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Günter Wallraff. He was the hero of the 70s and 80s. Using controversial methods he wrote against the powers that be in Germany. In the Industrie Reportagen, in his role as the Turk Ali or as Hans Esser, editor at the Bild newspaper Günter Wallraff has repeatedly touched a raw nerve of society, his methods have polarized opinions to this day. This is the way Günter Wallraff is introduced most of the time. It is clear, however, that if many people among the young and old know about the arguably most controversial European writer, they do so just superficially. For the first time, a book comprehensively presents Günter Wallraffs literary and journalistic work, thus looking at an unknown side of his. But one can learn about some aspects of Wallraffs private life, too.
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72108 Rottenburg a/N, Germany
Layout: Wilfried Kriese
Photography: Pan Foto/Günter Wallraff
Copyright Appendix: Günter Wallraff
Front cover photography: private archives
Front cover layout: Wilfried Kriese
Edition Wilfried Kriese 2018
First edition 2004
Günter Wallraff is certainly one of the most controversial personalities in public life. Most people have known him through his books or, very often, only through the media. But so much nonsense has been spread there about Wallraff that a totally distorted public image has resulted.
It is equally clear, however, that many people, young and old, in Europe and even other continents know about Wallraff, but just superficially.
I had to make that observation when, after having made up my mind to write this book, I started to make the fact public that my next book would be about Wallraff.
Wasn’t he once a Stasi1 agent, too? Did he write all his books himself anyway? Isn’t he a millionaire? These were just some questions the people around me were asking about Günter Wallraff. I just had to wonder why I wasn’t asked whether he hadn’t also devoured little children, too. Of course I also heard a great amount of words of admiration for Wallraff, but the number-one reaction was, more or less: “Yeah, Wallraff’s work (I have to apply the word work now, since I’m a Suabian) is impressive, but who cares about Günter Wallraff nowadays and who cares about a book about him anyway?”
With this book I want to shed more light on the revelatory journalist, the writer, who has introduced a unique writing style. Actually I had planned to write a biography. But Wallraff happens to be writing his autobiography himself right now and since he wondered whether it simply wouldn’t be all too much, I decided after many conversations with him to write about Wallraff’s journalistic work.
But how did it enter my mind to write at a biography at first and now this book about the arguably most controversial German author?
The answer is: “Because of my own affectedness.” For as a formerly linguistically and cognitively handicapped person and dyslexic, I was often shown what it means to be an outsider in the German society. Because of my former social environment I also had to see how many of my friends during childhood and adolescence were often laughed at, excluded and held in contempt due to the fact that they were a little different from so-called normal people. (And it is no coincidence that Wallraff’s latest book is called Ich – der Andere [“Me – the Other].)
The first time I heard about Günter Wallraff was in trade school during my year of vocational orientation in 1979.
There was a boy in my trade school class who was so enthusiastic about Wallraff that he used to constantly talk about his books, display posters and once even got our trade school teacher to show a film about Wallraff’s time at the Bild newspaper in the social studies course. So I decided to read Die Industrie Reportagen and Ihr da oben Wir da unten. I realized that a lot is going totally wrong in our society, but I also started to understand a lot that was going on in my own social surroundings...
Anyway, ever since then I have been an absolute Wallraff fan. I literally devoured every single book of his. I sucked in everything that was reported about him in the media.
The first idea to write this book came to me in 1993 when I had a professional key experience with some of my superiors in the course of the rearrangement of my working place – which went beyond anything that I had known so far.
What was it about? I began to write a book about that in order to make that public. But what did I learn from it?
“If you publish just one line about your work in a harmful sense, you will be dismissed without notice, and not even the labor union will be able to help you.” This is about what a leading person from the staff board told me in private, and he went on: “Then you probably won’t be able to find a job in the whole district of Tübingen. Because the university’s top persons all have seats in the supervisory boards of every private and public company.”
For me that was a moral culture shock, which, however, also made it clear to me how important it is to defend oneself against superiors (colleagues) whose behavior is reminiscent of structures in the former GDR. But thanks to that incident I perfectly realized that Günter Wallraff’s books and his social commitment present a possibility to reveal injustices and to correct them or, even better, to avoid them.
