Johannes Rau

President of Germany who apologised for the Holocaust and sought reconciliation with Israel

Saturday 28 January 2006 01:00

As President of Germany from 1999 to 2004, Johannes Rau urged his fellow citizens to open their doors and their hearts to foreigners, sought to promote deeper ties with Israel and Germany's eastern neighbours, and warned of the possible pitfalls of genetic research.

The son of a Protestant lay preacher, he was born in Wuppertal-Barmen in 1931. As a schoolboy he joined the anti-Nazi Bekennede Kirche (Confessional Church) of Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On leaving school, he completed an apprenticeship in the book trade and became a freelance writer for the regional paper Westfälischer Rundschau.

Through his church activities he met Gustav Heinemann, himself a future German President, and was persuaded by him to join the Christian, neutralist Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei (All-German People's Party, GVP), in 1952. Heinemann had left the ruling Christian Democrats to set up the GVP in opposition to German rearmament. Rau was elected local chairman. After that party's failure in the 1957 election, Heinemann dissolved the party and advised his colleagues to join the Social Democrats (SPD). Rau was elected to the regional parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in 1958.

After serving briefly as Mayor (1969-70) of Wuppertal, he joined the government of NRW as Minister for Science and Research from 1970 to 1978, during which time his pushed hard for the founding of new universities and was responsible for the setting up of Germany's first "distance-learning" university, modelled on Britain's Open University, at Hagen.

In 1977 Rau was elected Chairman of the NRW Social Democrats, and, on the death of Heinz Kühn, succeeded him as Minister-President in 1978. He was now head of West Germany's largest region but one - suffering from industrial decline, especially in the coal, steel and textile industries. His popularity helped the SPD to win an absolute majority in the regional election of 1980. In 1985 the party also got an absolute majority of votes, 52 per cent to 36.5 for the Christian Democrats. This was repeated in 1990 and 1995. At first opposed to the Greens, from 1995 onwards, Rau lead a SPD-Green coalition in NRW.

Within the SPD Rau's popularity rose and, with the backing of the former Chancellor Willy Brandt, he was elected the party's Chancellor candidate for the 1987 election to oppose Helmut Kohl. Despite Rau's being regarded as "colourful", Kohl proved the more popular and his Christian Democrats gained 44.9 per cent to 37.4 per cent for Rau's SPD.

In 1994 Rau attempted for the first time to become Federal President, but lost to Roman Herzog. In 1998 Rau stepped down from his positions as SPD Chairman and Minister-President, and on 23 May 1999 was elected President by the Federal Assembly of Germany, a combined meeting of the Federal Parliament and electors delegated by the regional parliaments. During his presidency, Rau struggled to fulfil all his official functions as he fought poor health. He underwent two operations but managed to complete his term on 1 July 2004.

Rau remained an active Christian, holding lay positions in the Protestant Church and co-founding, in 1985, the monthly magazine Evangelische Kommentare.

Throughout his career he felt strongly about his country's responsibility for the Nazi holocaust. Without hostility towards the Arabs, he sought reconciliation with Israel. In 2000 he became the first German President to give a speech in German to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, during which he apologised for the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Rau was immensely proud of his marriage to Christina Delius, a political scientist, in 1982. An attractive young woman, with a great affinity to Britain, she was a granddaughter of Gustav Heinemann.

David Childs

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