Eva Herman, German media personality and motherhood campaigner, has put her foot in it. Launching her latest book in defence of the family and women's domestic role, the television talk show host happened to mention that family values were one thing the Nazis got right.
"It 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 families, that is a togetherness," she said, adding that it was all later "abolished" by "the 1968 generation".
Predictably, Ms Herman and her book — The Noah's Ark Principle: Why We Must Save the Family — were nearly buried by an avalanche of fury and indignation. For 60 years, the Third Reich has been the epitome of evil, all its policies and activities contaminated by the racial theory that led to the Holocaust.
Clearly, drawing inspiration from the Hitler era is not the way to win
converts to family values. Actually, it is hard to think of a worse
way. Be that as it may, somewhere under the rubble of this incident is
a message that Germany and much of the world needs to hear.
That includes the Lebensborn programme, instituted in 1935, under which women were encouraged and given every assistance to have children — the more the better. Married or unmarried, it didn't matter. What did matter was that a woman and her mate had the correct racial and genetic characteristics. This was all in aid of building up the master race, the "Aryans", which in Germany had taken such a beating after World War I.
For Ms Herman to find "something good" in this sounds, to some ears, tantamount to Holocaust denial. She might just as well have said that at least medical science was advanced in the death camps. The wounds of the Nazi era are far from healed in Germany and people are hypersensitive both to any signs of regression into Nazi ideology (like neo-Nazi skinheads kicking migrants to death) and to how this looks to the international community.
So, try as she might to clarify her intention ("This isn't about Hitler's values but about basic human values, which were abused in the Third Reich and later abolished"), and insist as she did that she rejects both far-left and far-right political parties, the damage was done. Applause from the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) did not help. Her bosses on the public television network ARD sacked her on the spot. They said guests had been cancelling their appearances on her show.
Clearly, drawing inspiration from the Hitler era is not the way to win converts to family values. Actually, it is hard to think of a worse way. Be that as it may, somewhere under the rubble of this incident is a message that Germany and much of the world needs to hear.
Although in many respects the leading nation of Europe and one of the leading nations of the world, Germany has an abysmal birth rate (1.39 children per woman) and the outlook is grim. Its population of 82 million has been maintained by large-scale immigration — notably from Turkey — but even if that continues, the birth dearth will see the population shrink over the next four decades by 8 to 13 million.
Eva Herman is not the only one to be sounding the alarm about this trend. With the possible exception of the Greens, everyone from the government's Minister for Family Affairs to those in the resurgent nationalist movement is concerned about a Germany in decline, dependent on immigrants — with all the cultural issues that involves — to maintain its workforce and pay its escalating pension bill. It is three years since Frankfurt newspaper editor Frank Schirrmacher wrote his best-selling doomsday tract, The Methuselah Conspiracy.
Disagreement arises over what and how much to do to encourage baby-shy Germans to produce more than one or two children. The government, following the global trend, is encouraging women to combine motherhood and a career in the workforce. This not only satisfies the dominant feminist school of thought; it is also an economic necessity, given the shortage of younger workers looming. Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, herself the mother of seven children, has pushed through policies to rapidly increase day care places and new parental leave laws designed to involve fathers and to get mothers back into the workforce more quickly.
The originality of Eva Herman lies in her surprising rejection of this dual-track womanhood. In her own best-selling 2006 manifesto, The Eva Principle, subtitled Towards a New Femininity, she tackles feminist assumptions head-on, calling for women to embrace motherhood again and find their primary source of identity and happiness in the domestic sphere. "Let's just say it loud," she writes. "We women have overburdened ourselves — we allowed ourselves to be too easily seduced by career opportunities." Women can't simultaneously raise children and pursue a career and do both jobs properly, she avers. Germans will die out if women do not change their ways.
Ms Herman is far from being a textbook champion of domestic bliss and motherhood. She certainly hasn't followed the conventional career path for one. At 48, she is four times married, has only one child — a son, now 10 — has always worked in a jetset career, and has enough free time to write a book every year or two.
Her "Nazi moment" also raises questions about her intellectual powers, if not her politics. But when you think about it, what other model of family oriented policy could she draw upon in Germany's recent history? She is at least right about the "1968 generation", whose radicalism lives on in the entrenched feminist prejudice against women having a distinct role to play in society. This was the generation that welcomed the contraceptive pill and saw the birth rate in Germany drop from 2.5 children per women in 1967 to 1.5 a mere five years later. It is the generation that still, largely, runs the country.
And the Nazis weren't the only ones who used an ideology to clobber their opponents. Sure, Nazi manipulation of the population for political ends merits outrage. But what about the state-sponsored birth control which has prevailed in the West for the past 40 years? Isn't that also a form of social engineering? Social engineering, one might add, that has its eugenic elements, as seen in the practice of abortion for fetal abnormality, and in the current desire of some Western governments to encourage births among professional middle-class women without giving new incentives to women who are already economically "unproductive".
In her enthusiasm for a good idea (and motherhood is a good idea) Ms Herman has overstated the case against combining motherhood with another career. There are women — Ursula von der Leyen is a dramatic example — who can do it very well. The majority of women, however, may be less interested in a dual "career" than in "work" that can bring in a second income for the family as well as develop their talents. How this can be done is very much a work in progress today, with the role of husbands in the home a significant part of the picture.
Where Ms Herman's strictures against working mothers count is in the first few years of a child's life. Evidence is mounting against the benefits of day care for children under four, even as governments, including Germany's, opt to expand this sector.
Eva Herman, like other pop-sociologists, sends a muddled message. What is important is not its detail but the direction in which she frantically points. In a country where 30 per cent of women have not had children, it may take more than a year's paid maternity leave plus two months' "papa leave" to prevent the slow decline of the German people.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.