Since, as I writer, I had had a try at all the different genres, including nonfiction, I seriously thought, why not write a biography about Wallraff?
It wasn’t until the middle of 2002 that I was finally ready with respect to my literary abilities and that I had found the time to contact Wallraff about this project. I wrote him a letter including informative material about me and stated that I would write a biography about him next and asked him to please contact me.
After everything that I had heard about him, like, for instance, that he was arrogant as well as a bit peculiar and didn’t care for anything but his own projects, I was fairly convinced that he wouldn’t call back. However, my prejudice soon proved to be unfounded. One afternoon he called me and after a 30-minute conversation he said he approved of the project. Like I said before, the biography turned into this book.
Who actually is Günter Wallraff, the man many have already heard, seen and especially read about and who has provided a mirror to society with his literary work to a greater degree than many other writers have?
Before touching upon the literary work of the revelatory journalist, I would like to take the opportunity in this chapter to introduce Günter Wallraff in a short biography. Perhaps it may help some of the readers understand Wallraff’s past and present actions.
Günter Wallraff was born in Burscheid near Cologne on October 1st 1942. He was raised there, too. The post-war chaos and the bomb sites in and around Cologne affected the single child a lot.
His father worked at an assembly line at Ford’s ruining his health. Later, after his early retirement, he was further employed with a small job (as a tester).
Günter Wallraff knew his father as an open-minded person who he looked up to.
His mother came from a Southern French Huguenot family which was conventionally middle-class.
The boy has never been capable of establishing a close relation to his mother, which is rather untypical for a single child. To this very day, his attitude towards her is rather ambivalent. The reason for this might also be due to the fact that, because of economic reasons, he had to go to a home when he was four years old. During that period the boy felt repudiated. But apart from the bad times, his childhood also had some good times in store for him. He loved to let his imagination run free. He was particularly fond of the children’s books character Till Eulenspiegel. He liked his disrespectful and self-confident stance. Later, however, he disapproved of the fact that his hero Eulenspiegel also played his tricks at the expense of weaker people.
Wallraff has always felt for victims. Cologne is one of the centers of carnival and so, during that fifth season of the year, the boy had to dress up, too.
It is especially during that season that a considerably large portion of the population handle their disguises rather freely. But whereas other kids would dress up as cowboys, he always picked the mask of the indian.
In 1949 Wallraff entered school. At that time, some of the teachers were still indoctrinated by the Nazi regime. Not only during his childhood did he have to face that kind of people, something which, however, was not an unusual thing at all.
After all, the adolescent boy made it to grammar school. He would have liked to take his exams, too. But when he was 16 years old, his destiny thwarted his plans: his father died.
Although she was looking hard, her mother could not find any job because to her age and since she was too proud to accept social security benefits, her boy had to earn the money. So he had no other choice than to leave school with an O-Level.
Since young Wallraff had always been interested in painting and was already doing and selling abstract paintings, he originally wanted to become a restorer, but the career of his choice was stopped short by the apprenticeship premium he would have had to pay.
Since, however, he also showed interest in literature, he decided to make an apprenticeship as a bookseller.
After his apprenticeship he joined the armed forces. He had his medical in 1963. Due to the fact that the young man had handed in the application for his conscientious objection too late, he had no chance of being accepted as a conscientious objector, which meant that military service was unavoidable. This period very much stopped the course of his life in its tracks. For everything was being done to break the young man’s willpower.
After military service he hitchhiked through Scandinavia, lived in hostels for homeless people and worked in factories. Wallraff later commented on that period as follows: “That time, the existential experiences and, above all, the people’s fates have influenced and educated me more than the best university ever could have.”
He started to write as early as in the 50s. He started out by writing lyrical poems modeled on works by Wolfgang Borchert as well as Expressionist poets. Some of his poems were published in the Flugschrift für Lyrik between 1960 and 1964.
