Strategist and visionary in times of upheaval

The former President of the Max Planck Society and renowned social law expert Hans F. Zacher has passed away

February 20, 2015

As an expert in the law, it was he who established social law as a scientific discipline in Germany. As President of the Max Planck Society from 1990 until 1996, his name is inseparably linked with the development of the Max Planck Institutes in former East Germany. Hans F. Zacher left a mark on the Max Planck Society that endured long after his term of office. He died suddenly on 18 February at the age of 86 in Starnberg. “The contribution made by Hans F. Zacher to the success of the structural development of the Max Planck Society in former East Germany cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Under his leadership, Institutes were brought into being that have enriched not only the Max Planck Society, but Germany as a whole as a research location,” stressed current Max Planck President Martin Stratmann.

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Hans F. Zacher, President of the Max Planck Society from 1990 until 1996.

When Hans Zacher took office as President in the summer of 1990 – the first representative of the human sciences to hold this position – just seven months had passed since the wall dividing East and West Germany had fallen. Monetary, economic and social union had taken effect, while negotiations on the unification treaty were just beginning. Expectations among politicians for the development of a science landscape parallel to that in the West were huge. They insisted that the Max Planck Society take over existing institutions and urged speedy development of new Max Planck Institutes in the new states. Wolfgang Hasenclever, then Secretary General of the Max Planck Society, recalls those days: “Hans Zacher stood his ground in the face of stiff political pressure. He insisted on the principle of maintaining the scientific standards of the Max Planck Society, and he prevailed.”

In this situation, Zacher succeeded both in meeting short-term needs as well as in safeguarding long-term success: As part of an immediate action program, he first established the facility to set up science-driven working groups at East German universities. A total of 27 such groups, along with the establishment of two temporary branches of existing Max Planck Institutes and seven areas of research with emphasis in the human sciences made a major contribution towards revitalizing East German science. At the same time, Zacher also prevailed in ensuring that the principles of the Max Planck Society remained the highest priority in the new federal states: That meant that existing institutions were taken over only in individual cases in which these came up to the standards of the Max Planck Society. Otherwise the alternative was to set up new Institutes in the most innovative fields and with the world’s best minds. Current President Stratmann remembers the events of the time in which he experienced as a representative of scientific staff in his Section: “It was a defining experience for me to see how Hans Zacher made it abundantly clear to the politicians that caution took precedence over speed, and that the excellence of the Max Planck Society must not suffer in the face of potential new growth.” By 1998, two years after Zacher’s term of office ended, 18 Institutes had been established that met the demands of internationally recognized cutting-edge research. Today, they enjoy a worldwide reputation.

Growth in the new federal states in the East was accompanied by the imperative for savings at existing Institutes. The "Federal Consolidation Programme" implemented by the Federal and state governments obliged the MPG in a matter of a few years to cut around eleven percent of its establishment posts, a total of 740 jobs. “Communicating this conflicting development within the Max Planck Society in such a way as to ensure it was accepted was his greatest internal achievement,” says Thomas Trautner, who at the time was Max Planck Vice President. “He was helped by the fact that he had such strong feelings for the Max Planck Society and its employees, he was more than just a splendid research organizer.” At the same time, Zacher also succeeded in setting in motion a drive for renewal at the existing Institutes. During his term of office, a third of the Max Planck Institutes in West Germany undertook new areas of research. He also brought significant momentum to the promotion of women in science. Outside of the Max Planck Society as well, Hans F. Zacher consistently initiated innovation: he was, for example, instrumental in persuading the European Union to open its research framework programmes to basic research.

The injustice of the Nazi era was a defining experience

When Hans F. Zacher was elected as President in 1990, he could look back on almost 20 years of fruitful research at the Max Planck Society. In the mid-1970s he was appointed as head of a project group studying international and comparative social law in Munich. A few years later, in 1980, his group evolved into the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law. It was thanks to his commitment that this Institute developed into a research institution of worldwide importance.

The very fact that Hans F. Zacher took up law is attributable in part to his experiences in the National Socialist era. He recalled how he had been forced to witness “how freedom and privacy were subverted by Party coercion, how time and again people found themselves without protection when subjected to insults, threats, robbery and beatings by exponents of the Party.” When he returned home after a brief period as a prisoner of the Americans, he sat his school-leaving examinations in Passau in 1947 and went on to study law. He took his degree in just three years and was awarded a doctorate at the age of just 24, shortly after starting work as a junior lawyer. It was his doctoral supervisor, Hans Nawiasky, one of the fathers of the Bavarian constitution, who suggested that, for his postdoctoral teaching dissertation, he should choose a subject which was to occupy him for his whole life: the previously unstudied field of social law. The impact of this dissertation is illustrated by an anecdote concerning his appointment to his first professorial chair in Saarbrücken in 1963: The appointment list was already closed when Zacher happened more or less by chance to give a lecture in Saarbrücken. The members of the Appointment Committee were so impressed that they called for a copy of the as yet unprinted dissertation manuscript. As a result, the other candidates were rejected and Hans Zacher was awarded the chair.

In 1971, the Faculty of Law at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität appointed Zacher to a chair in Munich. It was there, five years later, that he became the head of the Max Planck Project Group for International and Comparative Social Law, where he was engaged in pioneering work. He laid the scientific basis for this important and extensive area of law. He was consistently able to recognize and consider new social realities at an early stage, and was a source of both theoretical and practical support for the development of social law. It may be said that social law remained close to his heart until the end of his life. As recently as 2013 he published an extensive work entitled “Social Policy in the Federal Republic of Germany. The Constitution of the Social”.

With the passing of Hans F. Zacher, the Max Planck Society has lost an outstanding scientist and former President who worked tirelessly for the good of the Society. As Martin Stratmann emphasises: “He never failed to stand up for science, to demand its freedom, to stress its vital benefits and sound a reminder of the responsibilities it carries.”


Biographical notes

Hans F. Zacher was born on 22 June 1928 in Erlach am Inn (Lower Bavaria), the son of a primary school teacher. In 1947 he sat his school-leaving examinations in Passau, before studying law from 1947 to 1951 in Bamberg, Erlangen and Munich. He took his doctorate in Munich in 1952 under the guidance of Hans Nawiasky. This was followed by practical training as a junior lawyer, which he concluded in 1955 by sitting the State Law Examination. From 1955 to 1963 Zacher worked at the Higher Administrative Court of Bavaria, at the Federal Constitutional Court and in the Bavarian civil service. During this time he worked on his post-doctoral teaching qualification which he completed in 1962 at the Faculty of Law at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. The subject of his dissertation was “The Constitutional Law of State Social Intervention” (later published as "Social Policy and Constitution in the First Decade of the Federal Republic of Germany"). In 1963, Zacher was appointed as Professor of Constitutional, Administrative and Church Law at Saarland University, subsequently moving in 1971 to the Faculty of Law at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, where he taught public law. In 1980 he was appointed as a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy.

Hans Zacher was married to Annemarie Zacher. The couple had seven children.

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