Germany: People and Culture

Given the devastation of two world wars, it might be expected that the population of Germany would be relatively small. In fact, with slightly more than 82 million people, Germany's population is nearly 20 million larger than that of any other European country except Russia. This chapter examines the people of Germany—their demographic makeup, economic well-being, ethnic and religious groups, the standard of education and health care, and where they live.


The difference between number of births and number of deaths is called the natural increase. In 2007, the birthrate in Germany was 8.22 births per 1,000 people, while the death rate was 10.71/1,000. With more deaths than births, if left only to natural increase, the population would both decrease and grow older over time. Another measure of population growth or decline is the fertility rate.

This rate indicates how many children a female will produce during her fertile years, statistically determined to be between 15 and 49 years of age. Since it takes two people to make one child and some children die before they become adults, it is generally argued that if the women in a country have on average 2.1 children, the population will remain stable. If they have more children, it will rise, and if they have fewer it will decline. In Germany, on average, women give birth to 1.34 children.

Again, this suggests a decline in population over time. The current rates of natural increase and fertility reflect trends that have existed since the 1970s. These figures result primarily because of lifestyle choices common to residents of wealthy countries. Marriage is postponed and family planning coupled with birth control limits the number of children. The average age of marriage is 26, and only 2 percent of women under age 20 are married. Contraceptives are used by 85 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49, and abortion is readily available.

Female employment in the labor force also contributes to a low birthrate. The East German state provided childcare and encouraged women to work outside of the home. In the 1980s, about 83 percent of all women were employed, although few had high-­paying jobs. The financial independence of women may have contributed to a high divorce rate.

Female participation in the West German workforce was about 50 percent. Late marriage and the need for two incomes so that a family could obtain material goods were among the main reasons for women working. However, many people believed that a woman's place was in the home and that meant that their jobs tended to be low paying, part time, and not secure. Few women were in top professional jobs. Further, childcare was hard to obtain.

Germany's population characteristics resemble those of most other postindustrial countries. Germans are becoming increasingly concerned over a drastic decline in population. A majority of European nations have experienced a similar problem during recent years. This phenomenon is the exact opposite of those demographic changes that affected nineteenth-century Europe. Then, during rapid industrialization, many factors, including urban growth, improved hygiene and health care, an increased food supply, and need for labor, combined to trigger growth. The Industrial Revolution resulted in rapid population growth first in the United Kingdom and later in Germany and the rest of Europe. The impact was so significant that, despite massive immigration to the New World throughout the nine-teenth century, Germany recorded high population growth rates. In the postindustrial era, however, when service industries dominate, the need for a large labor force decreases. At the same time, educational opportunities increase, resulting in improved prosperity that ultimately flows to all socioeconomic strata of the population. With a sharp increase in the number of women pursuing higher education and joining the workforce, marriage is often delayed (or avoided) in order to pursue personal goals. Were it not for high rates of immigration, the United States would be confronted by a similar problem, because America shares similar demographic characteristics. Another serious issue is the rapidly aging population.

Because of low birthrates, almost 20 percent of Germany's population is older than 60 years of age, a number much higher today than several decades ago. If current trends continue, in 50 years, one in every three Germans will be older than 60. Furthermore, the segment of population between 20 and 60 years of age, the workforce, is also aging. That means Germany as a nation is simply becoming older. Such conditions are a burden for any country, no matter how much wealth it possesses. Some cataclysmic projections have Germany's population shrinking so rapidly that the country's population, which currently stands at 82 million, may eventually drop to only 25 million people.

More optimistic projections suggest that the population will shrink to only about 70 million, but even that more modest decline will still represent a serious demographic problem. Despite the decline in the rate of natural population growth, the German population continues to grow in absolute terms. This has occurred because of massive immigration. At the end of World War II, for example, an estimated 12 million people of German ancestry were forced to leave the countries of Eastern Europe and return to Germany. In particular, Germans living in that portion of Germany given to Poland in 1945 moved west. The growth of the West German economy attracted some 2 million migrants from East Germany, most via Berlin, until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

After 1961, West Germany began to depend on immigration from other areas, particularly Turkey and Yugoslavia, to fill its job vacancies. The removal of the Berlin Wall in 1989 caused a renewed flood of migration to West Germany, estimated at more than 250,000 people per year. Unification of the two countries increased the population of the Federal Republic by 17 million.


