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East Germany's vanishing babies

"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. And yet, during the turbulent weeks after the opening of the Wall, few had worried much about the economic uncertainties to come. As the Communist regime collapsed, euphoria was the order of the day.

One explanation for the early start to the "womb strike", with tens of thousands of babies not conceived at the end of 1989, seems to have been the range of new possibilities for young east Germans. Vistas opened up which had seemed unthinkable, only a few months before.

In the words of Professor Munz, author of a study on the decline in births, "It's not just a doomsday scenario." Ms Theek agrees: "Especially among the younger women who come to see us, the positive aspects are often mentioned. People say, `I've got chances to develop myself, I've got opportunities'." For young east Germans, travel and career beckoned. Having a baby could wait - for a while, or for ever.

The age for having babies has changed, too. In the old East Germany the average age for having a child was 21 - seven years younger than in the West. That gap is now beginning to close.

Ms Wiedemann believes the decline in births may now beready to bottom out. But, as she acknowledges, the birth rate could hardly go any lower. In order for the east German population to remain steady, almost three times as many babies would need to be born as in 1994. East Germany had a population of 16 million in 1990. The population now stands at around 15 million - and is expected to fall by another 2 million in the next 15 years.

Nor can emigration from east to west be held responsible for more than a small proportion of the decline. In Brandenburg, which benefits from its proximity to Berlin, the population has stayed more or less stable.

The extraordinary change illustrates the uniqueness of the east German situation in the former Soviet bloc. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, and especially in Russia, there has been a decline in the birth rate - but nothing as radical as this. As Professor Munz notes: "Elsewhere, the change to the economic system was incremental. East Germany was the only country that was annexed and merged into a Western-style economy, overnight."

The effect will be felt in the next century when a shortage of wage-earners and an over-abundance of pensioners is already predicted. Large numbers of schools will have to close. Professor Munz argues: "The system doesn't have the flexibility to cope. People don't even realise the size of the problems that are on the way."