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Germany’s Political Debate on the Role of the Family

by Vera von Kreutzbruck

The prominent German talk show host, Eva Herman, has been in the eye of the storm ever since she praised Hitler’s promotion of motherhood in a recent press conference. Last month while promoting her new book, The Noah’s Ark Principle: Why We Must Save the Family, she reportedly made this explosive statement: “The Third Reich was a gruesome time with a totally crazy and highly dangerous leader who led the Germans into ruin, as we all know. But there was at the time also something good, and that is the values, that is the children, that is the families, that is a togetherness, all of these values were subsequently abandoned by the 1968 generation.”

The Nazis offered incentives to German women to procreate and introduced the “Lebensborn” program (fount of life in German) to create a master race of blond, blue-eyed children. Mothers with three or more children under 10 years old received “honorary cards” allowing them to jump shopping queues and get discounts on their rent. Cheap state loans were offered for parents, and there was the “Mother’s Cross” medal: bronze for four children, silver for six and gold for eight.

Eva Herman’s comments provoked outrage in Germany. Soon after this incident, she was fired by the public broadcaster (ARD) that had employed her for 19 years as a newscaster for the most popular news program in the country. Her only support came from the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which went so far as to invite her to advise them on family policy.

To make matters worse, last week the author was a guest on a popular talk show, and when asked what her current position was with respect to her Third Reich statement, instead of apologizing, she insisted she hadn’t made a mistake. A short while later, the moderator asked her to leave the studio in the middle of the show.
Even the publisher of her bestselling books has distanced himself from Herman declaring recently to a newspaper that her latest behavior on TV is the “biggest disaster” he has experienced in his 40 years as a publisher.

In fact, the whole controversy dates back to last year, when the 48-year-old journalist published her first anti-feminist pamphlet, The Eve Principle, which skyrocketed to the bestseller list in Germany soon after its release. The book promotes a return to pre-feminism ideals by declaring that women should stay at home and bear children since, Herman argues, if they don’t change their behavior, the country will die out.

Soon afterwards the former anchorwoman became the target of scorn from all sides of the political spectrum. Accused of sending women back to the 1950s, her critics said that she, as someone who successfully combines her career with childrearing, was guilty of hypocrisy.

Parent Money

But this opportunistic motherhood crusader is just a bizarre figure in an ongoing political discussion on the role of the family in modern German society. The catalyst of the debate is the German Minister for Family Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, who took office in November of 2005. She opposes Herman’s beliefs and thinks that women should go back to work as quickly as possible after having children.

Von der Leyen, mother of seven children, is a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which rules in conjunction with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD); the conservative CDU is not exactly famous for its liberal policies towards women.

Flying in the face of opposition from within her own ranks, the Family Minister launched a series of radical measures to encourage reluctant German couples to breed. The measures – a combined version of the flexible child care of France with the financial incentives of Sweden – include tax breaks for working couples, more public daycare centers for kids under three and a state-funded welfare scheme.

Under the plan, which came into effect on January 1, the federal government pays mothers or fathers two-thirds of their last net paycheck – up to $2,500 (€1,800) – for up to 12 months so long as they stay at home to take care of their baby. And if the other parent takes an additional two months off to care for the child, the government gives the couple two extra months of pay.

The major disadvantage of this new program, known as “Elterngeld,” or Parent Money in English, is that it primarily benefits financially well off families since the financial support is tied to income. The unemployed and low earners actually did better under the old system, which paid up to $425 (€300) a month for two years.

Raven Mothers

Nonetheless, what originally seemed like a simple idea is, in fact, a controversial program in a country where preschoolers tend to stay at home, and mothers who send their kids out into the world too soon are labeled “raven mothers”. (The raven, a common bird, is known to push its young out of the nest at a very early age. Germans use this phrase as a synonym for bad parent.)

Elsewhere in Europe or in the USA, both women and men are used to leaving their young children in daycare so that the mothers can return to the labor market. In contrast, working women in Germany have a particularly hard time getting back to work once they have a child, due to the country’s lack of full-day schools, kindergartens and public daycare centers.

Indeed, the German government has been slow to adapt its family policies to the exigencies of the typical modern family. However, most Germans remain unconvinced that the new payment system will change anything. Barely a fifth of the population believe that the new law will lead to more births, according to a survey published at the beginning of the year.

However, what’s interesting is that the debate reflects a departure from the tradition of preschoolers’ staying at home, which was previously the family-care policy of the two main parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Social Union. The emergence of the “Elterngeld,” or Parent Money program and the debate on what is ideal family care is in and of itself a victory. It still remains to be seen which model will best fit the changing German society.

About the Author

Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.

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