Like other Eastern European countries, East Germany experienced a sharp and rapid decline in period fertility rates after the fall of communism. While there were still 180,000 births in 1990, there were only 110,000 a year later - a drop in the number of births by about 40 percent over the period of a single year. During this time, migration from East to West Germany had reduced the population size in the East considerably. In the period 1989 to 1991 alone, about one million East Germans had migrated to the West. In this sense the massive East to West migration has clearly distorted the usefulness of the annual number of births as a fertility indicator since the potential number of mothers has been considerably reduced.
However the total fertility rate (TFR), which standardizes for population size and age structure, does shows a drastic reduction in fertility. As can be seen from the graph below, the East German TFR dropped from 1.5 in 1990 to 1.0 in 1991, reaching its lowest level of 0.8 in the years 1992 to 1995. Since that time the East German TFR has steadily increased, but has still not reached West German fertility levels.
(Please click over image for better viewing)
Although, there is a general consensus that in the years immediately subsequent to unification East Germany underwent a fertility crisis, there has been some dispute about the general course of East German fertility. In particular it is possible to contrast two rival hypotheses: a crisis and an adaptation one. Advocates of the ‘crisis hypothesis’ argue that unfavorable economic constraints have kept East Germany’s fertility below West German levels and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Supporters of the ‘adaptation hypothesis’ are more optimistic in that they argue that even though the East Germany economic environment has significantly fallen behind the West German one, individuals in the neue Länder (new federal states) are now subject to very similar institutional constraints as their counterparts in the alte Länder (old federal states). Assuming that family policies, tax regulations and ultimately the entire welfare system are important parameters in fertility decisions, one might expect East German fertility to converge towards West German levels were the economic environment, and in particular the labour market conditions, to imporove. Advocates of the ‘crisis hypothesis’ have taken the drop in annual birth rates as an unmistakable sign of an East German fertility crisis, and have even honed down the crisis view to ask whether East Germany (and possibly even the whole of Germany) might not now be caught in a fertility trap.
Other have suggested that while this interpretation might have been correct for the years around unification, it has now become increasingly inapplicable. It is well known that period fertility indicators are questionable in their reliability as indicators of longer term fertility trends, and in particular when there are rapid changes in childbirth timing. A decline in period fertility rates can indicate a decline in lifetime fertility, but it might also be a reflection of the postponement of motherhood to higher ages. This aspect seems to be of particular importance in the case of East Germany. Like most other former Eastern Bloc countries the mean age of women at childbirth was very low in East Germany - when compared with Western Europe - at the end of the 1980s.
In 1989, the mean age at childbirth was just 24.7. On the other hand,the mean age at childbirth in West Germany was 28.3 in the same year.
This considerable difference in the age at childbirth between East and West Germans is crucial for understanding the depth of the ‘East German fertility decline’. Even if East German women, who were childless in 1990, temporarily gave up on childbearing during the upheavals of unification, they were generally young enough to postpone childbearing to later periods in their lives without hitting the biological limits to fertility. In other words, what looks like a fertility crisis from the point of period fertility indicators could in fact be a postponement of childbirth to West German age levels.
This being said, the ongoing level of fertility in West Germany is itself well below replacement, so that even a modest recovery in East German tfrs would hardly be a resolution of the German "fertility issue".