Observing contemporary demography trends one might be forgiven for thinking that no previous times have been as radical and fast changing as ours. Demographers have noted with amazement the pace of Iran’s fertility decline in recent years, and we are witnessing unprecedented population ageing and are advised to prepare for radical changes in the welfare states of “old” Europe. When looking to a more distant European past we may find no less amazing societal and demographic changes.
In my new book Demographic Avant-Garde: Jews in Bohemia between the Enlightenment and the Shoah, I go as far as three centuries back in history to study a population group that transformed its demographic behaviour radically in the scope of just three decades – in a context where almost no other population group made such a turn. The demographic transition of Bohemian Jews took such a swing around mid-nineteenth century, when modern society was in the making. So what made Bohemian Jews into forerunners of the demographic transitions in the world?
I argue that Jews had a sort of “predisposition” to be the forerunners that, when coupled with certain legal and political changes in mid-nineteenth century, allowed them to accelerate their demographic transition. Jews of Bohemia had decreasing mortality and fertility already by the end of eighteenth century, at a time when industrialization in Central Europe was still far away in the future and when Jews were still living legally restricted lives in the ghettos. Jews’ lower mortality rates derived from Jewish life-style, religious prescriptions and culture – from such things like personal hygiene, food and diet restrictions, breastfeeding or social care institutions. Their lower fertility rates are harder to explain. At least partly it may have been influenced by the particular success of Jewish secular schooling in Bohemia (introduced in 1780s) and the impact of the Jewish religious reform movement Haskalah. Jewish openness to the gentile culture and strive for the opportunities outside the traditional community was thus enabled and the cultural change could impact reproduction behaviour. After the historic abolishment of legal restrictions against Jews in 1848, Bohemian Jews experienced fast urbanisation and general social ascent. All this contributed to the earlier and quicker course of their demographic transition.
The pace of the change was amazing; in the scope of about three generations between 1840s and 1880s Jews in Bohemia transformed from poor ghetto inhabitants and rural peddlers into urban upper-/middle class with high human capital, small families and solid life expectancy. By 1904 their natural increase became negative and population ageing was a serious problem of the community between the world wars. Fertility decline by the end of the nineteenth century was remarkably fast. Lifetime fertility of married women born in 1850s was at four children. This already relatively low level still decreased further to below 1.8 for married women born in 1880s.
This story of a small specific population from Central Europe highlights some essential features of an early and fast demographic transition. First, culture needs to be open to what lies beyond the local community and to individualism, and has to be free of the monopolistic influence of rigid religious orthodoxy. Second, this cultural readiness needs to be empowered through a shift towards universal secular education and a legal framework that assures the equality of all citizens and the freedom to migrate, and by socio-economic conditions that allow individuals to fulfil their career aspirations. These four factors make up the causal constellation that explains why one particular group in time became one of the historical forerunners of the demographic transition in all of Europe. The same constellation of factors, possibly at a different pace and differently sequenced, is likely to drive the ongoing demographic transitions that we are observing today elsewhere in the world.