The Guttenberg Syndrome: Another politician bites the dust
You are so busted!
Ex-German defense minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg
IT’S A BLACK DAY for Germany’s Black Baron, former Defense Minister (Dr.) Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg. Four months after a left-wing scholar in Bremen reviewed Baron Guttenberg’s 2006 PhD dissertation and announced to the world that it was plagiarized, eventually resulting in the conservative politician’s retirement from all political offices, his alma mater has finally released its final report on the matter to the press. Its ruling: “After a detailed examination of the accusations leveled at his dissertation, the commission has determined that Baron zu Guttenberg clearly violated the standards of good academic practice and thereby deliberately cheated.”
The report painstakingly documents how he lifted both footnotes and extended passages from other works. For example, he copied the dissertation’s very introduction from an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Most onerously, the Baron, who by this time was a member of the German Bundestag, simply pasted in entire reports that he commissioned from the Bundestag’s own research department, in clear violation of the rules and at government expense.
The 83-page document also shreds the Baron’s own defense, which he repeated as late as April, namely that the challenge of writing a dissertation “grew over his head” as a young parliamentarian with two young children and crushingly high expectations on the part of his aristocratic family. As the commission states: “Anyone who, over a period of years, accepts that he does not maintain standards of accuracy, is not behaving carelessly but rather with malice aforethought, since he is elevating inaccuracy to a conscious style of work.” (I have written extensively about the Guttenberg case elsewhere on this blog.)
What consequences does the report foresee? For one thing, it confirms that the university acted correctly in withdrawing the Baron’s doctorate. It also calls upon the examination committee to require all future dissertations to be submitted digitally in order to make it easier to check for plagiarism. Predictably, the commission places no blame on Guttenberg’s professors, who rubberstamped the faked dissertation of its richest and most illustrious student with a rare summa cum laude without apparently bothering to read it first. So far, none of his professors have resigned, although this scandal would have provided an excellent opportunity to clear out the academic deadwood. Nor does the commission have anything to say about the donation, amounting to three quarters of a million euros, that Guttenberg made to the university a short time before he submitted his thesis. But let's not go there. Honi soit qui mal y pense, as old Edward III used to say.
The glory days:
Defense minister zu Guttenberg and his wife Stephanie (née
Countess von Bismarck) don flak jackets on their relentlessly
televised visit to the Afghan front last December
What once sounded to many citizens (mostly those who did not
fritter away spend years of their lives painstakingly researching and composing a dissertation that no human being is ever going to read again, except to look for errors) like a mere peccadillo, eventually proved to be the Baron’s complete undoing. His ancestors would likely have put a bullet through their skulls after experiencing such a disgrace. Guttenberg, the prototype of the modern aristocrat, himself has instead merely withdrawn entirely from public life and is currently devoting himself to his fabulously wealthy family’s extensive business interests.
But what of the political comeback his supporters have been talking about? There is no doubt that his own party, the conservative CDU/CSU, has fallen on very hard times since his departure, losing one election after another and experiencing an accelerating freefall in popular support for Germany’s frankly absurd Afghan adventure, which Guttenberg and his wife Stephanie so vigorously supported. Once regarded as a shoe in for a future chancellorship, no other conservative has arisen to take the Baron’s place as “Germany’s most popular politician.”
But it’s hard to see how such a confirmed “cheater” could ever rise again. He faces literally 100 criminal charges, most of them involving the violation of copyright laws. At the moment it looks like he’ll get off very easy – the judges will decide over the summer whether a trial will be necessary. But since Guttenberg repeatedly lied in public – including in the Bundestag – about his dissertation, he has few open supporters left. For now his political career appears dead in the water.
Nor is he the only politician to suffer a dire fate due to a dodgy dissertation. Just today, the 40 year-old Free Democratic politician Silvana Koch-Merin, chairwoman of the FDP in the European Parliament and also vice president of the European Parliament, finally responded to the scandal bubbling around her and announced her resignation from all political offices. Koch-Merin, like Guttenberg, was once her party’s golden child: she was young, beautiful, had lovely children, owned her own business, and was knee-deep in a promising political career. Wouldn’t a doctorate be the bright red cherry on top of her sundae?
This week, the chickens came home to roost, when her own alma mater formally accused her of massive plagiarism in the dissertation on economic history that she submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 1999. According to the Internet platform “VroniPlag Wiki,” which specializes in revealing such academic skullduggery, the photogenic Koch-Merin copied undocumented sources, largely textbook articles, “on fifty-six out of 201 pages,” and did so “not out of carelessness but deliberately.”
Disgraced Free Democratic politician
As if that weren't enough, 33 year-old Veronica Sass, daughter of former Bavarian minister president Manfred Stoiber, also fell victim to the Guttenberg Syndrome today. Sass, who works as a lawyer in a prominent legal office in Munich, was stripped of her doctorate by the University of Constance due to egregious plagiarism. It appears that she ripped off a total of forty pages from other texts. One of her chief sources: none other than that source of all wisdom, Wikipedia. A lineup of senior politicians, including Chancellor Merkel’s distinguished “cabinet of doctors,” are undergoing similar scrutiny. We’ll have to see how they withstand the snoopers’ onslaught.
And so it is proven once more that the lowly footnote can not only make or break your course grade, and your ultimate career, it can also alter the course of history. So honor the footnote, students. Footnotes are your friends.