Profile: Johannes Rau, a Life in Politics | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.06.2004
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Profile: Johannes Rau, a Life in Politics

Outgoing German President Johannes Rau never finished high school, but after decades of service as a political leader, he has won the respect of a large majority of his countrymen.


Rau and his wife Christina bid farewell to public life

Politics is the daily bread of German President Johannes Rau. It always has been.

Born in 1931 in Wuppertal, in western Germany, Rau got elected to the state parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia at the age of 27. His simple beginnings didn't necessarily suggest he would end up in high office. Though he is well read and has broad interests, Rau is not an academic. The son of a Protestant preacher, Rau left school without a university degree and instead got his training as a bookseller. He also worked as a journalist.

Life in the SPD

In 1957 he followed his political mentor, Gustav Heinemann, to the Social Democratic Party. In 1970, he became the state's science minister, eventually becoming North Rhine-Westphalia's premier in 1978. Rau, who is the father of three, held his office in the state until he was elected as Germany's head of state in 1999.

Though the presidency is Germany's highest political office on paper, the president lacks the power of the chancellor -- an office Rau sought unsuccessfully in 1987 when he was the deputy head of the SPD's national party. It wasn't his only defeat. He failed in his first run to become president in 1994 against Roman Herzog. But in 1999, he finally won the election for the presidency, placing him at Berlin's Bellevue Palace for five years. Rau was only the second Social Democrat in German history to hold the office.

During his term, Rau has depicted himself as a "president of the people," one who brings people together and promotes tolerance in society.

From boring to beloved

But during the first months of his term, many viewed Rau as a rather staid politician. His reputation however was then sullied through the so-called "Flights Scandal" in North Rhine-Westphalia in which Rau and other top state officials used chartered jets for business travel on a number of occasions, at taxpayer expense.

It was only after he made a series of moving speeches before the Israeli parliament in which he asked the Jewish people to forgive Germany for the Holocaust that he was able to restore his domestic reputation and begin building it abroad. Rau's hallmark efforts to promote equality, tolerance and respect are partly attributable to his Christian background as well as the experiences of his youth.

"I was raised at a time when National Socialism was still a subject in the schools," Rau said. "Now we're a good neighbor (in Europe), we have open borders and Germany has experienced the longest period of peace since 1945 -- that's never happened before -- and I think it's truly a development that we should protect."

The idea of preserving values while at the same time accepting changes has long been a leitmotiv in Rau's so-called "Berlin speeches." With the speeches, Rau often put himself at the center of important debates on issues like immigration policy, genetics, and Germany's role and responsibility in the international community. In the summer of 2003, he spent four days with young people from all across Germany discussing their plan's for the future. The president proved to be an attentive listener and fatherly conversationalist.

A presidency with teeth

Though generally a promoter of compromise, Rau took the offensive in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper chamber of parliament, when partisanship derailed the country's first immigration bill in 2002. Rau lashed out with unusually strong words. He also issued harsh criticism in the diplomatic sparring leading up to the Iraq war.

Saying he feared the discussion was already leading up to war, Rau said: "We need to put more energy and more financial resources into solving or stemming conflicts much earlier on using civilian means."

Within his party, the SPD, Rau's presidency has been admired by many members for the thoughtful and friendly way he has served as president. And he's also been praised by others -- he's respected by the opposition and the majority of the German population.

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