He wrote down all his experiences during military service and after. Heinrich Böll, who was later awarded the Nobel prize for literature and to whom he sent his first poems as early as in 1962, encouraged him to make his experiences during military service public. This impulse was the beginning of a unique literary career.
As it goes, young men usually turn into husbands at one point. Günter Wallraff’s first wife was a niece of Heinrich Böll’s. After a while the married couple encountered their first problems. The main reason for this was probably that due to his commitment and his nature Wallraff was simply much too busy. The couple had two daughters when they were divorced.
The second marriage, which spawned a daughter, too, was divorced as well.
Since 1991 he has been married for the third time and has had two more daughters. This marriage has lasted longer than the others. It seems that Wallraff has become a little more mature and has settled for family life. But presumably, it would still be a hypocritical thing to say today that Wallraff’s nature harmonizes with an idyllic family life. Neither does he deny in interviews that his first two marriages failed because of his own fault. He simply was away too often too long and was forced to lead a sort of double life for longer periods of time because of his roles. However, he freely admits that he generally likes women and that during his long periods of absence he has not been able to resist every temptation...
Being constantly on the go, he also often neglected his kids. He would have liked to fulfil his duties as a father more thoroughly. Today he gets along well with his grown-up as well as his minor kids. The grown-up ones have a more critical attitude towards their father but they appreciate him in spite of all the circumstances.
At this point it might be interesting to get to know more about Wallraff’s family life and about his kids’ ways of living and thinking, but this is where sensationalist journalism would start and a style like that simply does not become this book.
It must not be left unsaid, however, that Wallraff’s private life has been overshadowed a great deal by the flood of lawsuits that his books prompted. But the media, which have spread rubbish about him for a long time, have made their contribution, too. Furthermore, there was the public pressure on his marital and private life. After all, Wallraff, the journalist, was and is not a public person like, for instance, a pop singer whose music you either like or don’t, or a good or a bad actor; through his influential work he has become an idealized role model for many people as well as a deterring object of hatred.
Günter Wallraff knows a lot of people. Although many people entered his life who wanted to distinguish themselves by virtue of his name or just wanted to take advantage of him, there are some deep friendships in his social environment which have lasted for decades.
Wallraff’s pastime activities are as extreme as anything in his life. He is a passionate collector of stones. This enthusiasm encompasses both precious and simply beautifully shaped stones. His home resembles a stone museum. Thousands of stones can be found there all over the place. For Günter Wallraff, stones represent the idea of durability in his life.
Apart from his passion for stones, he loves to do sports, which, like so many other things, has been strongly impaired by the back ailment he has been suffering from for many years. Thanks to a complicated operation and a long period of recovery, he is now able to bear much physical strain, which of course affects his psyche in a positive way. As a result, he can be found crossing the Rhine swimming or participating in the marathon so vigorously as though he had to set a new world record (or as though he had to run away from something?) If one looks at Wallraff’s athletic body, one could get the impression that he is a victim of the body cult. Certainly this is not the case: he simply does what he cannot help doing anyway. The thing that takes him to his limits again and again is probably part of his very nature, but, presumably, not even he himself is able to answer this question.
I am my own secret make-up artist
bringing out new masks out of my self.
I wait for the mask that corresponds to
my original face.
I guess I have long worn it before, unnoticed.
Or I’ll never find it, as my face adapts
to the respective mask.
I will untiringly go on putting on masks,
look for myself and hide in one of my selves.
When I have found myself, I will leave myself...
Günter Wallraff 1960
Wallraff’s literary career actually began when he handed in his application for conscientious objection too late.
As a consequence, he was drafted for military service after his medical in 1963. But just because his application for his conscientious objection had been turned down, it did not mean that there was a reason for the young man to take a gun in his hand. At that time, military doctors considered someone like that to be a case for a mental home.
After all it was not a normal thing to do for the simple reason that it was socially inculcated in every young man that it was plain necessary to go to the military and serve one’s mother country in order to protect Germany from the Russians and the Communists in case of emergency. It goes without saying that one’s time at the military belonged to one’s “becoming a man.” Conscientious objectors were presented as quitters and cowards.
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