"Life is longer without the Wall"

Interview with sociologist Tobias Vogt from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

November 09, 2014

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is it possible to say that the division of Germany has been overcome? Is life in the East and West now pretty much the same? Demographic indicators – above all mortality and fertility – are very helpful in providing answers to these questions. For this reason, politicians consult these metrics. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research study both of these areas and quickly dispense with the idea that the East is already exactly the same as the West. A conversation with sociologist Tobias Vogt about this, as he puts it, “fruitful topic.”

These days, people everywhere are commemorating and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But apparently the parallel existence of two German systems was not such a bad thing for you, right?

Tobias Vogt: (laughs) In principle, you’re right. I have to admit that, from a scientific perspective, the Wall was a gift. It gave us amazing experiment setups. A population is divided spatially, lives under completely different conditions for four decades and is then re-united. You could not have simulated these conditions in any experiment. Nevertheless, it was a good thing that the Wall came down again. This meant we could discover that the significant gap in the life expectancy of people in the West and East is closing again.

What is your own personal relationship with the GDR and the Wall?

I come from Jena and studied sociology and social policy in Halle and London. I was twelve years old when the wall came down. At that age you notice things changing. At school, in particular, a lot of things were different after 1990 – not just the curriculum. Many children stopped coming to school because their families had moved and jobs were lost. The streetscape changed as did the coloration of the cities. And, something I can remember very clearly: as an exception, you were allowed to buy New Year’s firecrackers for October 3, 1990 …

Certain myths, which the Max Planck Institute is trying to dispel, persist in relation to East and West. Regarding the topic of the “East’s low birth rate,” for example. What’s not right about this?

The aim of the GDR in the 1970s was to increase its birth rate, so it launched a successful pro-natalist policy. I was born in 1977 and am more or less a child of this period myself. Then reunification came and the birth rate plummeted – probably due to the enormous insecurity faced by people. Fewer children were born at the time than during the two World Wars. In the meantime, however, the East’s birth rate has overtaken that of the West again. In-depth analyses show that the number of children people ultimately had was higher than in the West; people merely delayed having children. This is not really surprising, as the attitude to children and external child care was always very different in the East than in the West.

Another myth concerns the influence of the GDR on current developments in East Germany. It wasn’t as significant as it seemed, was it?

The GDR was not an isolated phenomenon. Stable historical patterns can be observed in demographic sub-areas – what could be described as the staying power of history. Recent research shows that differences in relation to births outside marriage existed long before the GDR. This was not a result of the division of Germany. And life expectancy in Dresden was always higher than in some cities in the West.

Life expectancy and mortality are currently your own favorite topics. Why?

Even if they are not the main aspects of a research project – considerable attention is paid to these topics internationally and papers on them are always welcome at conferences. This is because an astonishing development has taken place in this area in the last 25 years: nowadays, women and men in the East live almost as long as they do in the West. They have really caught up and, as early as 2011, their life expectancy had increased by 6.6 and 7.9 years respectively since 1990. The corresponding increase in the West was only 3.9 for women and 5.7 for men. Even in Japan, the country with the world’s highest life expectancy, which has risen steeply in recent years, people gained fewer years of life than in the East.

And how do you explain this?

Older people, in particular, are benefiting from better medical care. Moreover, public spending for social insurance increased for Germans in the East. Their pensions are higher than before, which means that they have a better standard of living. The extra money may also be benefiting their children, who now take better care of their parents and enable them to have a carefree old age. There has also been a considerable decline in air pollution eastern Germany.

How much longer will you be able to benefit scientifically from the “Wall experiment”?

For quite a while, I think. The situation with regard to data is still unclear and many sources remain that have yet to be accessed. This phenomenon is familiar from other countries, for example South Africa where parallels arise with the end of apartheid. We are in demand as scientific “truffle hunters” who mine for data. The Federal Environmental Agency, the German Cardiac Society (DGK) – valuable information about mortality could be found in institutions like these. I am traveling to the Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde with a colleague tomorrow.  The social insurance data of East Germany’s FDGB (Free German Trade Union) are stored there, among other things. The purpose of our trip is to look at these records, take samples and consider whether they are worth digitizing.

That sounds exciting...

… yes, it is. Although it’s not the focus of media interest, we can now state definitively that if the Wall were still standing, boys born today would live 6.2 fewer years on average and girls 4.2 years. Life is longer without the Wall. That’s the good news we can assert based on our research!

Interview: Susanne Beer

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