Alan Nothnagle

Alan Nothnagle
Location
Berlin, Germany
Birthday
May 04
Company
Baobab House Publishers
Bio
I am a freelance writer and YA author based in Berlin.

Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 18, 2011 7:41AM

Baron Guttenberg's final battle

Rate: 12 Flag

Will a "dodgy dissertation" take down Germany's conservative golden boy?

 

 Guttenberg steel helmet
Baron Guttenberg is finding Afghanistan to be
a much friendlier environment than Germany these days

 

YOU MIGHT BE EXCUSED for thinking that German defense minister Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg has it all: He is not only his country's most popular and telegenic politician, but he is also descended from one of Bavaria’s most distinguished aristocratic families, is the heir to a tidy personal fortune, and is married to a drop-dead beautiful blonde, Baroness Stephanie von und zu Guttenberg (neé Countess Stephanie von Bismarck-Schönhausen, the great-great-granddaughter of the Iron Chancellor himself), and two delightful daughters. Just like his conservative role model, Ronald Reagan, he has survived many a scandal and political controversy with nary a scratch on his Teflon, and until a few days ago he was regarded as a shoo-in for a future Chancellorship.  Last spring, the magazine Stern was asking whether the handsome nobleman was “the German Obama.”  But as the ancient Greeks knew, pride goeth before a fall, and Baron Guttenberg has finally tripped over his own ambitions. After all, what good are a baronhood and a minister's post without a doctorate to give the whole package that remaining touch of class?

 

The Cool Baron 
Germany's next Chancellor?

  

In 2007, shortly before Baron Guttenberg began his dazzling rise to the top of Germany's political class and was still just a lowly Bundestag member, he submitted a dissertation on the development of constitutional law in the EU and the USA to the University of Bayreuth, which duly awarded him summa cum laude for his efforts.  Why go to all that trouble when you already have a silver spoon in your mouth? While you don't need a doctorate to work as a lawyer, it sure comes in handy if you want to get ahead in German politics.  After all, Germany is, in Madame de Stael’s words, “the land of poets and philosophers.”  People in this country regularly flaunt their doctor titles even when those two little letters have virtually nothing to do with their actual line of work.  And why shouldn't they flaunt them? A recent study showed that employed persons with doctorates earn on average €500 more per month than those without.

 

uniform 
Two small letters that make a big difference:
Baron Guttenberg even wears them on his
camouflage uniform in Afghanistan

  

So Baron Guttenberg thought he too would have a go at academic honors.  Unfortunately for him, though, a law professor from Bremen by the name of Andreas Fischer-Lescano recently decided to find out once and for all just how scholarly the Christian Democratic Union's own “intellectual” defense minister really is.  A simple Google search revealed that the dissertation contained several undocumented quotations from a variety of sources.  Since the news broke earlier this week, a wiki page with the unattractive name GuttenPlagWiki popped up where volunteer plagiarism hunters have taken turns uncovering dodgy material and spreading it across the Internet.  So far, they have discovered more than eighty stolen passages, amounting to at least twenty-five full pages of the 475-page dissertation.  These passages range from quotations from scholarly books, the website of the US Embassy in Berlin, a speech by one of his predecessors in the Defense Ministry, an undergraduate term paper, and even newspaper articles from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times.

 

Guttenberg 
How shameless can you get?
Baron Guttenberg copied the introduction to his dissertation
from an article in the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  

At first, Baron Guttenberg kept quiet on the plagiarism charges.  However, after returning from a visit to German troops in Afghanistan, he canceled a campaign event and hurried back to Berlin for consultations with Chancellor Merkel. At a hastily organized press conference today, he read out a statement in which he admited that his dissertation quite possibly contained "errors," but that he did not knowingly plagiarize anything. He said that he is willing to lay down his doctor title until the matter is clarified (he has already scrubbed it from his website). The assembled journalists scoffed at his arrogance and left the room in protest.

 

The response in Germany is taking shape along the usual fault lines: For the conservative Christian Democratic Union, Guttenberg is the victim of a “smear campaign.” The opposition Social Democrats and Left Party naturally want their nemesis out yesterday. For its part, the University of Bayreuth has given its most prominent graduate two weeks to respond to the charges.  If the Baron fails to convince the authorities of his guilelessness, he will not only lose his doctor title but also will most likely be driven from his position as defense minister.

