Johannes Rau (born 1931) served as deputy chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), as minister-president of the powerful state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in 1994 as candidate for chancellor and the federal presidency.
Johannes Rau was born on January 16, 1931, in Wuppertal-Barmen, the son of a businessman who became a Protestant minister and the grandson of a stonemason. He was one of five children, all of whom had close relationships with their parents. Early on, young Rau was attracted to the church and to the study of the Bible. His religious interest earned him, in his political career, the nickname "Brother Rau."
In 1949, after having attended secondary school, Rau became an apprentice in a publishing house. Three years later he was a sales representative for nine Protestant publishers. From 1954 to 1967 he served as executive director and director of a Protestant youth publishing house in Wuppertal.
In the early 1950s his interest in politics surfaced, especially when the conservative government led by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer decided to establish a German army. Opposed to the decision, Rau joined the newly-founded German People's Party, which stood for pacifism and neutrality in the East-West confrontation. The party was headed by Gustav Heinemann, who eventually became federal president and whom Rau admired for his devout Protestant and pacifist convictions.
When the small party was dissolved in 1957, Rau, following Heinemann's example, joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the chief left-of-center opposition party to Adenauer's government. Although initially Rau had some doubts about joining the SPD, which in the past had been anti-clerical, he and other applicants from the defunct German People's Party were assured that the party welcomed religious progressives who supported the SPD's moderate reformist and non-Marxist program, which was then being formulated.
As a result of his many acquaintances and friendships with politicians and religious leaders, Rau, as a new SPD member, rose swiftly in state politics. Already in 1958, less than one year after he joined the SPD, he won a seat in the state legislature. There he served for a time as chairman of the youth and cultural committees. In 1967 he was elected chairman of the SPD parliamentary group. From 1969 to 1970 he was also mayor of the Ruhr city of Wuppertal. In 1970, following a renewed victory of the SPD in the state election, the SPD minister-president appointed him head of the Ministry of Education and Research. As a result of severe overcrowding in universities in North Rhine-Westphalia, Rau founded six new universities, including an open university giving degrees to students studying by mail. In 1978 Rau became minister-president, a post that he had long coveted. Despite severe economic problems and high unemployment in the ailing coal and steel industries, Rau proved to be a popular minister-president who was repeatedly reelected to his post, gaining a sizable number of votes for his party. His record was the more remarkable when compared to the party's many electoral setbacks in other states.
Rau's climb up the ladder in the SPD was as swift as that in state politics. Soon after joining the SPD he served for four years as the chairman of the Young Socialists in Wuppertal and for six years as deputy chairman of the regional SPD. Beginning in 1968 he was a member of the party's national executive committee; from 1977 chairman of the North Rhine-Westphalia state branch of the SPD; from 1978 a member of the party's national presidium, the top policymaking body; and beginning in 1982—the period in which the SPD once again was in opposition at the national level—he served as one of the deputy chairmen of the party. Thus Rau, a pragmatic leader in the party's centrist-rightist wing who was an effective conciliator between the party's warring factions, remained one of the few party veterans still active in the inner circle of policymakers in the early 1990s.
The party nominated Rau to be its chancellor candidate for the 1987 election, but it lost the election, as it had in 1983, to the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), headed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Although Rau, a populist and folksy leader, was popular in his home state and among trade union members, whose backing the party needed, he could not gain enough support among the increasing number of "floating" voters, many of whom were civil servants and salaried employees. The party also could not recapture support from dissatisfied voters on the left who had voted for the environmentalist Green Party. Rau supported environmental protection but was a staunch opponent of the Greens, considered to be too radical. Thus, he opposed any national coalition with them should the two parties have enough parliamentary seats to form a government.
When Willy Brandt, former SPD chancellor and party chairman, resigned his party post in 1987, the SPD Old Guard, including Rau, carried on but groomed younger leaders to assume the top posts. After young Björn Engholm, newly-elected chairman in 1991, unexpectedly resigned his post two years later as a result of an earlier scandal, Rau for several months became acting chairman until the party selected Rudolf Scharping as new chairman. As a reward for Rau's dedication to the party and his national renown, SPD leaders chose him to become the party's candidate for federal president in 1994. But in a close election Rau lost to the CDU candidate, Roman Herzog. In 1995 he led his party to a record fourth absolute majority in his state and so continued as Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Rau married in 1982. His wife, daughter of a factory owner and granddaughter of former federal president Heinemann, was a political scientist. They had three children. Rau was an excellent skat player, collected stamps, and appreciated fine literature and art.
Further Reading on Johannes Rau
For additional biographical information and personal recollections of Rau, see the edited book by Werner Filmer and Heribert Schwan, Johannes Rau (1986). A large selection of his speeches and essays can be found in Johannes Rau: Ausgewählte Reden und Beiträge.