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.