For almost 25 years, Herbert Grönemeyer has dominated German popular culture. In 1981 he starred as the naive young journalist Lieutenant Werner in the WW II epic Das Boot (The Boat); the film became Germany's highest grossing box-office export and was nominated for six Oscars. Next, Grönemeyer turned to music; he's since racked up more than 15 million album sales with his blue-collar stadium rock. His latest release, 2002's Mensch (Human), sold 3.2 million copies, making it the most successful album ever released in Germany.
Yet the 49-year-old singer, who now lives in London, remains humble. "I don't think I'm an icon," he says. "I'm just Grönemeyer from Bochum" his gray, industrial hometown in North Rhine-Westphalia.
His fans don't agree. Pay a visit to Bochum's football stadium on match day and you'll hear thousands of fans roaring the words to Bochum, Grönemeyer's 1984 anthem to the town. Indeed, for millions of Germans, Grönemeyer is more than a cultural icon he's the conscience of the nation. In the 1980s the star led protests against the use of ozone-depleting cfc gases, and in 1992, after a series of brutal attacks on immigrants in eastern Germany, founded the anti-racism movement, Ich Bin ein Ausländer (I Am a Foreigner). Grönemeyer funded a series of billboards across the country that featured German celebrities condemning the violence, but realized that simply being outspoken was not enough. "You can't just change Germany overnight," he says. "You have to have a plan to care for people." So, in 1993, Grönemeyer set up a youth center in Leipzig, eastern Germany, to help underprivileged kids who had joined far-right gangs reintegrate into society. "We dealt with 30 kids who were highly aggressive," he explains. "We dealt with their court cases and after four years they all had jobs."
Now the rock star is campaigning to increase Germany's financial contribution to the developing world. Since March he has headed Deine Stimme Gegen Armut (Your Voice Against Poverty), part of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty campaign. The organization is urging the German government to stick to its U.N. Millennium Goals a global agreement to combat aids, improve education and halve the number of extremely poor people and raise its level of international aid from 0.28% of gross national income (one of the lowest in Western Europe) to 0.7% by 2015. "I want the government to know that somebody is watching them," he says.
But just as with his past campaigns, getting the fight against poverty onto the political agenda has been a challenge. With unemployment running at around 11% and the economy sputtering, Germans are more concerned with cutting costs at home than sending money abroad. And after September's divisive election left the country with weakened political leaders, Africa's woes are at risk of slipping off the public agenda. "Germany has lost its sense of perspective," says Grönemeyer. "There are problems, but not problems on the scale of Africa."
Despite these obstacles, Grönemeyer has forced Germany to take action. In December, he rallied celebrities, including model Claudia Schiffer and director Wim Wenders, to write an open letter to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The letter, published in the German press, stated that Germany would be an outcast if it didn't do more to help Africa. It had a clear impact. A month later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Schröder announced that he would back a British initiative to double aid to Africa.
In the following months, Grönemeyer kept the pressure on. He produced short films highlighting the tragic consequences of poverty and screened them at football matches and concerts, took out advertisements in the German press, and organized a mass petition demanding action on Africa. The huge public interest generated by the Deine Stimme Gegen Armut campaign helped influence Schröder to sign the G-8 debt deal in July, an agreement the Chancellor had been expected to torpedo.
"Herbert's vision, leadership and fantastic energy have delivered important new political commitments," fellow activist Schiffer told Time. "Deine Stimme Gegen Armut has really shifted the debate in Germany."
Grönemeyer is proud of the progress made so far, but has no illusions that his work is over. "We're finally getting the topic on people's minds," he says. "But the campaign has a long way to go. We're not even halfway there yet."