Remembering Willy Brandt: The chancellor of change


May 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the resignation of Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, in the wake of a political scandal in which a close aide was revealed to be a spy for East Germany. Despite the circumstances under which he was forced to leave office, Brandt and his government (a coalition comprised mainly of socialists and liberals) left behind a legacy of radical social reform that had turned West Germany into a fairer society, and remains an inspiration to progressives today.


Elected in 1969 (the first social democrat to hold the post of Chancellor for nearly four decades), Brandt inspired many people with his calls for greater democracy and experiments in the domestic sphere. Over the next five years, Brandt’s socialist-liberal government arguably did much to meet people’s expectations for change. The social security system was greatly expanded, with improvements in existing programmes such as pensions, family benefits, and unemployment allowances, alongside broadened entitlement to health insurance and social assistance. Health insurance coverage was extended to the self-employed, agricultural workers and dependents, with accident insurance made available to students and pupils. Health insurance funding was introduced for preventive medical examinations for the under-5s and early cancer detection for men and women from the ages of 45 and 30, respectively. The compulsory threshold for health insurance was increased and index-linked, and more money was made available to hospitals for medical technology, new buildings, and renovating purposes. Time limits on the length of benefit for hospital treatment were removed, and improvements were made in orthopaedic care for accident victims.


Automatic increases in the pensions of war victims were also introduced, and a major overhaul of the pension system in 1972 included provisions such as a flexible retirement age at 63, a minimum pension for low-income earners with long career histories, and coverage for housewives and self-employed persons. To help parents with caring for sick children, sickness benefits and home assistance were introduced, while a full maternity grant was provided in cases of inpatient treatment for deliveries. In 1974, a law was passed that made independent old-age provisions available for those who had cared for (without receiving any money for services provided) people in receipt of a nursing grant. Brandt’s commitment to extended welfare provision was arguably characterised by a big rise in social spending, which as a proportion of GDP rose from 25% to 33% during his time as Chancellor.


Educational opportunities were encouraged through reforms such as the elimination of tuition fees, the raising of the school leaving age to 16, and the introduction of a financial assistance scheme that led to a considerable increase in the proportion of students from working-class backgrounds in higher education. In addition, experiments were carried out in the areas of all-day schooling and comprehensive education, and university construction was accelerated.


With regards to housing, new safeguards for tenants were introduced. And in the workplace, measures were implemented such as increased sick pay, requirements on occupational safety, the continued payment of wages in cases of sickness for manual workers, and the Works Constitution Act of 1972. The latter measure not only provided trade unions with greater rights in areas such as workplace access and workers under the age of majority with a degree of representation, but it also established the universal right to democratic representation via works councils in all firms with more than five employees.


In the liberal sphere, Brandt’s government did much to further democratise German society. The voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, the right to public demonstration was relaxed and a liberalisation of existing laws on homosexuality and censorship was carried out, with criminal law being updated and humanised. The breakdown of marriage as the sole ground for divorce was also introduced, while the duration of compulsory military service was reduced and the cohabitation of unmarried couples legalised.


Brandt’s administration also left its imprint on other aspects of life in West Germany during its time in office. Urban rehabilitation programmes were actively encouraged, efforts were made to bring about improvements in the country’s railways and motorways, and a wide range of measures aimed at safeguarding the environment were carried out. For women and children, a 1970 law improved maintenance by fathers and provided mothers with full parental custody, while bestowing upon illegitimate children the same inheritance rights as legitimate children.


The record of any progressive government should be judged by the extent to which that administration contributed towards a lessening of inequalities within the society it led. By that definition, Brandt’s government can be regarded as a success. Brandt and his ministers did much to transform West Germany into a fairer and freer society, and it is this legacy of positive social change that Willy Brandt should be remembered for.

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