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