 

The Guttenbergs 
A touch of class:
But Germany's "first couple" may not
be staying in Berlin long

Plagiarizing dissertations is nothing new.  Both Martin Luther King and Vladimir Putin have been accused of lifting large portions of their theses without proper attribution.  The dissertation of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is said to be so incredibly terrible that it has been kept under lock and key for decades (this is patently untrue, but the rumor refuses to die).  But while plagiarism was probably pretty easy to get away with in earlier, less technically sophisticated times, why do people still do it today? I still wonder.  Back when I used to teach history at a small German university on the Polish border, a young German student presented me with her term paper on the foreign policy of the Southern Confederacy.  After a poorly written introduction, the paper immediately improved remarkably. I couldn't help but wonder at the student’s splendid grasp of English, which even surpassed my own.  It was only when I encountered a passage on “Jefferson Davis’s diplomatic savvy” that I realized there was no way this young woman could have written this by herself.  A quick AltaVista check (this was the late 1990s, mind you) instantly revealed the true author to be a student at the University of Cork in Ireland, who had submitted this well-researched text as his graduate thesis.  Shortly after this incident, the student’s friend submitted her own paper.  I had already warned her not to make the same mistake.  Within minutes I found this paper, which was much less elegantly written, to have been patched together from at least five different online sources, including a term paper authored by a high school girl in Peoria.

  

Ever since that experience, I've taught my students to respect footnotes. “Footnotes are your friends,” I tell them.  They will protect you from plagiarism charges, whether earned or unearned.

In other words, footnotes serve as a kind of intellectual condom. But this lesson comes a couple of years too late for Germany's golden boy.  Baron Guttenberg enjoys posing for photographers in a steel helmet and a flak jacket during his frequent outings to the Afghan front.  Now, as he fights for political survival in his very own Battle of Berlin, a battery of footnotes would have served him much better.

footnotes 
Your best friend, the lowly footnote


UPDATE #1: Meanwhile, just as Baron Guttenberg implodes at home, an Afghan soldier opened fire on the German troops who were supposedly training him, killing two and wounding seven. The defense minister had actually visited this position two days earlier. A few more incidents like this and Germany's Afghan mission is doomed. But it probably is already with 80% of the German population against it. Without Guttenberg, one of the war's chief cheerleaders, this adventure will be hard to sustain.


UPDATE #2: Now it appears as if Baron Guttenberg merely commissioned the Bundestag's own research service to throw together background material on constitutional history, as if he was going to deliver a speech, and then pasted it all into his dissertation without even bothering to consider proper citation. If this is the case, he didn't actually "plagiarize" the thing, but instead told his serfs to get busy and then naturally assumed no one would ever challenge his integrity. It's not exactly what you'd call "noblesse oblige."

 In the meantime, a third German soldier has died of his wounds.

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I am speechless but I am glad you put your best footnote forward.
@Algis,
Yes, there's a terrible outbreak of footnote-and-mouth disease here in Berlin.

It's topic number one. The prevailing view is that Guttenberg didn't knowingly "plagiarize," but instead ordered interns to shovel all the info together for him and he just cut and paste whatever they came up with. It's the only explanation for the bizarre copying of newspaper editorials etc. He would have been better off hiring a proper ghostwriter. For now, he's claiming that the whole thing isn't plagiarized, which (so far) no one is claiming. Perhaps worse revelations are upcoming?

It's bad news for America's Afghan War, though, since Guttenberg is one of the last true believers.
That is about like Putin's dissertation, but, you know what, what does anyone expect, I mean, he is not going to get treated as a serious scholar in that field, whatever he does anyway.
Besides, academics complain about citations, supposedly out of "honor," but really, it is about their ego as much as anything.
But, as usual liked the piece.
The hubris of power never ceases to amaze! I'm also rather curious whether or not such obvious caste-like monikers like "von und zu" turn off a modern day electorate. Why keep such anachronistic and unnecessary embellishments?
i hate to see people like this troubled by tiresome quibbling from the envious classes. has no one any respect for ubermenschen anymore?
@Procopius
Part of the problem might be that Germany never had a proper revolution. Sure, there's the uprising in East Germany, which I would consider a revolution, but it was actually restaurative in many respects, putting the old bourgeois order (a.k.a. West Germany) back in charge, which includes the dominance of people like Baron von und zu Guttenberg. The guillotine, by contrast, has a remarkable power to concentrate the mind and clear the head. Just ask the French.
I assume it is all because he spied for the United States as was revealed by Wikileaks Cables and the German conservatives placed a foul apple in his personal portfolio quite a while ago knowing that he is a tool for non-domestic interests. Everyone knows that the doctorates of politicians are faked. The whole behaviour now looks like he gets intentionally ruined. Any sane political advisor would have said: quickly resign, like Franz Josef Jung, but they keep him in power, support him, encourage him to wade through the conflict which totally craters his reputation as the scandal evolves. When you lose your doctorate that is by far worse that being sent to prison, he is ruined as a member of society, ruined as an academic, ruined as a citizen. In practial terms he can shoot himself to preserve the integrity of him and his family, some conservative students associations would regard that as obligatory under such circumstances of reputation loss.

