After its long pre-modern stint as Europe’s most populated nation, France started transitioning to lower birth rates from the Napoleonic era, about a century in advance of the rest of Europe. On the eve of the First World War, its stagnant population made a stark contrast to German youth and virility. Considering the disparity in absolute numbers, 40mn French to 67mn Germans, it is not surprising that its General Staff looked with trepidation across the border and conscripted more men for longer periods than the Deutsches Reichsheer. And although France prevailed in the Great War, as was said of the Persians after Thermopylae, “any more such victories and they will be ruined”. Its morale collapsed upon invasion in 1940, leaving it to be occupied by the Nazis – thus apparently evidencing popular contemporaneous views of them as an effete race doomed to fail against Teutonic might.
Yet Germany too underwent a fertility transition after World War One, falling to replacement-level rates at around the time of the 1923 Weimar hyperinflation. For all their pro-natality efforts and anti-feminist zeal, the Nazis cardinally failed to pull Germany out of its demographic rut. The post-war baby boom crashed after 1970, and since then deaths consistently outnumbered births in Germany. Today France’s growing population of 62mn souls already has more children than Germany, whom it will overtake by around 2050, according to UN projections based on current trends. But unlike France in 1914, Germany needn’t worry too much about this. It is economically, politically and culturally intertwined with its erstwhile enemy and at least for now, the prospect of another European civil war is in the realm of fantasy.
The moral of this story? First, demography is an inherently difficult thing to predict – especially its key component, fertility, which depends on a myriad of economic, social and cultural factors whose relations to each other are still little-understood. Second, though demography is a powerful trend it is frequently superseded by social, political and technological developments. Third, and consequently, the deterministic concept that “demography is destiny”, relying as it does by necessity on the fallacy of linear extrapolation, is of very limited utility in forecasting the fates of nations.
An objective and in-depth look at Russian fertility trends shows that forecasts of Russia’s impending demographic doom, in which the Crescent replaces the Cross on its national gerb and ethnic centrifugal forces tear apart its Federation, are completely unrealistic. Though rhetorical hyperbole dismisses it as a dying nation with “European birth rates and African death rates”, the reality is that it is already fast recovering from the extended transition shock of the post-Soviet collapse. Instead, it is likely that the next few decades will see stagnant or slow population growth as Russian fertility patterns converge to that of France or Canada, with any shortfalls between births and deaths filled in by immigration; and after 2030, the world system faces a series of discontinuities that rend apart any predictive enterprise.