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No Dearth of Births in This Town

A baby boom is on in Cloppenburg, unlike the rest of Germany. Some see hope for the nation's future, but the secret may lie more in its past.

September 14, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CLOPPENBURG, Germany — Children are scarce in Germany, but not in this farming region of slaughterhouses and churches, where stores close before sunset and there's a baptism every weekend.

Some credit tradition, some God. Some say it's the return of Germans whose families were trapped in the Soviet bloc after World War II. A bit of all these things has made this town the nation's baby machine. But even Cloppenburg's higher-than-average fertility rate will barely sustain its population in coming decades.

Germany's birthrate is the lowest in Europe, a continent that is aging faster than any on Earth. Demographers and politicians are studying Cloppenburg's reproductive inclinations in hopes they can be transplanted to other regions. Reversing the downward birth spiral across Europe is crucial: Without more newborns, the ranks of workers will diminish, threatening the public purse and the ideal of social democracy.

Germany had 686,000 births last year, or about half as many as the early 1960s, according to the Office of Federal Statistics. The consequences of that trend are particularly disturbing when compared with the nation's 830,000 deaths in 2005.

The German government is working on legislation to encourage more children, including increased day care and better financial packages for women on maternity leave. In a not-very-subtle suggestion that professional couples can handle large broods, the nation's family minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is a doctor with seven children.

Germany's figures may be the most dramatic, but a report by the European Union predicts that by 2030 the number of people older than 65 on the continent will increase by 40 million while the working-age population will shrink by nearly 21 million. Muslim immigrants in Germany and other countries are filling part of the gap, but integration problems have intensified since terrorist bombings in Madrid and London.

It is unlikely, however, that Cloppenburg's zeal for procreation can be copied. This region's rhythms and religious beliefs, its sense of community and devotion to family, run counter to an increasingly secular, egoistic Europe, some say. In many ways, Cloppenburg, a place of prams and tiny bikes, is a glimpse less of the continent's future than its past.

"It's still accepted here that the woman stays home with the children, at least in the early years," said Markus Meckelnborg, a financial consultant with four children in the neighboring town of Emstek. "The question is, why is the trend going away from what's happening here? People are running away from church for this self-absorbed life and they end up at a shrink's office."

He sat at his dining room table and looked out across the patio. "It's not that everyone is following all the Catholic teachings, but the church's emphasis on the family is very strong here," he said. "We're not anonymous to one another. In a big city, people just want financial advice from the banker. But here they want the banker to know who they are, to understand their biographies."

North Sea winds shimmy through Cloppenburg's fields and whistle through its alleys. A Catholic enclave for more than two centuries, its families lived on rigid traditions and farmed sandy soils that seldom brought riches. In the 1950s, the economy shifted to livestock and slaughterhouses.

The local government offered tax breaks and affordable land to businesses and families. Today, unemployment is about 5%, compared with the national rate of 10.5%.

"Our success is that we were able to get ahead together," said Franz-Josef Holzenkamp, a member of Parliament representing the Cloppenburg region, which has a population of 156,215. "People stick to each other. They feel a responsibility to the place. The people here don't plan if they're going to have a child, they just say how many."

Holzenkamp, the son of a pig farmer, is one of seven children. He and his wife have four of their own.

"The family belongs to Cloppenburg's moral structure," he said. "It helps because we have a high standard of living and people aren't scared of the future like they are in a lot of Germany. I think with globalization, the individual needs a piece of home. We call it heimat."

The Rev. Michael Heyer is a slight man with a feel for demographic trends and the New Testament. The other day he strolled past magnolia and pine, waving to the choir gathering at a nearby school. He turned toward St. Margaretha's. The Catholic Church had 70 first communions last year, Heyer said, adding, "We do have weekends without funerals, but never one without a baptism."

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