Johannes Rau, Germany's popular former federal president, died on Friday morning following a lengthy illness. Rau served as president from July 1, 1999 until June 30, 2004.
Johannes Rau suffered from a lengthy illness after leaving office
Rau's office said the former president died at 8:30 Friday morning. Since leaving office two years ago, the 75-year-old underwent two operations, from which he never fully recovered. The specific cause of death was not announced.
The devout Christian was known affectionately as Brother Johannes, will largely be remembered for trying to make Germany, deeply traumatized by its Nazi past, a more tolerant nation that would be respected on the world stage.
"I want to be the president of all Germans and an interlocutor for all those who live and work here without a German passport," he said in his inaugural speech in 1999.
Deutsche Welle's Director-General Erik Bettermann was a good friend of Rau's. They met each other several decades ago through the Protestant Church, where they were both active.
"It was often said that Johannes Rau was a fisher of men, meaning he really liked to approach people, individuals," said Bettermann. "He really worked to enter into a dialog with a person."
Long political career
More than 50 years in politics
Rau was one of the Social Democratic Party's leading lights and dedicated nearly 50 years to serving the public as a political leader. For more than two decades he served as the premier of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, before being named the country's eighth president.
During his five years in office, Rau won the respect of a large majority of his countrymen. He made a name for himself as the moral and ethical voice of the country in times of heated political discussion.
Rau was born January 16, 1931 in Wuppertal-Barmen, the son of a preacher. His first job was in 1954 in a theological publishing house, and he eventually became head of the company before entering politics.
Johannes Rau, and his wife Christina in China
A committed political animal, Rau did not marry until the age of 51, in 1984, taking the hand of Christina Delius, a granddaughter of former West German president Gustav Heinemann. The couple had three children.
Rau had been plagued by health troubles in recent years and underwent a heart operation in the summer of 2004.
He had already been diagnosed with a malignant tumor on his left kidney, which was removed in 1992. And in 2002, he endured an operation on an abdominal artery.
A president for all Germans
As Germany's president, he urged the nation to open up to foreigners. During the dispute over the country's first immigration law, Rau positioned himself above the political fray and worked to promote better understanding between Germans and foreigners.
In February 2000, he delivered a historic apology to the Israeli parliament for the Nazis' crimes in a watershed moment in bilateral relations.
Rau was a frequent critic of human rights violations around the world, famously taking Chinese leaders to task on a state visit in 2003.
"The goal of my political career is to make human beings' lives in the course of their years a bit more humane," he once said. Rau was succeeded as president by the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Horst Köhler on June 30, 2004.