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1Though the long-term impact of family policies on fertility is a subject of heated debate, there is no lack of evidence concerning their effects – often rapid – on the decisions made by families, who adapt their behaviour in accordance with government measures. The former GDR, where the government implemented an active family policy over a clearly delimited period, from the 1970s up to German reunification in 1990, is an interesting case in point. It resulted in the progressive emergence of an original pattern of family formation in the country, enabling individuals to draw maximum benefit from government aids. Through measures designed to increase the birth rate, the government primarily encouraged the development of non-marital births (as opposed to births within marriage) and of marriage.

2Such measures may appear to be contradictory, given that they promoted the development both of marriage and of single-parent families. But alongside the “traditional” pattern of having children within marriage, they did not generate a parallel trend of declining interest in marriage and of non-marital childbearing. Though traditional attitudes remained clearly predominant in the former GDR, where society was governed by a rigid institutional framework and where atypical social behaviours were not readily accepted (Dorbritz and Philipov, 2002; Dornseiff and Sackmann, 2002), a second category of persons began to emerge, for whom marriage and children were dissociated, but only in terms of time. Though they decided to have a first child outside marriage, they legitimized the birth by marrying afterwards, thereby developing a model that consists of: 1) cohabitation; 2) first birth outside marriage; 3) marriage; 4) second birth. In other words, births outside marriage and legal union are not mutually exclusive, but take place successively.

3It is clear that this new family model offered an effective means to take maximum advantage of government aids. But can we conclude that it developed as a direct consequence of the government family policy? Or to state the question differently, what was the role of family policy in the emergence of this family model? This is the question we will seek to answer.

I – The development of a new family model

4The statistical data show a very high and rapidly increasing proportion of non-marital births from the late 1960s, rising from 10% in 1966 to one-third of all births by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

5The increase in births outside marriage was not accompanied by a decline in legal unions however. Admittedly, the total female first marriage rate decreased, notably between 1977 and 1983, a period marked by a rapid increase in non-marital births, when it fell by around one-quarter, from 94 to 71 first marriages per 100 women. But it rose again in the second half of the 1980s, while the proportion of non-marital births continued to rise (see Figure 1). So the growing share of non-marital births only very partially reflects a declining interest in marriage.

Figure 1

Proportion of non-marital births (%), total female first marriage rate (per 100 women) and proportion of marriages between persons who already have one or more children (%), former GDR, 1970-99

Figure 1

Proportion of non-marital births (%), total female first marriage rate (per 100 women) and proportion of marriages between persons who already have one or more children (%), former GDR, 1970-99

Source: Statistisches Bundesamt.

6In fact, the increase in non-marital births was accompanied by a clear increase in the number and proportion of marriages between couples with one or more children. Figure 1 shows that children were already present in one quarter of the marriages contracted by single persons in the late 1980s [1]. Moreover, most of the children concerned were young, since in 1989, in 80% of cases, the child was aged under three (Statistisches Bundesamt, 1994). However, as indicated by the large proportion of first-order births among non-marital births, and the proportion of women having one child at the time of marriage, it was quite unusual to wait for a second birth before marrying [2].

7This helps to explain the relatively limited impact of consensual union in the former GDR, where only 7.2% of households belonged to this category in 1992 (Statistisches Bundesamt, 1995; see also Wendt, 1993; Peil, 1996). Consensual union is generally a short-term arrangement that precedes marriage or follows divorce. Demographers agree that consensual union should not be viewed as an alternative to marriage – a significant stage in life (Lebensabschnitt) – as is the case in the Federal Republic of Germany, but rather as a test marriage (Gysi and Meyer, 1993; Seidenspinner et al., 1996; Cromm, 1998).

II – The role of family policy

1 – An incentive for births outside marriage

8How can this family behaviour be explained? First, there was a relative lack of information regarding contraception, and the pill was not widely available [3]. Though access to induced abortion became much easier from 1972, the extensive provision of community childcare services may have convinced young women to continue initially unwanted pregnancies. Such situations must have been relatively rare however, even more so with the spread of the pill in the 1980s [4].

9But above all, the East German government offered a broad range of financial and other aids to enable single parents to stay in employment.

