He exposed Germany's racism problem in the 80s and offered refuge to Salman Rushdie in the 90s. Germany's most famous investigative journalist turns 80.
Investigative journalist Günter Wallraff turns 80
He is Germany's most famous investigative journalist: For half a century, Günter Wallraff has been going undercover to expose human rights abuses and criminal activities in large corporations, factories and media houses. Turning 80 this month, he shows no signs of stopping: Ahead of his birthday, Günter Wallraff is preparing for his next undercover investigation.
Born on October 1, 1942 in Burscheid near Cologne, Wallraff initially trained as a bookseller. He became famous for his 1977 book "Der Aufmacher" (Lead Story), and "Ganz Unten" (Lowest of the Low), which was first published in in 1985 and spent 22 weeks in the top spot of the Spiegel bestseller list.
Dressed up as Turkishguest worker "Ali," Wallraff worked in the Thyssen-Krupp steelworks in Duisburg, at McDonald's, in a nuclear power plant, and as a canal worker.
Wallraff documented in detail the inhumane, sometimes life-threatening conditions under which "Ali" had to work. While his German colleagues were given protective clothing, he had to do without any gear in sub-zero temperatures, and was exposed to high levels of radiation in the nuclear power plant.
He also had to endure racist abuse and humiliation from German colleagues shouting "Germany for the Germans" and "Turks out."
In the afterword of the recently published expanded edition of "Lowest of the Low," Mely Kiyak describes Wallraff's investigation as "explorations of German ruthlessness."
Germany's most successful non-fiction author
The publication of the book drew several lawsuits and became an instant success. It has been reissued in countless expanded editions, most recently in 2022. The book has sold more than five million copies in German, according to its publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch, with translations out in 40 countries. It is one of the most successful non-fiction books in the German language.
It has however been criticized on several occasions for portraying only a cliché of "the Turkish guest worker" : a man without any education who can only work in the low-wage sector. But as Mely Kiyak — author of "Frausein" (Being a Woman) — notes in the afterword, "Lowest of the Low" is not a book about people from Turkey, but about German society. It is not about Ali, but about "the exploiting Alfreds up there and in the middle and also down there."
The book that shocked German society
The publication of his investigative research in 1985 led to a rethinking in West German society. ThyssenKrupp gave many temporary or zero-hour workers permanent contracts, and the debate on racism towards migrant workers was fundamentally changed. After "Lowest of the Low," German society could no longer pretend it did not have a racism problem.
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Wallraff had already managed a similar coup once before: "Lead Story," his reports on the criminal methods of the Bild newspaper, became a bestseller in the late 1970s.
The ensuing lawsuits led to a legal dispute which went all the way to the German Supreme Court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht. Ruling in favor of Wallraff, the case has become known as "Lex Wallraff," making it a legal right for journalists to investigate undercover in Germany.
To this day, Wallraff continues to pursue investigative journalism. With his colleagues from "Team Wallraff," broadcast by the private channel RTL, he has undertaken award-winning investigations, for example into the working conditions of delivery workers, refugees in Greece, or staff members at call centers.
The man who sheltered Salman Rushdie
Wallraff has always been a vocal supporter of colleagues who find themselves in danger: Most notably, in 1993, he offered shelter to the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie. After the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had pronounced a fatwa calling for Rushdie to be killed, the author could not leave the house without fearing for his life.
Günter Wallraff put him up in his house in Cologne, where Rushdie slept first in a garden shed and then in the attic. On a trip to the small Rhine village of Unkel, Rushdie and Wallraff managed to lose his security detail for a while. Speaking to the German public radio station SWR, Wallraff remembers that an Arab waiter took Rushdie aside and advised him to be more careful.
After the knife attack on Salman Rushdie in New York State in 2022, Wallraff was shocked — and demanded that his old friend finally be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Meanwhile, the reactions to the attack have shown him "that there is a broad and global democratic public that will stand up for freedom," Wallraff told DW after the attack.
Advocating for freedom of speech, preparing another investigation and writing his autobiography does not leave much time for celebrating his birthday.
"I never imagined that I would actually turn 80," Wallraff told Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, the major newspaper of his hometown Cologne, ahead of his birthday on October 1. "There is one more thing I want to do. I need two more years, maybe three. If I only get one more year, I'd better hurry — I am preparing for a new undercover investigation and hope that it will all work out!"
Update: This article from October 1, 2022 was changed after publication to remove the name of an author's relative.