Johannes Rau, the former German president who urged his country to open up to foreigners and promoted deeper ties with Israel, died Friday at age 75, his office said.
No cause of death was given, but Rau had suffered from persistent health problems in recent years.
During his 1999-2004 term as president, Rau paid particular attention to cementing Germany’s ties with Israel, rooted in the countries’ shared history of the Holocaust.
In 2000, he became the first person to speak German in the Israeli parliament, making an emotional plea for forgiveness.
“With the people of Israel watching, I bow in humility before those murdered, before those who don’t have graves where I could ask them for forgiveness,” Rau said.
“I am asking for forgiveness for what Germans have done, for myself and my generation, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, whose future I would like to see alongside the children of Israel.”
Kidney removed in 92
The son of a Protestant pastor, Rau was born in the western city of Wuppertal. He dropped out of high school and worked as a journalist and at a Protestant publishing house before entering politics as a member of the Social Democratic Party.
He became mayor of Wuppertal in 1969 and, in 1978, the governor of his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous and the country’s industrial heartland — a post that he held for two decades.
The Social Democrats made him their candidate in a failed effort to unseat conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1987 general election, and he lost a first bid for president in 1994.
Rau convinced German lawmakers to elect him on his second try in 1999, fending off concerns about his health — he had his left kidney removed in 1992 and an operation in 2000 to replace a stomach artery.
He was inaugurated in July 1999 in the German parliament’s last session in Bonn before the government moved to the historic capital of Berlin.
A moral voice
Rau traveled abroad frequently as the moral voice of a modern, reunited Germany.
“I have made many trips, which I hope helped to make the image of Germany as a peaceful and democratic country better known,” he said.
At home, Rau stepped into Germany’s intensifying debate on immigration, seeking a balance between urging Germans to respect foreigners and acknowledging their fears as the country became increasingly multicultural.
In 2003, Rau waded into a debate on whether Muslim teachers should be allowed to wear headscarves in the classroom — saying that if the Islamic veil were banned, Christian and Jewish religious symbols also should go. That position drew criticism from many on both right and left who consider the headscarf a political rather than a religious symbol.
Rau also contributed to an emotional national debate on the future of genetic research, arguing that Germany’s Nazi past and the terrifying experiments carried out on humans should give pause for thought when guidelines are set out for modern science.
“Where human dignity is affected, economic arguments don’t count,” he said.
Rau announced in 2003 that he would not seek a second five-year term, saying that he had made the decision after consulting with his family. He was replaced in 2004 by Germany’s current president, conservative Horst Koehler.
Rau is survived by his wife, Christina Delius, and three children.