History of the Social Law Department | Max-Planck-Institut für Sozialrecht und Sozialpolitik - MPISOC
Department for Foreign and International Social Law

Research on Core Welfare State Issues

Foundation of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law in 1980

The founding of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law in 1980 was a milestone for social law research. For the first time since World War II, legal scholars systematically recorded national social law and compared it with foreign legal systems – always in search of insights that could, on the one hand, further develop the theoretical foundation of social law scholarship, and on the other hand, contribute in a very practical way to solving social problems. In 2011, the Institute was expanded to include an economic department and was subsequently renamed the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. That the Institute would one day become an internationally recognised centre for social law and a meeting place for researchers interested in social law and social policy issues was not a foregone conclusion and required a great deal of commitment from the researchers involved. This was because the Max Planck Society (MPS) initially did not approve an independent institute, but only a five-member Project Group for International and Comparative Social Law with an operation term of five years.

The Project Group

In the early years, the project group worked in Akademiestraße.

In founding a project group, the MPG had responded to a request by Prof. Dr. Georg Wannagat (1916-2006), President of the Federal Social Court from 1969 to 1984. In the summer of 1972, he had written a letter to the then President of the MPS, Reimar Lüst (1923-2020), suggesting that comparative and international social law be included in the research programme of the Max Planck Society. In doing so, Wannagat pursued the goal of dragging social law out of the "academic offside". Efforts to bring social law closer to the academic sciences had already been made in the late 19th century. During the Nazi and post-war periods, however, these efforts almost completely disappeared into insignificance. Until the project group was founded, social law research in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) had hardly been conducted – certainly not with regard to fundamental issues. However, the passing of a large number of new social laws in the then FRG and the resulting court decisions made this necessary, as did an increasingly active role for Germany on the international stage. The FRG's membership in associations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the European Community and the Council of Europe went hand in hand with inter- and supranational obligations, which is why the academic development of international social law (bi- and multilateral treaty law and the law of international organisations) and the freedom of movement-specific social law of the European Communities became increasingly urgent.

Wannagat would have liked to see the Max Planck researchers working in Kassel, the seat of his court. However, Bavarian-born LMU professor Hans F. Zacher (1928-2015), who had been chosen to lead the group, did not want to relocate to Kassel. After lengthy negotiations, the Max Planck Project Group for International and Comparative Social Law finally began its work in Munich on 1 March 1976.

A New Beginning in Social Law Research

The researchers exchanged ideas at regular meetings.

The Project Group had to start at "ground zero" and dare to enter uncharted scientific territory. There was hardly any research to build on and initially not even a library. To systematically record social law and to work out its peculiarities – not only for Germany, but also comparatively for other countries – was the central task the researchers were confronted with.

As the only research group of its kind in the world, Zacher and his colleagues did pioneering work. The researchers not only had to develop the methodology and system of social law research from scratch. They also had to determine what is meant by social law in the first place. A series of ground-breaking academic publications on the principle of the welfare state, on the origins of social insurance and on the Social Code successively approached the topic. The researchers closed in on their complex subject matter from two sides: through thematic foci on the one hand, and research into the social law of other countries on the other. Initially, the focus was on France, Great Britain, Italy, Canada, the GDR, the Soviet Union and Algeria. Important topics in the first years were, above all, the procedure of social benefits provision, social protection in the case of disability, social protection for authors and artists, as well as the legal status of social workers. Special importance was attached to research on social insurance. This eventually resulted in a large colloquium on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the "Imperial Message", which had introduced social insurance legislation under Bismarck in 1881.

The Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law

In 1982, the Institute moved to Leopoldstrasse, where research was carried out until 1999. The Institute then moved to Amalienstrasse. Since fall 2023, it is located at Marstallstr. 11.

Four years after its foundation, the Project Group became a full-fledged institute in 1980, with foreign and international social law as its research subject. This step enabled Hans F. Zacher to recruit further researchers and to expand the thematic focus. Questions of social law concerning medical care, social welfare, old-age security, marriage and family, as well as social security in the public sector now occupied the meanwhile ten academic staff members. The work on individual problem areas was intended to spur the general development of theory and to test its accuracy.

