similar to those found in other Western European countries (Hajnal 1983). What is unique about the German case?

In Germany the secular decline of family size began in the nineteenth century—late compared to other western and northern European countries. Germany, in the 1930s and 1940s, experienced an unprecedented period of fascist, racist, and pronatalistic population policy (with increasing births) under the Nazi regime. This period had a long-term impact on family policies in Germany (which in the three post-war decades were characterized by a complete neglect of demographic facts) and on the socially and politically approved model of the German family in the decades after World War II. After the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s in West Germany, marriage and birth rates decreased after 1965. (Only countries in southern Europe had lower rates.) In 1990, Germany began a unique social, political, and cultural experiment: the merging of two societies with different political systems, different family structure, and population processes. The German Democratic Republic (GDR, a.k.a. East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, a.k.a. West Germany) were reunited under the rule of the FRG. The former East Germany experienced an unprecedented drop in births, marriages, and divorces, indicating a fundamental shift in the patterns of family formation, with only a slow and hesitant adaptation of the Eastern to the Western pattern.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects