told: we need
By Kate Connolly in Berlin
Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed Germany's low birth rate to the top of the political agenda for the first time since the Nazi era as an expert said the nation could die out if the trend continued.
A third of German women are not having children, a remarkable figure even compared with low birth rates in the rest of Europe. Among graduates the figure is as high as 40 per cent.
Every year 100,000 more Germans die than are born and each generation is shrinking by about a third.
Even in the poverty and despair after the Second World War, more babies were born than now. The figure has slumped to 1.3 children per woman, far short of the replacement rate of 2.1.
Some observers attribute the trend to young people's reluctance to sacrifice their comfortable way of life and leisure time to bring up the next generation.
Others argue that German society expects women to stay at home to look after the family and that child care is inadequate and expensive.
Mrs Merkel, 51, is not the best role model: she has no children. Asked why, she said: "It just did not fit in with my career path."
But she is fully aware that the onus is on her, the country's first female leader, to improve the lot of women, raise the birth rate and put Germany back at the top as an economic power within a decade.
"If the birth rate continues to fall, Germans are at risk of dying out," said Harald Michel, the head of the Institute for Applied Demography. He foresees a future in which the workforce will be unable to support the elderly, nor indeed the country.
Past reluctance to tackle the problem is largely explained by the sensitivity of child-bearing in a country which, under the Nazis, did all it could to raise the birth rate for the state.
"The Nazi ideal of kinder, küche, kirche (children, kitchen, church) still prevails," said Jutta Schmidt, 33, a sociologist and mother of two children from Hamburg.
"The pressure on women to fulfil the maternal role, coupled with the lack of support to carry it out, such as part-time jobs and child care provision, is so great that many would rather forgo the opportunity than risk failure."
In Nazi times women were awarded motherhood medals for bearing children. Child bearing was strictly under the control of the state, not the individual.
Had Ursula von der Leyen, 47, been a mother in the Third Reich, she would have won the silver medal. She is a gynaecologist, a mother of seven and, as the family minister, is Mrs Merkel's greatest hope.
She says that Germany is "extremely backward" in its attitude towards the family. Unless the birth rate rises, "we will have to turn out the light".
Mrs von der Leyen, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, has offered women one-year wage replacement subsidies and to raise the amount of child care that can be offset against tax. But some of her proposals, such as encouraging fathers to stay at home for two months after the birth of a child, have provoked stiff opposition even from male party colleagues. They accuse her of wanting to "tie men to the nappies".
For many, child care and not money is at the root of the problem. The country that invented the kindergarten 170 years ago is pitifully lacking in child care places.
Only 10 per cent of children under three have access to pre-school care and most of those are sent home at noon, a 2001 study showed. In Denmark the figure is 64 per cent and in Britain 34 per cent.
The problem is exacerbated by employers who are unwilling to help workers with young children - and schools, most of which also close at noon.
"People have to give up their careers because there are no child care places," said Renate Köcher, the director of the Allensbach polling institute. "And because they have given up their jobs, we have neglected to create more child care places."
Germany is also a country in which everything happens comparatively late. The average starting school age is almost seven. University takes the best part of a decade to complete, so the average student is in her late twenties when she graduates.
Therefore, finding a job, particularly in these days of high unemployment, stands much higher on the list of priorities than having babies.