In newly founded country departments, the social law of further countries or regions was explored, including the Scandinavian countries, Spain, the USA, Canada and Kenya – to name but a few. From the beginning, specific emphasis was placed on researching social law in countries that are particularly exemplary for current development and reform processes. In doing so, the comparison of social law has always served national social policy by highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of its own system. In addition, the Institute took up international social law, i.e. the regulation of cases relating to cross-border situations such as the payment of social benefits abroad or the socio-legal position of foreigners, and deepened its research on international organisations. In this context, a fundamental paper on the social aspects of United Nations law was published in 1987.

The supranational law of the European Community was of particular importance. In particular, the free movement of persons within the member states of the European Community brought with it questions of social security, e.g. with regard to migrant workers. The Institute also did pioneering work in this area. As a result, the theoretical foundation of conflict and coordination law in the context of social law was laid in the 1980s.

The internationally oriented research work at the Institute was enriched by cooperation with academics from all over the world, including quite a few from Eastern Europe, which was still something special during the era before the end of the Cold War. Over the years, this led to a lively scientific exchange across national borders. To this day, the Institute has a worldwide network of correspondents. In addition, the Institute pursued an interdisciplinary approach early on and integrated other social sciences such as economics, sociology, political science, history and ethnology into its research in order to be able to gain a holistic view of law as such.

In his years as director of the Institute, Zacher had thus laid a solid foundation for comparative social law in Germany, which his successor, Prof. Dr. Bernd Baron von Maydell, was able to build on.

Radical Changes

When Hans F. Zacher became President of the Max Planck Society in 1990, Prof. Dr. Bernd Baron von Maydell (1934-2018) took over the leadership of the Institute. This was during a period of great political upheaval. The division of Germany had been overcome and the Central and Eastern European states gradually became familiar with the widening and deepening European Community. Von Maydell focused the Institute's work on the transformation processes in the world of work and social protection, especially with a view to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, whose welfare state systems had to be (re-)established. Research now focused on the social law consequences of the political upheaval for reunified Germany and the former socialist states. Cooperation with leading academics from these countries, some of whom are still associated with the Institute today, proved fruitful. Von Maydell also specifically sought contact with social law experts from Japan, whose social systems face challenges similar to those of Germany, particularly due to demographic change. The Japanese experts on social law were, in fact, particularly interested in the German expertise regarding the introduction of long-term care insurance.

To an increasing extent, the Institute now also began to devote itself to advising socio-political institutions, whether at national, European or international level. It was always of great concern to von Maydell to contribute to political progress through social law.

Expansion of the Institute

When von Maydell's successor, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Becker, took over as director of the Institute in 2002, he defined the adjustments to the welfare state necessitated by social developments as one of three core areas of the Institute's research. The other two include the transformation processes in developing and emerging countries, as well as the advancing Europeanisation and internationalisation of social law. Numerous publications have dealt with fundamental questions of social law, but also more specific forms of social protection, some of which have been little researched, such as social compensation law. The publications "Security: A General Principle of Social Security Law in Europe" (2010), "International Standard-Setting and Innovations in Social Security" (2013), "Rechtsdogmatik und Rechtsvergleich im Sozialrecht I” [Legal Dogmatics and Comparative Law in Social Law I] (2010), "Wahlmöglichkeiten und Wettbewerb in der Krankenversorgung“ [Choice and Competition in Health Care] (2010) as well as "Die dritte Generation” [The Third Generation] (2014) and "Soziales Entschädigungsrecht” [Social Compensation Law] (2018) are particularly worth mentioning here.

According to the Institute's interdisciplinary tradition, its researchers also work at the interface of law and the social sciences. At the same time, they build a bridge to the work of the second department, the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging (MEA), which was added to the Institute in 2011. Under the leadership of Director Prof. Dr. h.c. Axel Börsch-Supan, PhD, the department primarily researches the economic aspects of demographic change. The addition of MEA was also accompanied by a change of name to the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy.

Since the Institute was founded 40 years ago, researchers have dissected national, foreign and international social law using jurisprudential methods and gained many insights in the process. Their comparative work has also repeatedly initiated reforms in the social sector at home and abroad. However, permanent social change continues to pose new challenges to their claim to research social law to its full extent and in its diversity and to examine the welfare state holistically. More than any other field of law, social law is an expression of social conditions and at the same time an instrument for shaping society. New problems arise to which answers must be found. It is therefore all the more important, as Hans F. Zacher put it, "to use the experience gained to identify anew the problems whose comparative and international discussion promises the most significant returns for the national society of the Federal Republic as well as for international society".

