With countless art figures, Günter Wallraff always went to the limit – in the name of covert research. The legendary journalist turns 80 today. The FR reminisces and congratulates
Günter Wallraff is an artist. His main tool – this cannot be overlooked – is his body.
I saw him for the first time more than fifty years ago in the union building in Frankfurt am Main. He was already a bit of a celebrity back then. His fight for admission as a conscientious objector had made him well known. He read from reports that evening. He had visited confessionals and there – as a young Catholic plagued by doubts of conscience – asked a priest whether he could go into the army – in view of the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. I was very impressed. The obstinacy with which the Catholic priests tried to talk him out of his scruples and the skill with which they interpreted God’s commandment “Thou shalt not kill” so long that the natural imitation of Christ was the service with arms, that has stayed with me. This – possibly false – memory is an element of my Wallraff admiration, which is now more than half a century old. As he sat there and talked about his work, it all seemed so simple: walk into a confessional, ask the right questions, get the answers, write it all down and we – the audience – were able to take a peek behind the scenes. He hadn’t asked as Günter Wallraff. In a confessional you are anonymous. He probably wasn’t in disguise either.
Perhaps he wore a tie in one confessional booth or another. But he had taken a role and practiced it and held on to it. He had turned into someone who wanted to join the army but had scruples about doing it. He didn’t invent situations. He made them. Artist Thomas Demand once recreated Barzel’s bathtub in paper. Then he photographed his work and destroyed it. Only the photo remained. Often only his texts remain of Wallraff’s environments. The artist, who is always Wallraff in the first place, disappears behind the writer.
But Wallraff is also a scientist. The environments he creates, into which he enters, are experiments. He creates well-defined situations to get the truth out. His publications are protocols in which he records the reactions he evokes. He introduces his body to the parallel societies that make up our reality. Be it the editors of the Bildzeitung or the world of the homeless or that of the Turkish immigrants from “Ganz unten”.
Günter Wallraff disguised himself, threw himself into ever new situations in order to be able to take a standpoint outside of himself, to be able to see our world and also us, including himself, through the eyes of others. He chased himself through a particle accelerator, encountered foremen, department heads, colleagues and customers. In the process, our illusions were shattered not only about the way the world was organized, but also about who we ourselves are. It was frightening to learn again and again how fragile human dignity is. Everywhere he is humiliated, oppressed and exploited. We on the left thought we knew that. But how far removed this knowledge was from the experience of those who, after an 18-hour shift, barely arrived home before dinner, collapsed on the sofa and fought against sleep in order to at least have a little more life time for themselves to have.
Photos of Wallraff circulated in the personnel offices of numerous companies very early on. He seems to have taken it rather sporty. A beard here, a wig there, this or that attitude – he was already different. There was already a new “social reportage”.
That’s what they called his results back then. They appeared in “Twen”, “Pardon” and “Konkret”, then in books. He made films. Wallraff was busy. It was a factory. The details of the procedure were always adapted to the particular situation, but basically it came down to this: He stood at the door to a world unknown to the general public, passed it and reported what happened behind it. For decades we avoided Wallraff to look inside Thyssen and Gerling, call centers or logistics companies.
I’m thinking of Marina Abramovic. During one of her performances, she stood in a door. Anyone who wanted to go from one room to the other in her exhibition had to go past her. she was naked
In the 1970s, Wallraff was often seen as one of the fashion reporters from the world of work. That’s not wrong, but ignores Wallraff’s desire for metamorphosis. He wasn’t a quick-change artist either. He didn’t just change clothes for a few performances. He was different for months. “Fortunately he is not a poet,” wrote the social philosopher Oskar Negt about him. That’s right. But the Ali of Wallraff’s most successful experimental arrangement is an artificial figure, an invention. One could say that Wallraff didn’t even really bother. He didn’t learn Turkish; Günter Wallraff, who was just over forty at the time, played a 26-year-old Turk. He succeeded in inserting this completely fictitious Turk, this fake, into the reality of the Federal Republic of Germany so artfully that their racism finally not only became visible to many of us, but also shamed it. A distorting mirror that showed the situation as it was and – forty years later, one must add – still is.
