German ex-president Johannes Rau dies at 75
27 January 2006, BERLIN - Johannes Rau, the former German president and a longtime stalwart of Germany's Social Democrats, died Friday in his Berlin apartment at the age of 75 after a long illness.
27 January 2006
BERLIN - Johannes Rau, the former German president and a longtime stalwart of Germany's Social Democrats, died Friday in his Berlin apartment at the age of 75 after a long illness.
Rau, who had been premier of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia, for 20 years, ended his political career in 2004 when he retired after a five-year term as president, a mainly ceremonial post in which he made state visits abroad.
With his health worsening, he had to skip a 75th-birthday party hosted this January 16 by his successor Horst Koehler in Berlin. Koehler went to the Rau home Friday to join the family in mourning.
Rau died early Friday after 18 months of illness including two operations, his family said. His health problems peaked with an aneurysm in the chest, a condition in which an artery becomes extremely dilated. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Rau was the son of a Lutheran pastor and himself had the conciliatory, moralistic manner of a minister of religion.
Born in the western German town of Wuppertal in 1931, Rau steadily rose through the local political ranks to become the city's mayor in 1969. This was 12 years after his pacifism prompted him to leave the Pan-German Popular Party to join the Social Democrats.
Germany's leading political figures paid tribute to Rau with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Germany had lost an extraordinary personality.
Echoing her remarks, former chancellor and Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schroeder described Rau as "a passionate democrat and a convinced and enlightened patriot."
Wuppertal remained Rau's political base as he gained greater national prominence and as he moved into more senior positions with the Social Democrats culminating with the national chairmanship.
In his home state, flags were to be flown at half mast Saturday and Sunday. Premier Juergen Ruettgers, a former opponent, said he had been a great premier of the state where much of Germany's heavy industry is concentrated along with coal-mining.
Rau ruled the state in a period when blue-collar labour, organized in big unions, was solidly behind the German Social Democrats. As a Christian, Rau stood out in a party that spoke the language of class struggle and had little affinity with religion.
After resisting the long-standing Social Democrat form of address of "comrade", Rau became known as "Brother Johannes" because of his deep religious beliefs and non-confrontational approach to politics.
His religious convictions led him to criticize plans to further liberalize shopping hours to include Sunday trading, which is still prohibited in Germany, and his life-long political motto was "reconciliation not division".
But despite winning three absolute majorities for the Social Democrats as premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, he was never able to transfer to federal politics, losing his bid in the 1987 election to topple Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democrat chancellor of the day.
At one point, Rau, who was fond of long speeches, often interspersed with gentle humour, threatened to pull out of the election campaign as a result of complaints from within the Social Democratic Party that his attacks on Kohl were not tough enough.
Rau resigned as North Rhine-Westphalia premier in September 1998 when the post of president was about to become vacant and the Social Democrats of then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted it was the turn of a leftist to be appointed by the national assembly.
His presidency, starting in July 1999, was the first to be based in Berlin after all previous presidents had mainly lived in the old capital, Bonn.
One of the most moving moments of his presidency was an address on February 16, 2000 to Israel's parliament, the first time the German language had been spoken there by a German president, in which he voiced sorrow and asked forgiveness for the Holocaust.
He also frequently travelled to Poland in the cause of reconciliation with a nation that the Nazis had tried to destroy.
Rau did not marry till 1982, fairly late in his life. His spouse, Christina Delius, was a niece of a former German president. Their three children are now all adult.
Subject: German news