Hans F. Zacher

President of the Max Planck Society from 1990 to 1996

A portrait by Barbara Abrell

Hans Zacher was born in Erlach am Inn, Lower Bavaria, in 1928, the son of a village schoolteacher. "The village we lived in was small and impoverished," he says. Yet his house was a little treasure trove full of books. Very austere conditions but an appreciation of education and culture: "a wonderful foundation upon which to grow". The nearest "little town with any sign of an urban culture" lay on the opposite bank of the Inn, in Austria: Braunau. The nearest city was Passau, 60 kilometres away. "My early childhood had nothing to do with law," he would later write in an autobiographical draft. "Social norms, religious standards, customs and constraints" – but not law.

That all changed when Hitler came to power. There was an increase in the number of laws which changed people's lives. And in the despotism of the party. His family now underwent a painful "loss of rights, loss of protection": "as party coercion was permitted to undermine freedom and privacy, as people time and again found no protection against being insulted, threatened, robbed and beaten by exponents of the party". Today, Hans F. Zacher relates: "It wasn't long before my parents had only a small group of friends with whom they could talk openly. I remember them all with gratitude. They were important to us for surviving the madness of the times."

"The law needs people who defend the law"

From 1939 onwards, Hans Zacher attended grammar school in the neighbouring town of Simbach. In 1944 he was called up to join the Luftwaffe auxiliary personnel and was pressed into service in the Reich Labour Service in 1945. He returned home from a brief stint in an American prisoner-of-war camp at the end of May 1945 and passed his Abitur just two years later at a school in Passau. For some time he toyed with the idea of studying Catholic theology or history. Both subjects had issues against them which he could not overcome. Eventually, the 18-year-old took the advice of his battery commander from his Luftwaffe days – himself a legal scholar and an unusually cultivated man – who had remained a friend to him. He had recommended he study law.

Hans Zacher thus enrolled in the Faculty of Law at Bamberg in 1947/48, later changing to the university at Erlangen and then Munich. It was here that he met professor of public and administrative law Hans Nawiasky. Half Jewish, Nawiasky had met with hostility from the Nazis long before 1933 and had to flee to Switzerland that year. Having come back to work in Munich after 1945, he became one of the fathers of the Bavarian constitution from 1946. A "lucky encounter", because it was he who inculcated into the inquisitive young man at a very early stage the fact that "the law cannot enforce itself", as many proponents of natural law believed at that time, telling him: "The law always needs people who defend the law".

Hans F. Zacher obtained his doctorate in 1952 on the subject of "The re-establishment of the parliamentary system after the Second World War". His PhD supervisor, Hans Nawiasky, invited him to go for his postdoctoral lecturing qualification. He also suggested the topic of his dissertation: "The constitutional law of state social intervention". In spite of all the social problems of the age, this was a completely overlooked subject. "If you work on that, you will be working in a dark hole," said Hans Nawiasky. "But you will have it all to yourself for a long time." "And he was right," laughs Hans F. Zacher today. Social law became the centre of his legal life.

Practicing law by day, writing his dissertation by night

He passed the second state examination in law to complete his education in 1955. This marked the start of a very turbulent time for Hans F. Zacher. There was no post available in the Faculty. He had to earn a living practicing law. He worked from 1955 to 1963 at the Higher Administrative Court of Bavaria, the Federal Constitutional Court and in the Bavarian public administration. He married, and it wasn't long before children arrived. He spent his nights and weekends writing the dissertation for his post-doctoral lecturing qualification. And in 1962 he qualified.

Hans F. Zacher only started to live a "normal" life in 1963 when he was appointed full professor of law of state (and its organs), administrative and ecclesiastical law in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of the Saarland in Saarbrücken. "Receiving that appointment was one of the most tremendous experiences of my life," recalls Hans F. Zacher. What happened was, the appointment list had already been finalised when he was invited to Saarbrücken "by mistake" to give a presentation. When that was enthusiastically received, the Appointment Committee invited Hans F. Zacher to send in the as yet unprinted manuscript of his postdoctoral dissertation. The committee went through it in a hurry, each member reading a separate part of the manuscript. The list was discarded and the decision was taken in his favour.

The concept of the social market economy

From then on his sphere of influence quickly widened. Besides his research and teaching responsibilities, Hans F. Zacher was assigned numerous other functions: in the Association of German Constitutional Law Professors and in the Association of German Jurists. To advance the science of social law: as co-founder of the German Association for Social Law. To make a start with a science of European social policy: as a founding member of the European Institute for Social Security. Among other posts, he was the first chairman of the "Social Security Code Committee", which he influenced greatly. The committee formulated the concept and fundamental drafts for the Social Security Code, which was put into practice incrementally from 1975 onwards – and remains partly unfinished to this day.

In addition to this, the intensively interdisciplinary faculty encouraged him to apply himself to economic law, particularly the economic constitution. The concept of the social market economy had a lot in common with social law. "But my cooperation with fellow scientists on the economics side was not free of tension," says Zacher. "The avid market economists in my faculty were suspicious of any attempt to even contemplate the state bearing responsibility for economic policy. For them it was about warding off intervention and guaranteeing competition." His involvement with economic law also led him to a new role: as a member of the Ministry of Economics' Scientific Advisory Board.

