A Ph.D. thesis is heart of German scandal

By Michael Kimmelman

New York Times News Service

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 10:55 p.m. MDT

BERLIN — While Americans have been obsessing lately about Charlie Sheen and his live-in porn film stars, Germany has been consumed by improprieties over a doctoral thesis.

All the German talk shows, the front pages of the country's newspapers and magazines, its political pundits and comedians (yes, there are German comedians), not to mention the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets or to the pages of Facebook, have had a field day indulging in very German-style hand-wringing and paroxysms of self-loathing over the moral, political and social ramifications of the case.

A German author, Peter Schneider, even gravely linked the whole mess to Bill Clinton's impeachment drama, since they both entailed what he called "the same question of honesty." Leave it to a German intellectual to discern a deep connection between a U.S. president dissembling about oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office and a doctoral student at Bayreuth University cribbing passages in a 475-page dissertation about contrasting constitutional developments.

Then again, Schneider has a point.

The trouble started last month when this country's most popular cabinet minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a handsome, media-savvy, conspicuously pomaded 39-year-old baron widely presumed to be a leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel someday as chancellor, tried to brush off charges that he had plagiarized parts of his 2006 thesis.

"Absurd," was his initial response. And many Germans wanted to believe him. "Well-born, well-spoken and well-groomed," as The Economist observed about the baron, he had "seemed blunt where others prevaricated, principled where they plotted. Alone among German leaders," the magazine went on, referring to the gray, proficient bureaucrats who tend to run the country, he made "voters' hearts quicken."

Merkel backed him up, even as German graduate students and others, by the tens of thousands, began to organize, signing an open letter of protest that heaped scorn on her. Several hundred protesters hung their shoes on the iron fence outside the Defense Ministry in Berlin in a sly (again, typically German) multivalent allusion both to the now familiar Arab insult of displaying the soles of one's shoes and also to the missing footnotes in Guttenberg's dissertation. Yet more outraged detractors organized rallies and brandished placards with wry slogans like "No More Playing Doctor" and "Hair Gel Is Not a Crime!"

Merkel, a former academic married to a professor, was being accused of belittling intellectual property theft and, by implication, the value of an advanced degree, which is not a purely academic matter in this country. Many jobs require such degrees in Germany, where, as is not the case in America, calling oneself doctor for having completed a thesis in, say, political science or art history, is not embarrassing but normal, even when filling out Lufthansa's online booking forms. (The airline generously provides three levels of academic achievement for its overachieving countrymen: doctor, professor and professor doctor, skipping the extremely rare but not unheard-of German mouthful Herr Professor Doctor Doctor).

At the same time, however, Guttenberg's troubles thrust into embarrassing national relief the dirty secret that to gain such credentials, many Germans, well-connected ones anyway, apparently cut corners or worse, and universities often look the other way. The minister couldn't admit to having farmed out his dissertation, because that's literally a crime here, but he was generally suspected of having hired someone to write the work for him (how else to explain why he seemed so blithely oblivious to the contents of his own thesis?). And to add insult to injury, his advisers had even awarded him a rank of "summa cum laude" ("Summa cum Fraude" was another of those protesters' placards), notwithstanding that the thesis seems to have poached material from one of those very advisers.

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