Zu bewahren seine Ehre
Zieht der Bursch die blanke Wehre,
Schwingt den Schläger frank und frei.
Denn das ist ja Burschenadel,
Daß die Ehre ohne Tadel,
Ohne Schmach der Name sei.

Schmach. A nice German word which suits the story as it further develops. Don't believe in the story that a law professor accidently found out.
A weird little man. One more bizarre little proto-rightist aristocratic glob shot out the bum of the surreal uber-capitalist machine. Send it back where it came from...
rated.
This is a really good article, I enjoyed it, thanks for the good work.
The Problem for zu Guttenberg is that he will not only not be able to keep up his near to perfect image he had before. Now that it is proven (or soon will be proven), that he cheated with his doctorate, his image and his actions are turning against him. He was the conservative darling, believed to be the true and good politician that we did not have for a long time. No other politican has had those wave of sympathy rush towards him from all sides. Now he has spoiled that once and for all because his stainlessness is gone. I dont think he will recover from what is to be coming now and if he will survive as a politician, the sympathy he had will be concentrated only on the side of the hard-core conservative believers. The common sympathy will not be there any longer, i think that in our country cheating with a doctor title is nothing that can easily be forgiven.
"Within minutes I found this paper, which was much less elegantly written, to have been patched together from at least five different online sources, including a term paper authored by a high school girl in Peoria.

Ever since that experience, I've taught my students to respect footnotes. “Footnotes are your friends,” I tell them. They will protect you from plagiarism charges, whether earned or unearned."
---
I'm afraid I don't get that. If a thesis or paper is just a patchwork of other peoples' works, then no amount of footnotes, citations or other "condoms" can redeem it.

Meanwhile, the students at my own (Canadian) university are being told similar nonsense. They are advised that copy and paste is bad, but if they just take the trouble of rewording it so that it passes the Google check, then it's fine.

As to your update #2: That only concerns some 10 pages or so of the thesis - it comes on top of the good, old ctrl-c ctrl-v. I have no trouble seeing Guttenberg doing the latter, but I seriously doubt that the Bundestag research service would deliver a pot-pourri of unattributed press and book clippings. That seems supported by the fact that the pages supposedly containing that Bundestag material were not previously flagged on Guttenplag.
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How was East Germany in regard to titles like this? I wonder what official Marxist doctrine felt about it, even if these are "meritocratic" titles. They still strike of nobility and hierarchy. Sure, the DDR had hierarchy, but they still played lip-service to the concept of socialism.

I would be very interested to learn how Marxism and nobility interacted in the DDR.

As for the Bundesrepublik, so many Nazis and their industrialist supporters survived the war in tact and worked for NATO and the Atlanticist world that followed, that they probably loved Barons like this dude.
I am also dismayed that this guy supports German involvement in Afghanistan. They are all supporters of the Atlanticist Empire, no? I bet he also supports an end to conscription and the creation of a professional, all-volunteer army
@Katacka
Yes indeed, the word on the street is that he is the CIA candidate (if not the "Manchurian candidate") for Chancellor and that he has been carefully helped along throughout his career. This story has very little to do with chance. I'm intrigued by the notion that Guttenberg should now do away with himself to restore his caste's and dynasty's honor - we'll see pretty soon what the man is made of.

@DrStrangelove
"I'm afraid I don't get that. If a thesis or paper is just a patchwork of other peoples' works, then no amount of footnotes, citations or other "condoms" can redeem it. ... Meanwhile, the students at my own (Canadian) university are being told similar nonsense. They are advised that copy and paste is bad, but if they just take the trouble of rewording it so that it passes the Google check, then it's fine."

I make no such nonsensical claim and certainly know the difference between proper research and the cut and paste kind. (Full disclosure: I wrote my own dissertation from the first to last page, for what good it ever did me). Instead, proper footnoting AND proper citation practices not only make for good research but also prevent problems like this from ever arising in the first place. Yes, I could have made that utterly explicit in the essay, but this paper is about the Guttenberg affair, not about citation policy in the course of my (not particularly exciting) assistant professorship back in the days.