10These included priority access to kindergarten places and, if no space was available, the payment of an allowance corresponding to the legal sick-leave benefit – around 50% of the monthly wage – to single mothers obliged to stop work. These mothers could return to their job, which was reserved for them, as soon as a kindergarten place became free. Single parents with a sick child received a similar allowance, enabling them to look after the child at home. On top of these measures, from 1971 single parents received housing benefit and financial aid for the purchase of expensive consumer goods. Another measure which doubtless played a decisive role was the introduction in 1976 of a one-year period of paid parental leave, applicable from the first birth for single-parent families and from the second birth only for married women.

11The importance of these benefits is revealed by studies on the value attached by the population to different types of aid. In decreasing order of priority, the respondents listed kindergarten childcare, nursery schools, one-year parental leave, work-time reduction to 40 hours per week for mothers, workplace childcare, canteens and lastly the possibility of opting for part-time work (Dorbritz, 1987). Single-parent families are in a privileged position for the first and third of these measures, thanks to priority kindergarten places and parental leave after the first birth.

12Figure 2 shows the impact of parental leave following its introduction in 1976. The proportion of non-marital births increased rapidly, from 16.2% of total births in 1976 to 34.4% in 1986. This represents a 141% increase in the number of non-marital births, from 31,696 to 76,524, while the number of births within marriage fell by 11%, from 163,786 to 145,745.

Figure 2

Proportion of non-marital births (%), former GDR, 1970-1999

Figure 2

Proportion of non-marital births (%), former GDR, 1970-1999

Source: Statistisches Bundesamt.

13In 1986, the one-year parental leave period was extended to married women, along with sick child care leave entitlement, previously reserved for single women. The effect of these measures was immediate. The number of marriages rose substantially, from 131,514 in 1985 to 141,286 in 1987, a 7.4% increase in just two years, while in the same period the first marriage rate rose from 74 to 81 marriages for 100 women, up by almost 10% in two years (Figure 1). The share of non-marital births, for its part, which had been increasing steadily since 1977, fell from 34.4% in 1986 to 32.8% in 1987, though the total number of births was increasing.

14The effects of the 1986 reform were short-lived however. From 1988, the proportion of non-marital births started increasing again, returning to its 1986 level by 1990, and then moving above. Moreover, the proportion of non-marital births of order two or above also increased. They accounted for 28.2% of non-marital births in 1989, compared with 16% in 1975 [5].

15The 1976 legislations helped to change the image of the single mother however. The fact that the trend was not reversed after 1986 is due precisely to the growing social acceptance of consensual unions and non-marital births. Indeed, studies show that for the majority of East Germans it is not necessary to be married to have a child (Hille, 1985; Helwig and Nickel, 1993; Leroux, 1994; Dorbritz and Fux, 1997). Likewise, in a survey conducted in 2000, the argument “I’m not married” ranks in 15th position in the list of reasons for not wanting any more children (Salles-Lestrade, 2000). It has become a socially accepted norm for non-married couples to have children.

2 – Measures to promote marriage

16Why did most couples decide to marry after the first child? First, it is important to remember that before 1986, one of the advantages for couples of having a first child outside marriage, namely the entitlement to parental leave, disappeared after the first birth, since married women were also entitled to leave after the second birth.

17Second, though marriage provided no specific guarantee in the event of separation and offered children little more protection than consensual union, it certainly made it easier for couples to establish a home, since married couples were entitled to interest-free loans to equip their dwelling. Introduced in 1971, initially reserved for married couples before age 26 [6] and limited to 5,000 marks, it was extended in 1984 to unions contracted before the 30th birthday and raised to 7,000 marks. The loan was granted for a total duration of 11 years and the amount to be refunded was automatically reduced by 1,000 marks after the first birth, 1,500 after the second and 2,500 after the third. It was also retroactive. In other words, it took account of births occurring before marriage, so that couples who had one or more children before marriage were not disadvantaged.

18Figure 3 shows the age-specific male marriage rate in 1970 (before the home equipment loan reserved for young married couples was introduced), in 1980 (nine years after its introduction) and in 1989 (five years after the age limit was extended from 26 to 30). Several years after the introduction of these measures, the impact of family policy on marriage timing is clearly visible.

Figure 3

Age-specific marriage rate of men in the former GDR in 1970, 1980 and 1989 (‰)

Figure 3

Age-specific marriage rate of men in the former GDR in 1970, 1980 and 1989 (‰)

Source: Statistisches Bundesamt.

