He does not appear on TV, he does not write in a newspaper or magazine, he doesn’t even have an office. Gunter Wallraff is a unique type of journalist: He goes on “undercover” assignments, changing his name and appearance each time, to see and experience things from the inside, so as to publish his next bestseller. This is his exciting life…
1963. A room in the psychiatric ward of the military hospital in Koblenz is lit with a weak lamp which trembles as a young 'patient' writes, absorbed, in his diary.
He is writing things down before they escape him in an environment that wishes to believe he is crazy. Only Gunter Wallraff is not crazy. He is simply a conscientious objector, one of the first Germans called up to the army who refuses to bear arms.
In a few days he finds out the new verdict about his 'state' - he is described as 'unsuitable with or without a gun' and discharged.
He publishes "My Diary from the Army" (Mein Tagebuch aus der Bundeswehr) where he describes his experience in the German army barracks and the mental home, in an effort to explain his ideology to his compatriots. This book lays the foundations of a career that will develop into one of the most exciting stories in world journalism.
In this book, there is the phrase "I am my personal make-up artist, I am constantly wearing new masks, so as to find my real self."
When he was writing it, he did not believe that he would be doing this for a lifetime: Wearing masks and entering into the skin each time of a different role so as to infiltrate into unknown worlds, dark, underground and dangerous, not for a news scoop but to uncover the hidden - and usually harsh - reality.
113 unwanted reports
With this in mind, he spends the first years of his career working as a worker in 13 different professions, adopting each time a new alias and ID.
He works as a courier for a transport company, for a chemical company, in supermarkets as a driver for a member of the mafia, a waiter, as an arms dealer and at some point is a homeless alcoholic.
Then he publishes the book "13 unerwünschte Reportagen" (13 unwanted reports) in which he describes the unacceptable working conditions he experienced, uncovering the dark side of the German industrial miracle.
It is the first time that German society reads - with specific examples and proof - about the exploitation of workers and social inequality.
He writes for example how when he was working at the bakery of a large supermarket chain he burnt his fingers but his superiors would not let him go to hospital before finishing his shift.
Or how a well known factory was systematically polluting the Rhine, how the arms companies sell submarines to foreign dictators, that personal data is sold for peanuts to companies that do telephone sales.
His particular concern about the dark side of German industry and social injustice, particularly of the poor workers, prompts him to dedicate many years of his life to changing his identity and profession to collect evidence and testimony for his next revelations, which he denounces in the strongest way in the books "We need you. Worker in German industry" and "You up there - we down here."
In Athens of the junta
In the 1970s he decides to take on the dictatorships flourishing in central and eastern Europe. But because writing critical articles is not enough, he decides in May, 1974 to travel to Greece then was under the Ioannides dictatorship.He goes to Syntagma Square, chains himself to a post and hands out leaflets against the military regime.
He is arrested at 3.00 pm in full view of passers-by and taken to a police department where he is tortured until 3.00 am. They hit him with chains, bang his head on the wall, break one of his toes with a metal rod, injure his liver and spleen. He is taken to court and sentenced to 14 months in prison.
However he remains in prison for only 77 days, as the junta collapses soon after and he is freed. On his return to Germany he writes the book "Fascism next to us: Greece of yesterday - a lesson for tomorrow", where he records his attempt to take on the Greek dictatorship - which to the present he considers the "most spectacular project of his career".
But his most revealing mission was "Operation Bild". In the beginning of 1977 he turns up at the offices of the newspaper Bild-Zeitung in Hanover, gives his ID as journalist Hans Esser, and asks for a job.
Hired, he does everything he can to win the trust of his superiors, so that he can freely collect information to prove everything that characterises the mass tabloids - forging or even fabricating news, slandering individuals, distorting facts, silencing denials etc. With the rich material he collects, he publishes two books, "Der Aufmacher" (Lead Story) and "Zeugen der Anklage" (Witnesses for criminal prosecution) with which he reveals for the first time, the way misleading or false reports are created. This period of his life is transferred to the big screen in the English language film "The Man Inside" (1990).
Of course, the publishing firm Springer, which owns Bild, sues and seeks millions in damages for libel.
But the Federal Court vindicates him, confirming his right to publish his experiences "since his books present the 'serious inadequacies' and 'mistaken journalistic methods' , which are of 'special interest' to public opinion." Despite the court's decision, small and big interests affected by his revelations, spring into action.
A huge slander campaign is launched, he is accused of having relations with terrorists and the Stasi and is put under close watch. His telephone is bugged, his house is turned upside down in searches, his associates threatened so that they will turn on him. Even his books, despite their large sales are turned down by publishers, who fear taking on the big bosses of the German press.
The Turk Ali
In these difficult conditions, Wallraff plans his next project: To explore from the inside the barbaric treatment of immigrants in Germany. He changes appearance, grows a moustache, changes accent and manages to convince everyone that he is Ali Sitzirioglu, an immigrant from Germany. He plays this role (the most famous in his life) for two whole years.
He lives in squalid rooms and does the toughest work, getting to know first hand the most badly paid, dirty, unhygienic and illegal working conditions.
He publishes "Ganz unten" (At the bottom) in which he describes the inhuman exploitation of migrant workers in Germany in the starkest way. The book is his biggest publishing success, selling more than three million copies in less than a year. It has since been translated into more than 30 languages.
Black on white
He attempted a similar project a few years later with "Black on white." He decides to disguise himself as a black (he dyes his skin black with special paint which does not wash off even in water) and accompanied by a team of secret cameramen who work with him incognito, spends many months touring Germany from one end to the other to establish what it is like to be black in Europe.
The documentary won several awards at various festivals as it reveals with considerable irony, humour and sarcasm rampart xenophobia in the 21st century. The examples are innumerable.
At a park, he cuts and eats a thistle to be told off by a frightened German "We don't do this here."
When he asks to rent a room, the receptionist refuses but when members of his team ask for the same room, she gives it to them, "The black guy doesn't fit in here. I couldn't even see his face from the intercom. He was so black". When he climbs on to a bus, a woman screams to the driver, "shut the doors now and go." When he asks for a place to camp, the owner refuses. "Everyone here is German, Luxemburgers, Dutch, that is white. How should I say it, it's the colour of the skin, that's the problem. They have made it clear to me that if I accept gypsies they will pick up their stuff and leave."
When he applies for a hunting rifle the woman at the counter goes pale and calls her manager for help.
At the stadiums, the climate is even worse: Skinheads wearing clothes with Nazi symbols shout at him: "White equals German. And what is German? Here's my shit hole! You are a shit hole! Shit to your face. Germany's treat."
A new kind of journalism
Since 1964 when his reports were first published, Wallraff has been read more than any other German writer. He is considered a prime mover of "interventionist journalism" because he does not settle for just collecting facts from third parties, but collects the elements of his research on his own so that the report is a completely personal statement.
In Scandinavia the verb "wallraffa", a word inspired by his journalistic style, means I uncover and reveal. The word has recently been added to the official dictionary of the Swedish language.
In a recent interview, now aged 72 and still an active journalist, Wallraff reveals that he receives dozens of letters and emails every day in which people in all kind of jobs describe the hazing they are subjected to at work every day, thanking him for uncovering the injustice that millions like them suffer and urging him to continue to do so.
Who knows, he may already be planning his new disguise.
By Marianna Karavali