Born on 22 October 1943 in Wrocław; Catholic; married, two children.
After obtaining Abitur (higher education entrance qualification), apprenticeship and employment as a typesetter in Weimar. Studied cultural science and German language and literature at Humboldt University in Berlin from 1964, then worked as a research assistant in the university’s Department of Cultural Theory / Aesthetics until 1975.
Employed in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the GDR from 1975 to 1976. Research assistant in the Central Institute of History of Literature at the Academy of Sciences of the GDR from 1977 to 1990.
Without party affiliation until the end of 1989. Became a member of New Forum at the start of October 1989. Joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of the GDR at the start of January 1990; chairman of the SPD/GDR from June to September 1990; member of the People's Chamber of the GDR from 18 March to 2 October 1990; deputy chairman and then chairman of the SPD/GDR parliamentary group in the People’s Chamber.
From 1990 to 2005 deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. From 2005 to 2009 member of the board of the SPD.
Member of the German Bundestag from 3 October 1990 to 22 October 2013 ; deputy chairman of the SPD parliamentary group from 1990 to 1998; from October 1998 to October 2005 President and from 18 October 2005 to 22 October 2013 Vice-President of the German Bundestag.