19Last, it is important to mention a third measure whose impact on marriage is openly acknowledged by the couples themselves, namely access to housing. In a society where rents are low, but housing supply is limited, the problem is not how to pay for a home, but how to obtain one. The government sought to make up for the inadequate supply of new housing by controlling their allocation (Beyme, 1991; Leroux, 1994; Hettlage, 1998). In the former GDR, it was practically impossible for an unmarried couple or a single person to obtain housing, since married couples and single-parent families took priority. Faced with this situation, marriage and children provided a means for many couples to move out of the parental home. This motive was openly stated by East German survey respondents. Housing was given as the third reason for marriage in a survey conducted in 1978, and in 1988 it took second place, just behind love (Seidenspinner et al., 1996; Cromm, 1998).

III – How did things change after 1990?

20German reunification put an end to a social policy that favoured the development of a particular family model. With the progressive disappearance of the specific features of East German society after 1990 – such as housing allocation, finally abolished in 1993 – it is interesting to examine how this mode of family formation subsequently evolved. According to Bernhard Liebscher (1994), we might have expected German reunification to put an end to the growing dissociation between marriage and childbearing. Yet he himself observes in 1994 that the opposite is true, as testified by the ever steeper rise in the proportion of non-marital births since 1991. In 2000, half of all births occurred outside marriage (see Figure 2).

21Marriage tends to occur later, and increasingly after a second birth: among marriages between partners with one or more children, 18% involved two or more children in 2000, compared with 10% in 1989. In fact, the mean age at first marriage has increased steadily in the new Länder since reunification, rising by five years in just a decade, from 25.3 years for men and 23.2 for women in 1989 to 30.7 and 28 years respectively in 2000. This rapid increase partly explains the steep decline in the marriage rate (see Figure 1).

22Several factors underlie this trend. East German social policy, which aimed from the 1970s to promote marriage, actually tended to have the opposite effect. By being associated with material advantages, marriage was instrumentalized and lost its dimension as an ideal, as a value of society (Winkler, 1990; Huinink, 1994; Roloff, 1999) [7]. When the advantages that came with marriage were abolished, for some people the institution lost its interest. Moreover, by paying the cost of school enrolment, childcare, children’s school supplies and clothing, their vaccinations and even their leisure activities and holidays, the East German state took over, to a certain extent, the role traditionally played by the husband, notably in a country such as the FRG (Böckmann-Schewe et al., 1994; Ostner, 1996; Dornseiff and Sackmann, 2002). Likewise, by strengthening the independence of mothers, the government undermined one of the key roles of marriage – that of mutual support and complementarity between spouses. Last, by favouring the development of non-marital births, it laid the foundations for a dissociation between marriage and childbearing and, in so doing, weakened one of the main reasons for marriage, namely the arrival of children. Marriage thus lost its dimension as a framework for family formation.

23In addition, as we have seen, the postponement of marriages clearly corresponds to a trend already present in East German society prior to reunification, despite a policy which was designed, on the contrary, to encourage early union (see Figure 3). Once the policy to promote marriage was abolished, the trend accelerated.

24Indeed, the family policy of reunified Germany was of a very different nature. The main advantage of the new legislation for married women is the guarantee of alimony payment in the event of separation, provided that their income is lower than that of their spouse. This offers greater security for mothers in the event of divorce, but may also discourage men from marrying, due to the greater constraints it imposes upon them, especially now that the advantages offered by the former GDR to married couples wishing to establish a home have been abolished. Couples must now rely solely on their own resources to find and equip their home. And this is where the problem lies. The adoption of the West German education system has delayed access to financial independence and hence to family formation [8]. But above all, the transition to a market economy has introduced uncertainty that discourages long-term commitment. While in the former GDR, the majority of the population knew what their future held in store, in the country of today, with unemployment standing at 20%, financial independence is by no means guaranteed.

25The effects of these profound changes are two-fold. Firstly, the proportion of consensual unions is increasing, with 12% of East German couples opting for this form of union in 1999, compared with 10% for Germany as a whole [9]. Though surveys conducted in the new Länder continue to show a strong attachment to marriage, and though the young generations have, for the most part, been raised by married parents and wish to perpetuate a model which enjoys a positive image (Friedrich, 1990; Wingen and Stutzer, 1994), postponement of marriage may nevertheless result in its gradual decline. In this case, consensual union might lose its dimension as a test marriage, as a period preceding legal union, and become a whole new lifestyle, an alternative to marriage, with or without children.