About two-thirds of Germany's working population earns its living by what is called the tertiary industries—providing services to others. Only about a third of the workforce is employed in manufacturing. Less than 3 percent work in agriculture, fishing, forestry, or mining, all of which are technologically well developed and hardly resemble the traditional definition of primary industries. The percapita gross domestic product-purchasing power parity (GDP-­PPP) of $31,900 (2007) ranks among the highest in the world. The German fear of inflation as a result of the hyperinflation of 1930 has led to government actions to keep it as low as possible—usually below 2 percent.

The unification of East and West Germany required the raising of taxes to provide social services in East Germany as factories closed and unemployment rose. Unemployment has been between 10 to 11 percent in recent years, which is more than double the figure for the United States, but not far from the average in western Europe. One reason for such differences in employment rates, even though both Germany and the United States have comparable per capita GNPs, is because of the welfare state system embedded in the European lifestyle. Germany has a smaller difference between rich and poor people than most other countries in Europe. The highest paid executives earn only six or seven times an average working wage. However, the government relies on value-added tax (sales tax) for much of its revenues and this tends to put a greater burden on those with lower incomes. Typical of citizens of prosperous countries, Germans tend to be materialistic and enjoy having the latest consumer products.

Ethnic and R eligious Background s German is the first language spoken by more than 91 percent of the population. This means that non-Germans are easily identified. As with English, not all Germans speak the language exactly the same. One of Europe's interesting cultural characteristics is the existence of dialects, which evolved through the centuries. Although they all speak the identical language, residents of southern Germany or Switzerland, for example, can have much different pronunciations than Germans living in the northern states. A similar situation exists in many countries, so it is not unique to Germany. In the English-speaking United Kingdom, for example, more than 50 regional dialects are spoken. Large numbers of German-­speaking immigrants from eastern Europe who moved to Germany over the past 40 years also contributed to the variations in the language. The government has tried to encourage use of the “accentless” German of the large cities of central Germany, but in recent years some groups have decided to preserve their local dialects.

Since 1990, there has been a renewed migration from eastern Europe, where ethnic Germans lived for centuries. Many of them resided in the former Soviet Union, or present-­day Russia and Kazakhstan. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many of them relocated to Germany. Ethnic Germans have been living in eastern Europe for several centuries. Many of them were invited to settle in the Russian Empire by the Empress Catherine II, herself of German ancestry. They were skillful farmers who turned the vast Russian steppes into productive agricultural land, but they were also often perceived as being unpatriotic foreigners. Thus, many of them left for the New World at the end of the nineteenth century and settled in North America, especially in the prairies stretching from Kansas, northward through the Dakotas, and even into the Prairie Provinces of Canada. Some, perceived as supporters of the Nazis, were deported to Kazakhstan during World War II. By 1990, more than a million of Kazakhstan's residents were of German ethnic origin. Encouraged by the invitation to “return” to Germany, many decided to come back to the land their ancestors left centuries ago. Those who claim German ancestry obtain automatic citizenship in the Federal Republic, but the government has been trying to limit non-
German immigration.

Immigrants from other areas who arrived in Germany beginning in the 1960s were called “guest workers,” the implication being that they would at some time return home. At that time Germany, still affected by a loss of workers because of World War II, needed increasing numbers of labor to satisfy demands of the expanding economy. In fact, many immigrants have brought their families to Germany, where they have established permanent homes. Today large numbers of these immigrants have become acculturated (adopting another culture) and their descendants are nearly completely assimilated. Children born of immigrant parents go to German schools, speak German as their primary language, and are entirely integrated into the local lifestyle. This is particularly true of those families in which the parents were rather young when they arrived and who decided to live outside ethnic neighborhoods.

Today in Germany, as elsewhere throughout most of western Europe, integration and ensuing cultural integration (or lack thereof) poses a very serious issue. Germans are concerned with the tendency of immigrants to self-segregate and reject German culture and values. This has been a particularly difficult issue with immigrants from Turkey, who now constitute the largest national minority in the country. Many Turks feel as though they are second-class citizens who have been largely ignored by Germans. Such issues are common within Western countries, because they never had to deal with immigration problems until recent years. The first generation of immigrants is usually composed of people who work at manual jobs. They are unable to speak the local language and have difficulties climbing the socioeconomic ladder outside of their ethnic neighborhoods. Although it is natural to want to live in areas where they can help their communities and live among their own “kind,” sometimes the result is self-­segregation and complete lack of socioeconomic interaction with others. Eventually this generates conflict between cultures. Many Germans are uneasy with the issue of the growing immigrant population at a time when native birthrates are at alltime low levels. They do not know how to solve what they perceive to be a huge problem and feel that the future of their country and culture is in danger. The 2005 riots that occurred in neighboring France were the result of similar problems and those events only contributed to the widespread anxiety among Germans.