Key Publications From 40 Years

Becker, Ulrich:
Soziales Entschädigungsrecht: Bestand, Grundsätze, Neuordnung, Baden-Baden 2018.
Becker, Ulrich (ed.) :
Rechtsdogmatik und Rechtsvergleich im Sozialrecht I, Baden-Baden 2010.
Becker, Ulrich/Pieters, Danny C./Ross, Friso/Schoukens, Peter (eds.) :
Security: A General Principle of Social Security Law in Europe, Groningen 2010.
Becker, Ulrich/Hockerts, Hans Günter/Tenfelde, Klaus/Becker, Ulrich/Hockerts, Hans Günter/Tenfelde, Klaus (eds.) :
Sozialstaat Deutschland. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Bonn 2010.
Nußberger, Angelika:
Sozialstandards im Völkerrecht, Berlin 2005.
Maydell, Bernd Baron von/Shimomura, Takeshi/Tezuka, Kazuaki (eds.) :
Entwicklungen der Systeme sozialer Sicherheit in Japan und Europa, Berlin 2000.
Maydell, Bernd Baron von/Schulte, Bernd (eds.) :
Zukunftsperspektiven des europäischen Sozialrechts, Berlin 1995.
Maydell, Bernd Baron von; Hohnerlein, Eva Maria:
Die Umgestaltung der Systeme sozialer Sicherheit in den Staaten Mittel- und Osteuropas, Berlin 1993.
Zacher, Hans F. (ed.) :
Alterssicherung im Rechtsvergleich, Baden-Baden 1991.
Köhler, Peter A./Zacher, Hans F. (eds.) :
Ein Jahrhundert Sozialversicherung in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Frankreich, Grossbritanien, Österreich und der Schweiz, Berlin 1981.
Zacher, Hans F. (ed.) :
Bedingungen für die Entstehung und Entwicklung von Sozialversicherungen, Berlin 1979.
Zacher, Hans F. (ed.) :
Methodische Probleme des Sozialrechtsvergleichs, Berlin 1977.

Nuggets of Knowledge


Prof. Hans F. Zacher was not only the founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law, but also President of the Max Planck Society from 1990 to 1996, making him the first humanities scholar to hold this position. His term of office saw the establishment of numerous institutes in the new federal states. After 1996, he worked at the MPI for Foreign and International Social Law as its director emeritus. Zacher died on 18 February 2015 after a fulfilled and very successful as well as productive life.

List of publications by Hans F. Zacher

The major conferences of the Institute's first decade included "Bismarck's Social Legislation in International Comparison", which took place in Berlin in 1981, and the 1988 International Conference on Social Welfare, which was also attended by the then Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Rita Süßmuth.


The Institute's research results were initially published in the two series Studien aus dem Max-Planck-Institut für ausländisches und internationales Sozialrecht (Duncker & Humblot) – now Studien aus dem Max-Planck-Institut für Sozialrecht und Sozialpolitik, and Schriftenreihe für internationales und vergleichendes Sozialrecht (IVR) (Nomos). It was initially uncertain whether and how much appeal a social law journal in German would have within an international research community. The Zeitschrift für ausländisches und internationales Arbeits- und Sozialrecht (ZIAS) (C.F. Müller), for instance, was initially published jointly with the Institute for Labour Law and Industrial Relations in the European Community. In the meantime, however, our Institute has been able to take over sole editorship. Over the years, the Institute has also produced other publication series, such as the Working Papers Law, the Social Law Reports and the MEA Discussion Papers.

The founding of the Max Planck Project Group for International and Comparative Social Law in 1976 marked not only the beginning of social law research after World War II. On 1 January of the same year, Part I of the German Social Code (SGB I) also came into force. To date, twelve parts have been adopted and continuously amended.


Today, the Institute’s library houses the world's largest collection of social law literature as well as a couch on which already Jürgen Habermas is said to have sat and mused.

No other area of law has such a strong impact on people's lives as social law, as it relates to social conditions. For a long time, the great importance of this legal matter for citizens was grossly disproportionate to its consideration in research, teaching and practical training. From the mid-1960s, however, social law gradually found its way into legal education. The promotion of young academics, predominantly in the form of doctoral supervision, as well as participation in academic teaching, both nationally and internationally, is a central part of the work at the Institute.