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.

Eventually, Guttenberg had no choice. He admitted to "grave mistakes," whatever that meant, and on March 1 resigned. "I was appointed not to be self-defense minister but defense minister," he said, as he tried to finesse the crisis. As a dashing stroke of noblesse oblige before retreating, not to his castle in Franconia, but to his apartment in Berlin, he then promised to donate salary still owed to him in office to families of German soldiers fallen in Afghanistan.

Academic protesters and many on the left declared the resignation a victory for people power, intellectual standards and national honor. The Peter Lorre-like smile that video cameras captured on Merkel's face when she got the news suggested more than relief. With significant state elections coming up, the controversy gave her an occasion to appear both loyal to an ally more popular than herself with many conservatives and at the same time to get rid of the various political challenges the glamorous Guttenberg posed. But that was when the scandal really blew up.

The resignation became an excuse for daily installments of distinctly German navel-gazing, exposing social rifts not just between left and right and young and old, but also between the buttoned-down old-school German culture of probity and prideful integrity on the one hand, and a dawning celebrity culture, laced with irony and skepticism, on the other.

Many young Germans, it turns out, revere Guttenberg, partly, perhaps, because he pushed for a major overhaul of the military that would swap obligatory service for a volunteer force. But more, it seems, because, at a time when popular television shows like "Germany's Next Top Model" and "Germany's Search for a Superstar" have spread "American Idol"-style hunger for fame to a country previously allergic to such things, he is a politician who has embraced the limelight.

That he is a rich aristocrat who dresses in jeans and says he rocks to AC/DC has only enhanced his youthful popularity. Germans are endearingly diehard democrats, egalitarians to a fault, but, like the rest of Europe, they take guilty pleasure in devouring gossip magazines about dissolute nobles and philandering princes.

Besides, Guttenberg's crime doesn't seem so bad to many in a generation of samplers and aggregators. Last year a teenage German author, Helene Hegemann, published a novel that became a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair prize, despite plagiarism charges against her. The old German literary establishment, steeped in Goethe and Schiller, was appalled, but the book was about Berlin youth culture, where disc jockeys and artists sample all the time.

Ulf Poschardt, the editor of the German edition of Rolling Stone and one of the country's most contentious columnists, for the conservative Welt am Sonntag newspaper, finds the ouster of Guttenberg a classic and "ridiculous example of German hypocrisy and ultra-moralistic Protestantism."

"It's a sad thing," he lamented on the phone the other day. "The worst thing you can say about him is that he was desperate to be a superstar, which was not very clever, but he also created an exciting atmosphere. He said no state money for General Motors and Opel if the market couldn't solve their economic problems, which was the opposite of what the German system has always said, and he called the war in Afghanistan a war, not a social engagement, like other politicians."

Poschardt fumed in Welt Online recently that when news broke some years ago about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s plagiarizing parts of his dissertation, Americans hardly reacted. For Germans the nonchalance may seem as odd as it is for many Americans to hear that Horst Seehofer, the married chairman of Guttenberg's Christian Social Union, the Bavarian partner to Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, was elected to his post after it was reported that his mistress had given birth to a child. Germans debated his improprieties, but in the end overlooked them.

And this gets back to the author Schneider and the Clinton impeachment scandal.

Despite the cultural gulf, both incidents, the president's and the minister's, which were incited by peripheral, if not actually private, affairs, prompted fits of national anguish: for Americans about sex, for Germans about integrity.

But hypocrisy was the common thread. Rubber-necking was, too, of course, along with that universal German vice, schadenfreude.

The widespread expectation now is that Guttenberg, whose popularity has not dimmed but increased, according to the latest polls, will retreat for a while, and, like Clinton, after an obligatory period of remorse, come back. First he will have to contend with prosecutors, who the other day announced they had opened an investigation. Plagiarism entails breach of copyright crimes here. Meanwhile, Guttenberg formally transferred power to a new defense minister on Thursday evening in a slightly weird torch-lit military ceremony in which the outgoing minister traditionally chooses the music.

Guttenberg picked AC/DC.

The head conductor of the military band said that request "just totally breaks the mold of our music styles," and substituted Deep Purple instead.

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