Today, immigration is the only method of providing enough labor for Germany's economy, and closing the country's borders would lead to serious economic consequences. According to statistical data provided by the German government, some 7.29 million foreigners resided in the country in 2005, a majority of them from Turkey, Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia. Many other ethnicities, however, are also represented in this figure, because immigrants find Germany to be a desirable destination for a better way of life. Not surprisingly, the largest percentage of foreign population lives in the industrial regions and cities of North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, and Baden-­Wurttemberg.

A good indication of the widening scope of immigration is the relative number of “traditional” immigrants versus those from other locations. Immigrants from traditional locations are declining in number, even though the overall number of immigrants continues to increase. This means that these newcomers come from other regions. Indeed, by the end of 2004, some 1.3 million foreign citizens residing in Germany were from non-­European (Turkey included) countries. This is an excellent example of how globalization is affecting migration patterns. On the other hand, not all immigrants are from developing countries. The impact of the European Union's free flow of goods and people is noticeable in the change of residency among many western Europeans. Numbers of Dutch, French, Spaniards, and others residing in Germany are measured in hundreds of thousands.

This migration continued even after the economy began to slow down. Between 1990 and 1995, Germany admitted 2.4 million immigrants, including hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. As in previous times of economic distress, high unemployment has created a situation in which immigrants are no longer as welcome as they once were. A rising antiforeigner sentiment led to attacks on Turkish and African workers, as in 1992, when 17 people were killed in riots. Some of this hostility has expressed itself as a neo-­Nazi movement. Economic improvement seems to be the only solution to this problem.

In 1997, the European Union (EU) countries agreed to create an area of “freedom, justice and security,” allowing free movement between the 15 member countries, which has now expanded to 27 with the addition of 12 new members. This allowed Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards to move to Germany. Immigrants from Turkey, Albania, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia often enter the EU via Italy or Austria and then move freely into Germany.

The religious affiliation of the population reflects its history and the recent arrivals, including the cultural changes that they introduced. Protestants and Catholics are equally represented with about 34 percent each. As in other western European societies, the impact of secularization has been significant. Furthermore, the legacy of Communism in states of the former East Germany is obvious in regard to religious affiliation, or lack thereof. As an ideology, Communism was opposed to anything but a minute role of religion in society, and this indeed is noticeable in large numbers of people claiming to be atheists, or who simply are not interested in organized religion. Almost a quarter of Germany's people claim no religious affiliation, while many others claim affiliation more as a part of cultural heritage, rather than actually practicing Christianity. Muslims, primarily of Turkish or Yugoslavian background, make up about 3.7 percent of the population.

During the Hitler-­era pogroms, millions of Jews were put to death and many others fled to what ultimately became Israel, the United States, or elsewhere. Today, only about 100,000 Jews live in Germany. A federal “church tax” pays for the construction of community centers, homes for the elderly, and hospitals, as well as churches.


Universal education was provided free of charge in both East and West Germany. It is compulsory from ages 6 to 18. Kindergarten classes begin at age three. Class size is small, with one teacher for every 18 students at the primary level. At age 10, students must make a decision that will have a profound effect on the rest of their life. They must choose between technical schools, which lead to apprenticeships and trade occupations, business schools, which lead to jobs in commerce and the civil service, or academic schools, which lead to university entrance.

Most German children go to public schools, although private schools do exist. Student exchange programs are very popular. Students often travel abroad spending part of the summer in the United States, or the Easter break in the south of France. In addition to school trips, German families also enjoy traveling to other parts of Europe on vacations. Germans often speak several languages, with English being the most popular second language. University entrance is based on success in national tests. There is a definite ranking that identifies the most desirable universities. A large number of adult education centers are also available, and the adult literacy rate is more than 99 percent.

The German higher education system operates somewhat differently than does the American system. In Germany, as is true throughout the rest of Europe, post-secondary education is highly selective and few high school graduates qualify for college admission. The American system, on the other hand, is designed to educate the masses. The trade-off is that, in the United States, educational standards are considerably lower in order to accommodate the many deficiencies that such a system imposes. The problem in European countries, on the other hand, is a rather low percentage of collegeeducated people
when compared to the rest of the population.