Made of one piece: Wallraff & his bat
He gets them all. You can smack the balls around his ears, sometimes play short, sometimes long – Günter Wallraff gets them all, counters every shot, seemingly effortlessly increases the tempo of the game. Add to that the sound his ancient bat makes: Click, click, click! Like playing with a glass marble. Until you get used to it, the first sentences are lost. And anyway, what a crutch! The surface – or: what is left of it – is reminiscent of a dried-up river bed. He no longer remembers who left him here decades ago. But he knows: There can only be one bat for him! Experts would say this racquet is designed for confident defensive play on both sides.
That’s a good thing, as I’ve known since August 2020. We faced each other at the table for the first time, after a conversation about a portrait. Günter Wallraff asked if I played table tennis and still had time for a round. An hour before I have to catch the train? “That’s enough!” he said happily. Two hours later I was so sweaty as I had been in years.
Well, I did well and when I scored a point, Günter Wallraff cheered as if he had scored the point. A move that is extremely likeable in its immediate passion, but not entirely unselfish either, because: If my ball was on the ball, that meant for Wallraff, who was just warming up, that the game would go on for a few more rounds! Mind you: Wallraff was not very good on foot at the time, the consequences of a bicycle accident …
Now, after three games, I know what the reporter and his bat (sounds like a thriller…) have in common: they are confident (self-)defenders. For decades, Wallraff has set needle pricks with its actions. He is still on the offensive to this day, including with his commitment to the release of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. But – regardless of whether behind the plate or in court: he wears down his opponents on the defensive.
There have always been lawsuits against Günter Wallraff since the end of the 1960s, which he mostly took as a sport. With one difference: in court he doesn’t cheer when the other side scores. But that’s even rarer than on the record anyway. An anecdote by Boris Halva
Five million copies of “Ganz unten” were sold in Germany alone. In the new edition that has just hit the bookstores, the publicist Mely Kiyak explains in her epilogue that she will probably never see a real “Ali” sit on a German talk show “to talk in detail about his working conditions in the factory, in the blast furnace, in the colliery or in the foundry”.
Seen in this way, one has to say that Günter Wallraff was a successful writer, but failed nonetheless. After all, it wasn’t about writing beautiful texts for him. He changed in order to change us. But he failed because of us.
When he started there was the NPD, today there is the AfD. Back then, stones were thrown over in Jewish cemeteries, today people wearing kippahs are beaten up in the center of Berlin. There have been attacks on Jewish community centers and there are attacks on Jewish synagogues. Anyone who looked “foreign” back then had to expect to be beaten up. Still today.
The politician Wallraff failed. To us. Because we bought his books, but we didn’t follow suit. For example, more than fifty years ago, I thought what he was doing was absolutely right and seemed easy to do, but I never tried to do anything similar for a second. I was too lazy. I was too busy with my self-discovery to turn to insight into the circumstances. Above all, I lacked the courage to do so.
But Wallraff went to the Greek capital when the military staged a coup in Athens and caused a worldwide sensation when he chained himself to a light pole in the city’s central square in May 1974 and distributed leaflets. Secret police officers abused him there in front of everyone. He was tortured in the security forces’ prison. Graphic artist Klaus Staeck used a photo of the action for a poster with the title “The art of the 70s does not take place in the hall.”
Once again Wallraff had used his body to open our eyes. He didn’t face the danger. He made them. The experimental arrangements he created for himself repeatedly included the possibility of being murdered. You don’t do it because you think it’s politically necessary. It is considered politically necessary, because one needs the closeness to death. At least every now and then, every now and then. Take five minutes and search the Internet for a report from 1976. Wallraff shows how Portuguese ex-president Antonio Spinola was supported in his coup plans by Franz Josef Strauss.
Günter Wallraff emphasizes in every interview that there is no lack of young people who follow his example and slip into roles to do reports. I think when he says that he’s playing the role of an elder statesman of journalism who likes not to show off.
But we should play it now, strike up a little music with a big thank you. If you have any of his books at home, you should at least sit down and read them. If you don’t have one, go online and get the “13 unwanted reports” for free.
So we remember how many spaces the artist Günter Wallraff opened up for us, how completely different our world would have looked if we had not only read him, but also accompanied him a little. Arno Widman