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Mun, Soo-Hyun
Division of General Studies
Research Interests
  • Modern Germany with an emphasis on gender
  • Military conscription
  • Border conflict
  • Population issue


The German Social Democratic Party(SPD) and the debate on the fertility decline in the German Empire (1870 similar to 1918)

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The German Social Democratic Party(SPD) and the debate on the fertility decline in the German Empire (1870 similar to 1918)
Mun, Soo-Hyun
Birth control; Birth strike; Fertility decline; Social welfare; SPD
Issue Date
KOREAN JOURNAL OF MEDICAL HISTORY, v.20, no.2, pp.555 - 590
This paper aimed to examine the debate over the fertility decline in the German Empire, focusing on the role of the SPD. During the German Empire, the fertility rate dramatically declined and the growing awareness of a continuous decline in the birth rate prompted a massive debate among politicians, doctors, sociologists, and feminist activists. The fertility decline was negatively evaluated and generated consciousness of crisis. However, it was not the only way to face this new phenomenon. Indeed, the use of birth control among the upper class was interpreted as a part of a modernizing process. As the same phenomenon reached the working class, it suddenly became a social problem and was attributed to the SPD. The debate over the fertility decline in imperial German society ridden with a fierce class conflict was developed into a weapon against the SPD. Contrary to the assumption of conservative politicians, the SPD had no clear-cut position on this issue. Except for a few politicians like Kautsky and the doctors who came into frequent contact with the workers, the "birth strike" was not listed as the main interest of the SPD. Even Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Social Democratic women's organization viewed it as a concern of the individual person which could not be incorporated in the party program. The women's organization of the SPD put priority on class conflict rather than issues specific to women. As a result, the debate over the birth rate decline within the SPD was not led by the women themselves. There could have been various means to stimulate the birth rate. Improvement in the welfare system, such as tax relief for large families, better housing conditions, and substantial maternity protection, could have been feasible solutions to the demographic crisis. However, Germany chose to respond to this crisis by imposing legal sanctions against birth control. In addition to paragraphs 218-220 of the German criminal law enacted in 1872 which prescribed penal servitude for anyone who had an abortion or people who helped to practice it, Paragraph 184.3 of the civil code was enacted in order to outlaw the advertising, display, and publicizing of contraceptives with an 'indecent' intention, although selling or manufacturing contraceptives was not forbidden. Such a punitive approach was especially preferred by the government and conservative parties because it was easy to implement and "cheap" in comparison with the comprehensive social welfare program. What made the SPD different from other conservative parties was the fact that the SPD opposed the government's attempt to prohibit contraception by means of strengthening a penal code. According to the SPD, it was not only morally unacceptable, but also technically impossible for the government to intervene in family limitation. Moreover, politicians from the SPD criticized that such a punitive policy targeted the working class because the upper echelon of the society could easily evade the ban on contraceptives. However, the SPD did not proceed to draft comprehensive social welfare measures in order to fight the fertility decline. The miserable condition of working class women remained as an invisible social phenomenon even within the SPD. The German women who could not find the proper means to practice contraception were driven to have abortions. Annually, hundreds of the women were accused of practicing abortion and imprisoned. In sum, German society ran about in confusion and did not know how to properly respond to the unprecedented decline in fertility. By defining the fertility decline just as a social disease due to moral decay and influence of socialism, German society lost a chance to rationalize itself. Given that women, the main actors, had no way to take part in the debate over this issue, it is not surprising that German society fought against the symptom of the disease, not against its root.
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