Both the German and U.S. systems of higher education have advantages and shortcomings. Moreover, higher education in Germany is funded by the state through a national taxation system; that is, once students qualify through the entrance process, his or her education is nearly free. For several centuries, Germany has been widely respected for its excellent education system. In fact, the growth of many modern fields of academic study, ranging from hard sciences to humanities, took place in nineteenth-century Germany and rapidly diffused elsewhere to become what we know as the contemporary academic world.

German health-care facilities are excellent. The infant mortality rate is a low 4.1 children per 1,000 births, and the maternal mortality rate is 8 women per 100,000 births. The average life expectancy is 79 years. Aging of the population puts stress on the government to provide more health services and social assistance, including old-age pensions. At the same time, the proportion of the population in the workforce contributing tax dollars to pay for those services is declining. This is a problem faced by most developed countries. Municipalities, religious organizations, and private companies provide hospitals. It is estimated that about 43,000 people suffer from HIV/AIDS, and in 2003, fewer than 1,000 deaths were attributed to this disease.

Germany is located at the crossroads of Europe. While this has been important to its growth, it also means that it is a center for international crime, including drug trafficking and terrorism. As with other developed countries, illegal drugs have become a problem in Germany. Heroin comes from southwest Asia, cocaine from Latin America, and synthetic drugs from within Europe. The requirement of the EU to open, rather than to close, Germany's borders makes it difficult for the country to stop this illegal activity.


After its political formation, East Germany grew very slowly and still had many small towns and a significant rural population among its 17 million people. In contrast, West Germany grew rapidly and became highly urbanized. In fact, most of West Germany's 62 million people lived in cities. The most densely populated part of Germany is the state of North Rhine-­Westphalia with more than 15 million people. Not surprisingly, since the nineteenth century, this state also has been the center of Germany's industrial development, a factor that also contributed to its dense population. One can drive a car through city after city—from Dortmund to Dusseldorf or Koln—and barely exit a continuous urban landscape.

As in the United States, people are now beginning to leave the large cities and live in suburban and rural areas. Excellent road and rail connections allow people to commute long distances. Some factories are moving out to the rural areas where land costs are lower, wage rates may be lower, and environmental amenities for workers are more desirable. We need to understand, however, that rural areas in western Europe, hence in Germany, are a far cry from what the rural environment used to be. Life in the German countryside is the life of a postindustrial society with excellent living conditions and a highly developed infrastructure. In any corner of the country, it takes only a short drive to reach an autobahn (interstate-type highways) and large urban centers. While residents of rural Wyoming or South Dakota, for example, sometimes must drive for several hours just to reach a town with national superstores, rural Germans can hardly imagine such conditions. Although it is a sizable country by European standards, when compared to the United States, Germany is a densely crowded country in which there are few distance gaps.

In most of the United States, it is possible to travel several hundred miles by car, even on state and county highways. In Germany, a trip of 100 miles (160 kilometers) in one day on secondary roadways is a major accomplishment!

Berlin, with a city population of 3,400,000 (2005) and a metropolitan population of more than 4 million, is Germany's largest city. The name itself—Brlin—is of Slavic origin meaning the area fenced for cattle. Prior to the expansion of Germanic tribes, this area was mainly populated by Slavs. Eventually, they were assimilated into the German culture, and toponyms (place names) were changed to German pronunciation. Frederick the Great of Prussia chose it as the capital of Germany at the end of the eighteenth century. It remained the capital of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and Nazi Germany. In 1945, the city, like Germany itself, was divided into east and west, although it was completely surrounded by East Germany. Berlin remained the capital of East Germany, and Bonn was named the “temporary” capital of West Germany. Bonn was a small city on the Rhine and even today has a city population of only 312,295 and a metropolitan population that barely exceeds a half million. In 1990, Berlin again became the capital of the unified German state. However, the upper house of parliament, called the Bundesrat, and eight federal ministries remain in Bonn.

The fact that Germany is a collection of many former small states means that there are other large cities throughout the country that first grew as state capitals. Two main axes can be identified. South from the Rhine-­Rhur rivers are Cologne (976,000), Essen (585,000), and Dusseldorf (574,000). Along the Main River is Frankfurt (648,000) and the Neckar River, Stuttgart (590,000). Cities east of the Ruhr and just north of the border of the Central Uplands are Hanover (516,000), Leipzig (502,000), and Dresden (500,000). Freestanding cities include Berlin, Hamburg (1.7 million), and Munich (1.3 million). Many of these cities are located on major rivers providing excellent transportation links for their development as industrial centers.