Günter Wallraff, the eternal revolutionary

In February, we met with writer and journalist Günter Wallraff in his Cologne home. Wallraff is famous for his journalistic investigation technique of using disguises to infiltrate sources close to his subject. He has sold millions of books worldwide, and his works have been translated in 39 languages.

And now at the age of 71, he leaps down the stairs like a mountain goat or jumps onto a rope which he climbs like a squirrel. When he’s not writing or pursuing his undercover journalism work, the author of “Lowest of the Low” surrounds himself with his collections of rocks from the Rhine and other stones gathered during his travels in other regions. “Stones are evidence through their form and beauty of the perfection of creation.” They stand for his need for freedom and non-conformity. In his back yard two parallel rails part the concrete, a remnant from when his father pushed out the pianos he made or repaired in his workshop in the back. From Dresden, the Wallraff family was Hugenot. More particularly, they were Pietists in love with liberty.

Günter Wallraff is a star in Germany. The mention of his name elicits either admiration or ridicule. He never provokes indifference. And so, we seek out the author of “Lowest of the Low”, the tireless detractor of what he perceives as a falsely virtuous Germany, to speak to him about society in Germany. At the end of the last decade, the journalist again sparked controversy with his book “Aus der schönen neuen Welt”, where he again denounced the injustices and defects of German society.

Wallraff’s interest in German social problems is related to a fundamental experience, that of compulsory military service, he explains. As well as being a poet, artist and writer, he also became a conscientious objector. In 1962 he refused to do his military service in an army whose goal was to train soldiers to kill. “An army dominated by old Nazis.” Wallraff finally received the much-awaited certificate: “Inept in peace as well as in war” (“für Friede und Krieg untauglich”). This certificate is now displayed at the Dresden Military Museum. This shows how easy it was at the time to accuse someone of insanity.

Things have changed in Germany, of course. Wallraff acknowledges it without forgetting to place himself in the spotlight. “A change in consciousness emerged with the publication of my works. Many recognize the problems in German society. Social issues have become a topic of discussion in the public square. I contributed to this change.” He then adopts a pessimistic tone: “Conditions, however, have deteriorated, not only for the Turks but also for other segments of the population. The ex-East German population represents the “new society”, for example. Despite a better education than that of their parents, they are seeing significant unemployment, the results of the Harz IV reform law, and 50% of all jobs being interim positions. These jobs do not provide a living wage. We created salaried position from which we can no longer make a living.”

Are these the imaginings of an old leftist? The high number of translations of Wallraff’s books demonstrates that the issues he’s raising echo far beyond German borders. Wallraff belongs among those who believe in a type of progress. “A society develops in phases,” he believes. “It includes regressions, but over time becomes more and more humane. Living conditions humanize it, even if right now, the wheel is turning in the other direction”. The specter of Sisyphus guides Wallraff, skeptical by principle (Berufskeptiker), but optimistic regarding the goal (Zweckoptimist). He’s convinced that there can be a better humanity – in other words, a more humane cohabitation (menschlichere Zusammenleben). And too bad if social democracy betrayed its ideals.

“German social democracy has been discredited. There are forces, though, that would like to see a more social democratic direction.” As far as Europe goes, it needs to be “saved”. “It has a chance; otherwise, it will be drowned by a globalization that will wind up dissolving us. Right now we have the Chinese model to which the American model has been added, onto which Islamist elements are superposed, which threaten to pull us out of modern life. This will be resolved in a generation or two because they have nothing to offer either culturally or economically.”

PASCAL MARTIN

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