26A second consequence was a decline in the East German total fertility rate, which fell from 1.56 children per woman in 1989 to 1.22 in 2000, after dropping to 0.77 in 1993-94. Fertility is declining among all couples, married or otherwise. We still do not know whether this is a durable phenomenon which may result in increased childlessness, as in West Germany, or whether women will make up for the missing births at a later date, reflecting convergence with the West German pattern of later marriages and later births. East German women themselves clearly link this postponement to the changing socioeconomic context. Many say that if they had still been living in the former GDR, they would already be married and have children (Seidenspinner et al., 1996; Badur, 1999; Salles-Lestrade, 2000).


27The parallel observed between the family policy measures of the former GDR and the choices made by individuals in the 1970s and 80s, and likewise the recent changes since the abolition of this policy following reunification, highlight the effects of East German social policy on family behaviour. In fact, the sometimes contradictory goals of this policy encouraged a growing proportion of East Germans to dissociate the timing of childbearing and of legal union to take maximum advantage of the benefits of single-parent status and then of marriage. But although, to begin with, the main effect of these family policy measures was a change in timing, they brought about fundamental changes over the long term, ultimately casting doubt upon the entire institution of marriage. East German family policy instrumentalized marriage and stripped it of all appeal once the associated material advantages were withdrawn. The family policy of the GDR thus played a key part in weakening the role of marriage in the family and in East German society.

28We note however that it simply reinforced a phenomenon already present in the former GDR and which formed part of a general European trend. From the 1960s, the proportion of non-marital births increased, admittedly at a slower pace than after the introduction of measures in favour of single-parent families, though this is indicative of a trend already well anchored in East Germany society. In other words, East German social policy dissociated marriage and childbearing primarily because the conditions for such a change were already in place. This phenomenon testifies to the complexity of interactions observed between family policy and social behaviours.


  • [*]
    Université Paris IV – Sorbonne
    Translated by Catriona Dutreuilh
  • [1]
    There is no proof however that these children are the offspring of the couple who marry. The statistics do not indicate whether the husband is also the children’s father and some children are probably born of a previous union. However, surveys among the East German population suggest that most of the children concerned are indeed the offspring of the couple. For example, in a survey conducted in 1980, 61% of singles wishing to marry intended to do so with their first partner (Seidenspinner et al., 1996; Cromm, 1998).
  • [2]
    In the 1970s, less than 5% of couples with children at the time of marriage had two or more. Though this proportion increased later, it did not exceed 10% at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Survey results confirm this preference for marriage before having a second child (Helwig and Nickel, 1993).
  • [3]
    According to a study conducted in 1978-79, 46.4% of young women interviewed used no contraceptive method during first sexual intercourse (Weigandt, 1990).
  • [4]
    The GDR and Hungary were the only Eastern bloc countries where the pill was available.
  • [5]
    This rise can be explained in part by the decision of women to have a child with their new partner after separating from the father of their first child. This phenomenon reflects the upward trend in separations and repartnering (Cromm, 1998).
  • [6]
    The age limit for home equipment loans applies to both men and women but in practice mainly concerns men, since the mean age at marriage of single women was well below this threshold. It ranged from 21 to 23 years between 1970 and 1989 (and for men, from 24 to 26 years on average).
  • [7]
    The phenomenon may have been exacerbated by the East German government’s efforts to combat the church. To remove the population from the church’s influence, the state systematically disciminated against children who were christened and who had a religious education (especially with regard to schooling). Today, only a quarter of Germans say that they believe in God. This situation may have weakened the ethical and religious dimension of marriage (Müller, 1999).
  • [8]
    On average, German students obtain their first university degree at age 28.4 (B. Lestrade, 2002, “Chômage et politique de l’emploi du gouvernement Schröder”, Allemagne d’aujourd’hui, no. 161).
  • [9]
    “Immer mehr nichteheliche Lebensgemeinschaften. Angaben des Statistischen Bundesamts”, Sozialpolitische Umschau, no.191, 5-6-2000.


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Anne Salles [*]
Anne SALLES, Centre universitaire de Malesherbes, 108 boulevard Malesherbes, 75017 Paris,
  • [*]
    Université Paris IV – Sorbonne
    Translated by Catriona Dutreuilh
Translated by
Catriona Dutreuilh
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