@Rw
Regarding nobility in the GDR. The short answer: there was scarcely any, with a few prominent exceptions, e.g. the TV journalist Karl Eduard von Schitzler, a sort of communist version of Glenn Beck. I have only heard of a very few who stayed around very long after the communist regime was established.
@Alan

"Instead, proper footnoting AND proper citation practices not only make for good research but also prevent problems like this from ever arising in the first place."

Apparently I didn't make myself clear, either. I was trying to say that avoiding plagiarism is not a matter of technique - it is a matter of intention. Being honest is not a matter of avoiding being caught.

In Guttenberg's case, it is all too evident that the intention was dishonest - he wanted to gain his title using other peoples' ideas. No amount of indentation, citation, footnotes could amend this.
@DrStrangelove
Agreed, Guttenberg clearly sought to deceive - today's SPIEGEL lays it all out. Today's Frankfurter Allgemeine goes on to show that his entire CV is "enhanced," passing off modest internships as "careers." It will be interesting to see how he talks his way out of this.

But it's an open secret that many - if not most - doctorates in the worlds of politics and business over here are faked to some degree - there was a big scandal a few years ago. The Guttenberg affair could launch an open season on "doctors" in high places, which could become very interesting. Gotta buy some popcorn.
@Mary
"Everybody knows that only the poor have to be honest. And only the poor have to be smart, ergo George W. Bush."
Very true...
This is really depressing. Just when I was starting to like Guttenberg, he turns out to be a cheater. I'm still in college and, believe me, I know how stressful it can be to use proper citation methods throughout a lengthy research paper (it's a lot more time-consuming and annoying than actually writing the paper). Then again, I'd never ever even consider using someone else's work as my own because I'd like to get through college with my dignity intact. What really sort of puzzles me about Guttenberg's plagiarism scandal is the fact that he didn't even plagiarize in a particularly sophisticated manner. Looks like he didn't even really make an effort to hide it. Maybe he didn't expect that anyone would actually want to take a closer look at his thesis. Anyway, I really hope the guy gets kicked out of office for being such a douche (I get to say that since I'm German :D ).
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The Baron is in the loo,
pull the chain and watch him spin...

rate
This would make a great Rise and Fall movie Alan. Maybe it's the arrogance of having enough talents that everything comes too easy. Then you take it for granted, then you expect it as some sort of right. Thanks for the article. First I'd heard of this.
Very interesting article. But I disagree with your view of the guillotine. All it did was kill a few privileged people (and thousands of non-privileged people) and, in the end, not only was a monarchy restored, there were even two Empires after it!

Even today, France is packed with aristocrats and nobles (as is every other European country, monarchy or not).

I don't think the nobility is outdated. It is just another way of trying to rise above the rest. We do this too in the US. We us the word "Star" a hell of lot. Pop Star, Rock Star, Movie Star.

Is that not a title of nobility by any other name?
@S.ophie
My thoughts exactly. It's not the cheating that surprises me (we're talking about politics, remember), it's the stupidity of the whole thing. If he just wanted the doctorate, and the prestige attached to it, he could simply have employed a team of ghostwriters and editors to make his case watertight. With an estimated 600 million euros in the bank, it would have cost him pocket change and he wouldn't be facing the parliament this afternoon.

@AOG
You're right about the star phenomenon, which appears to be universal. Americans are as obsessed as everyone else. In Germany, the aristocracy doesn't have the best of reputations (Wilhelm II pretty much spoiled it for everyone), so when a real baron like Guttenberg appears who has star quality as well, the people are swept away. It's intriguing that one of his nicknames had been "The Black Baron," in reference to the prestigious "Red Baron" von Richthofen (black is the color of conservatism). Now, sadly, they're calling him "Dr. Googleberg" for the haphazard way he googled up his dissertation. Serves him right.
I remember reading that since the Bundesrepublik does not recognize noble titles, the aristocracy resort to naming their children "Count Albert von blah blah" or "Princess Alexandra Von Thurn und blah blah blah". So your first name is in fact your title.

I find it odd, but interesting that they are so intent on not letting go of their past.

I wonder how many brilliant academics have not plagiarized at one time or another. And no, I'm not defending Guttenberg. Just a thought.
And the bigger they are... I love what you said about footnotes. Our little friends indeed.