How has the pandemic affected the number of people in Germany’s cities?

Are we seeing the end of the big-city boom in Germany and a mass rural exodus? A new study shows that could very well be the case. In one city the population decline is particularly striking.

How has the pandemic affected the number of people in Germany's cities?
Schlossplatz in Stuttgart in summer 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

For years the number of residents in Germany’s biggest cities grew strongly. But then the pandemic began, throwing uncertainty into the air.

In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the growth of Deutschland’s big cities, researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) found after analysing population data in the 15 largest German cities.

Lower immigration, fewer births and more deaths in the first pandemic year of 2020 are responsible for this, the researchers say. The study authors also see signs of a negative shift in 2021.

The researchers looked at population trends in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden, Hanover, Düsseldorf, Essen, Bremen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Dortmund and Duisburg.

READ ALSO: Are Germans really fleeing the cities for an idyllic life in the countryside?

At the end of the decade (2010 to 2020) these cities had grown almost without exception, by an average of 0.55 percent between 2017 and 2018. In 2019, growth was about 0.36 per cent.

In 2020, however, the bottom line was an average minus of 0.18 percent growth, with Leipzig, Hamburg and Munich being the only three cities which have been able to record small or moderate growth.

Frankfurt and Berlin stagnate, while Stuttgart loses many people

According to the report, the greatest decline in population was in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, with a drop of more than one per cent of its population.

In Berlin, Frankfurt am Main and Essen, population development stagnated in 2020. In Dortmund, Hanover, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bremen, the researchers registered a weak to moderate shrinkage of the population. The population declined sharply not only in Stuttgart, but also in Duisburg and Nuremberg.

This new development is said to come from several factors. The number of people moving into cities – from abroad as well as from rural areas – has been of great importance for booming large German cities in recent years.

In 2020, perhaps not surprisingly, there was a slump. Across all municipalities, the number of people moving into cities fell by almost 17 per cent, while the number of people moving out fell by 9 percent.

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The ratio of births to deaths was also unfavourable last year: a 2.5 per cent drop in births contrasted with a nearly 5 percent increase in deaths in urban areas.

Overall the pandemic has had an impact on population development in Germany. According to an initial estimate by the Federal Statistical Office, the population in Germany did not increase in 2020 for the first time since 2011. Rather, it stagnated at 83.2 million residents

“It appears that in the first Corona year 2020, long-term trends in population development in Germany’s 15 largest cities were slowed down or interrupted,” write the UFZ researchers.

They also expect population figures to continue to decline in 2021. It can be assumed that “only low growth rates, stagnation and increased shrinkage can be observed”.


Number of inhabitants/population – (die) Einwohnerzahl

Plummet/nosedive – einbrechen

Population development – (die) Bevölkerungsentwicklung

Immigration – (die) Zuwanderung 

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EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

Standard German is called Hochdeutsch and is heard all over the country. But there are many regional dialects and other languages spoken in Germany.

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

The wide-ranging dialects of Germany

There are believed to be as many as 250 dialects of German, with many tracing back to the languages of Germanic tribes.

In the north and around Berlin, many dialects have been displaced by the standard German language, however in the south, dialects are still prominent. This divide is thought to be due to the fact that the upper German south was a strongly rural region for a long time, becoming industrialised a lot later than its northern counterpart.

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Rheinhessisch (from Rheinhessen) and Pfälzisch (from Rhineland-Palatinate) belong to a group of Rhine-Franconian dialects which are spoken across the western regions of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse, and even in the northeastern part of France. 

Bairisch – from Bavaria – is one of the most widely spoken dialects and is more easily understood by German speakers, partly due to its prominence. 

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: "I mog di" (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019.

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: “I mog di” (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Other dialects include Schwäbisch, Kölsch, Hamburgisch and Allgäuerisch.

READ ALSO: The complete guide to dialects in Germany

But how many people actually use their dialects on a daily basis?

According to a survey by the Institute for the German Language (IDS) in Mannheim, every second German claims to be able to speak a dialect. 

However, decline in dialects has been noted by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research. In 1991 the institute found that 41 percent of Germans in the former East almost always spoke in dialect. By 2008 this number had dropped to 33 percent. In the west, this figure fell from 28 to 24 percent. 

It is also a lot more common for older generations to speak in dialect, which is contributing to its decline.

While many dialects are gradually disappearing, a so-called Regiolekt (regional dialect), which is a combination of dialect and standard language, seems to be sticking around. This is a regional, colloquial language that still maintains the grammar of High German. For example, the word “ich”, which people in Hesse and some other regions pronounce as “isch”, has been integrated into standard German.

What about other languages?

Overall, around 67 percent of the population speaks at least one foreign language, with 27 percent mastering two.

The most common second language is English, with many Germans learning English in school, especially with the emergence of bilingual kindergartens and schools. A number of businesses and start-ups in Germany use English as a working language, and even universities offer many classes or degrees in English, which further encourages teaching of the language. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like working at a Berlin tech startup

English is taught in schools in Germany.

English is taught in schools in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marijan Murat

Learning French or Latin is also still a popular option in German high schools. If you’re living near the Western or Eastern borders, it isn’t uncommon for Dutch or Russian language classes to be offered (the latter being especially the case in former GDR or East German states). 

Due to the number of first and second-generation immigrants from Turkey, Turkish is also widely spoken in households across Germany.

Minority languages in Germany

Minority languages have long played an important part in German culture, with Germany being one of the first countries to sign the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from the Council of Europe in 1992, aiming to preserve minority cultures in modern Europe, encouraging tolerance and diversity.

The minority languages most present in Germany include Romani (0.8 percent of the population), Danish (0.06 percent of the population) and the Frisian languages, including North Frisian and West Frisian from Schleswig-Holstein and the North Frisian islands, and Saterland Frisian spoken in Lower Saxony.

The West Slavic languages of Upper and Lower Sorbian spoken in Saxony and Brandenburg, while mostly spoken by older generations, have been given the right to protection under the Brandenburg constitution.

Low German or Plattdeutsch is closely related to Frisian, and is also spoken mainly in Northern Germany. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages