BERLIN — It’s as if Leipzig, Hanover, and Dresden had all disappeared in the blink of an eye, at least statistically speaking.
Germany, a country already deeply concerned about its rapidly dwindling population, released the results of its first census in nearly a quarter of a century and found 1.5 million fewer inhabitants than previously assumed.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had been concerned about the shrinking numbers of taxpayers and able-bodied workers. The question of how the coming, smaller generations would pay back German debts, much less the mounting liabilities and guarantees meant to contain the eurozone debt crisis is a central one here.
The census news, that Germany has 80.2 million people rather than 81.7 million, announced Friday by the Federal Statistical Office, accelerates an existing trend.
How a country known for its precision and exactitude could miss the mark so badly on something as simple as its population is a result of another German preoccupation: privacy. The past census, in 1987, was strenuously opposed by opponents who believed the government should not keep tabs on its citizens, which the Nazi regime abused.
German officials believed that the registries kept by all municipalities gave them a good idea of how many residents they had. But foreigners who registered when they moved in, as required, apparently were leaving the country without ever unregistering from their apartments. In the process they created what statisticians call “card-index corpses,” phantom residents who lived in the records long after having left the country.
“Demographers were trying to explain the healthy-migrant effect, why they were living to be 110 years old,” said Steffen Kröhnert, of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. “It turns out they had moved back to their home countries and were only living in the registries.”