Post-Wall children more likely to be criminals

Children conceived in the chaos of collapsing East Germany just after the Berlin Wall fell are way more likely to be criminals than almost anyone else in the country, a new study shows.

Post-Wall children more likely to be criminals
Photo: DPA

The birth rate dropped by half during the three years immediately after the huge upheaval that saw the entire political system of communist East Germany swept away as it was reunified with the capitalist West. Those who were born then have done particularly badly and are 50 percent more likely to be criminals, the research says.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and reunification the following year created enormous uncertainty for people in the East, said researchers Olivier Marie and Arnaud Chevalier in their paper presented at the Royal Economic Society (RES) last week.

This upheaval meant hordes of women put off having children while they figured out what was going to happen to the country and in their lives.

These lost “Children of the Wall” – born between 1991 and 1993 – should have benefitted from the fact that there were so few of them, Olivier Marie told The Local, speaking from the RES meeting. Marie, of the University of Maastricht, worked with Chevalier from the University of London.

Even though the country’s system was under immense pressure and the country was in turmoil, the fact that there were so few of them should have meant that they did particularly well, said Marie.

“But this was not the case. Generally a small group, or cohort, has better outcomes, but not with this one. They were at least 50 percent more likely to commit crime. After all the comparisons we made it became clear that the main factor was the parents they were born to,” he said.

A risk to have a baby

He said the big difference was that the women who had children during such an uncertain time were largely younger, with worse education and less likely to have good parenting skills. Those women in better positions themselves were largely those who decided not to have children while their country was in chaos.

The two researchers said the children had largely received a similar education to their peers in western Germany, and those who came before and after them in the east – but that it was too early to say yet how well they had done at school.

“But we see that risk-taking parents raise risk-taking children, and in this case, not good risks like financial ones which turn out to be entrepreneurial, but bad risks such as drink driving or taking risks with health,” said Marie.

So although one might expect the crime rate in eastern Germany to go down with this very significant dip in population, it did not – they made up for their small number with increased crime, and the overall rates remained the same.

Germany a great example

The researchers identified two interesting things – that women with a choice do not have children when their environment is particularly risky. And that those who have little option – due to poverty, poor education or youth – end up raising kids who follow their patterns and take poor decisions and end up committing crime.

The fall of the Berlin Wall enabled them a unique chance to figure this out as there is lots of evidence collected in Germany – there is also a control group of West Germans – and the sharp drop in fertility only lasted a short, sharply defined time. But they reckon this information will be applicable elsewhere too.

“We are not saying that one needs to consider eugenics or anything like that. But this information could be useful for informing social policy to figure out who would benefit from early support, particularly early on in life. Children are malleable and one can change their risky behaviour if you get there early enough. We are talking about deprived mothers whose children learn risky behaviour,” said Marie.

When asked whether the rise of neo-Nazism in the post-Wall eastern parts of Germany could be linked to this, Olivier admitted they had not yet considered this, but would be interested to see if later, once the generation they were studying were a little older, this might prove to be the case.

Hannah Cleaver

[email protected]

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”