Remembering Willy Brandt - Germany's transformative Chancellor

2 Jul 2016


[This is an updated version of an article we first published in February 2015 ]


This December will mark a historic occasion for European social democrats: the 50th anniversary of the coming to power for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Its ascension to office, under the charismatic leadership of Willy Brandt, took place in the backdrop of an unstable political and economic environment. After years of steady growth, the West German economy experienced a major recession; culminating in the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) losing the support of a coalition ally and thus its parliamentary majority. The SPD subsequently accepted an offer made by the Christian Democrats to enter into a “Grand Coalition” with them; a decision that would have far-reaching consequences in the years ahead.



The SPD’s decision to govern alongside its traditional rival was a controversial one, with a number of trade unionists wary of such a pact, and several students forming an “extra-parliamentary opposition” in response to the party’s arguably bold move. In the long run, however, the gamble paid off, with the SPD able to exert influence over important policy-making decisions. It not only played a key role in the adoption of a Keynesian economic strategy that restored the country’s economic fortunes, but its participation in government led to the CDU’s acceptance of a number of redistributive policies. The SPD not only demonstrated its ability to govern effectively, but its time in coalition also did much to enhance the public image of Willy Brandt, who three years later would become the first Social Democrat to hold the post of Chancellor for nearly four decades.

Elected in 1969, Brandt inspired many people with his calls for greater democracy and experiments in the domestic sphere.



Although forced to resign in 1974 in the wake of a political scandal in which a close aide was revealed to be a spy for East Germany, Brandt and his government (a coalition comprised mainly of social democrats 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.

Over the next five years, Brandt’s administration 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, and broadened entitlement to housing allowances, health insurance and social assistance. Indexation of maintenance assistance and livelihood aid was introduced, together with new regulations aimed at improving financial and integrational assistance for those with disabilities. The income limit for entitlement to allowances for families with two children was more than doubled, and aid for those participating in vocational training was improved.



Health insurance coverage was extended to the self-employed and agricultural workers and dependents, along with an

additional 30,000 pensioners, while 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 renovation purposes. Time limits on the length of benefit for hospital treatment were removed, improvements were made in orthopaedic care for accident victims and funeral assistance, and accident insurance was introduced for students and pupils.



Automatic increases in the pensions of war victims were also introduced, and a major overhaul of the pensions system in 1972 included provisions such as a flexible retirement age, a minimum pension for low-income earners with long career histories, and coverage for housewives and self-employed persons. To help parents caring for sick children, sickness benefits and home assistance were introduced, while a full maternity grant was provided in cases of in-patient 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. Experiments were also carried out in the areas of all-day schooling and comprehensive education, and university construction was accelerated. In the field of housing, new safeguards for tenants were introduced. And in in the workplace, measures were implemented such as increased sick pay, requirements on occupational safety, and the continued payment of wages in cases of sickness for manual workers.



A regulation in April 1970 improved care for seafarers in mediation, employment counselling, and vocational support. To improve incentives for employees working in Berlin, a law passed in June that year introduced a universal child benefit and a free wage tax and social security allowance of 8%. In 1971, the first regulation on dangerous work substances was issued, and a 1972 regulation on working in compressed air environments provided that workers could only be employed if examined by authorised physicians. Laws passed in 1972 and 1974 granted foreign workers the right to vote for and stand in elections to works and staff councils. Pension security was introduced for miners in cases of rationalization and mine closures, and new regulations were adopted to enhance professional training. One of the government’s most important reforms on behalf of worker’s rights, the Works Constitution Act of 1972, not only provided unions with greater rights in areas such as workplace access and workers under the age of majority with a degree of representation, but 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 democratise West German society. The voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, the right to public demonstration was relaxed, a liberalisation of existing laws on homosexuality and censorship was carried out, and the criminal law was 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. 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. Laws were also passed to promote saving schemes amongst workers, soldiers, judges, and federal civil servants, and aid to senior citizens was greatly expanded.



The record of any progressive government should be judged by the extent to which it contributed towards a lessening of inequalities within the society it led. By that definition, the Brandt Administration 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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