Back in Munich

In 1971 the Faculty of Law of the Ludwig Maximilian Universität (LMU) gave him an appointment in Munich, where he took over the Chair of Public Law. Soon afterwards, the Max Planck Society began to think about adding a Max Planck Institute for International and Comparative Social Law to the ranks of Max Planck institutes focusing on law, always with an international orientation. However, the research in this field was so underdeveloped that they wanted to start with a project group in the first instance. Hans F. Zacher was invited to head it. He accepted so that he wouldn't have to leave his Faculty yet again: as long as the project group was set up in Munich and as long as he could do it while remaining in his existing post. And that's just what happened. There was even more radical pioneering work to be done here than on the science of social law in Germany. "It was an immense but worthwhile challenge," says Hans F. Zacher. "The variety of constellations in which the concept of social security was realised in different states under different social and political conditions had to be appreciated, understood and evaluated."

The project group turned into the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law and Zacher was made Director of the Institute with which he would remain associated for the rest of his life. The Institute was to pursue a great many different dimensions of social law: the history of social law, the interdisciplinary nature of the science of social law, the international system of social law and its nationalistic manifestations, what international institutions were doing in terms of social policy, and the social law aspects and content of European Community law, as well as the support people receive under social law when they migrate from one social state to another. But most of all, the comparative study of social law was a regular theme. "I was particularly fascinated by the adventure of getting close both to the 'social law' in socialism and to the conceivability and reality of a 'social law' in developing countries." He had just become used to the ways of social law research in the global world when the collapse of communism changed them beyond all recognition.

President under the influence of German reunification

Hans F. Zacher also took on responsibilities in the Max Planck Society beyond the scope of his own Institute as Chairman of the Scientific Council, the general assembly of all Scientific Members of the Max Planck Society. This earned him much confidence. In 1989 he was elected President for the 1990 to 1996 term – the first person from outside the natural sciences to serve in this office.

When his predecessor, chemist and medic Heinz A. Staab, handed over the office of President to the legal scholar Hans F. Zacher in the summer of 1990, Germany's Monetary, Economic and Social Union had already come into force. The Unification Treaty negotiations began. With German reunification came the need to create a unified research architecture across the whole of Germany. "For the Max Planck Society this was at once a challenge and an opportunity," recalls Hans F. Zacher. On the strength of its extraordinary expertise the Society was able to take new initiatives which substantially augmented basic research both in the states of the former East Germany and across the country as a whole.

By way of an immediate action plan, the Max Planck Society established 27 working groups at universities, which were able to help breathe new life into research in Germany's new federal states. Two temporary branches of existing Max Planck institutes were created which took on seven areas of research focus in the human sciences for a set period of time. Establishing new Max Planck institutes, though, was a conflict-laden business. It took time to select the most innovative topics and the most innovative researchers with the expertise to handle them. And it took money.

On the other hand, key political powers and influential forces in society were pushing for research facilities of the former German Democratic Republic to be taken on-board and financed by the existing Max Planck institutes themselves. However, the GDR's facilities could only be taken on if they were at a level that met the requirements of internationally acknowledged cutting-edge research. And without sufficient funding it simply did not make sense to found new institutes. Having to go to great lengths to convince the powers that be, the Max Planck Society was eventually able to do things its way. By 1998, two years after the end of Zacher's term in office, 18 institutes had been built up, which quickly found worldwide recognition. And the success proved the Max Planck Society and its President right.

Growth in the eastern German states was accompanied by the need to make savings in the west. "Whole departments had to be closed, new appointments were not made," says Hans F. Zacher. With their "Federal Consolidation Programme", Germany's federal and state governments placed the Society under obligation to cut some eleven per cent of its budgeted posts, a total of 740 posts, within the space of a few years.

Besides the efforts to reconstruct the former East Germany, other areas for reform could not be overlooked. The internal structures of the Max Planck Society had to evolve: the appointment procedure, and how the scientific work of the institutes was evaluated, for example. And formulating an international research policy was a very desirable thing. Science is, in itself, international, that much was clear. But how research organisations could shape the transnational and international relations between them, and what sort of structure in state and society they should work towards, was another matter. European research policy presented a particular problem.

"But the basis of everything a Max Planck Society President does is to ensure the best possible development of the institutes," says Hans F. Zacher. "And I had 60 institutes to do that for in the former West Germany."

The emeritus

Hans F. Zacher retired as a Professor at the LMU and as a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society in 1996. Still, he is "not a man to rest", as he himself says. He advises, writes and travels – to meetings of the Max Planck Society's Senate, of which he is an Honorary Member, to meetings of the Scientific Council and of his Section, and to various Max Planck institutes on a wide range of occasions.

With regard to German reunification, he committed himself to a project to describe the history of German social policy from 1945 to the middle of the 1990s: from the four-way split of occupied Germany to the division into a free social state and a socialist state, through to the Federal Republic of Germany of the 1990s. Together with two historians and a social scientist, he assumed academic responsibility for this project, the results of which have been published in 11 volumes. His own personal work, too, has repeatedly turned to the evolution of the welfare state and social law in Germany and in Europe.

At the other end of the spectrum, he also entertains a deep-seated sense of responsibility for the social order of a global world. He draws significant impulses for this not least from the debates at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome, of which he has been a member since 1994. An international and interdisciplinary committee, this is an important arena for finding out about the social problems of the global word and helping to find appropriate solutions.

Consistent with his commitment to global issues, he is following the establishment of a second department at "his" Institute for Social Law in Munich, which is to focus primarily on the topic of a "world social order". "In a global world, the law is faced with the new responsibility of creating a socially acceptable order," Hans F. Zacher firmly believes.

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