I don't get no respect: Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg (Source: wiki commons)
POOR BARON GUTTENBERG JUST can’t get an even break these days. When the high-flying German defense minister and apparent chancellor-in-waiting got busted in 2011 for having plagiarized his dissertation, he immediately resigned from all his political offices and fled with his wife and two children to the USA in hopes of doing the old “wash and spin” in the New World pending an eventual return.
Once arriving on American shores, Guttenberg bought a house in Connecticut and took on a new role as a “distinguished statesman” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He later added a job as an adviser to the EU Commission on Internet safety – which was rather ironic for him, since it was a simple Google search that shattered his political ambitions in the first place.
Guttenberg’s first attempted return to German politics, just months after his resignation, fizzled when the public greeted his volume of snarky interviews on political matters with chilly contempt. A Facebook campaign was similarly abortive. To cap it all, he took a pie in the face from a member of the Anonymous computer network at a café in the hip Berlin district of Friedrichshain, so I guess he can say auf Wiedersehen to the “youth vote.” In fact, whenever his name pops up in connection with a possible political career in his home country, the idea takes off like the proverbial lead zeppelin.
So Guttenberg has been going the long way around, trying to build up street cred with public appearances in the USA. But even there he’s had no luck, since the word has gotten out once and for all that the once-mighty Baron, the scion of an ancient Franconian noble family, is damaged goods.
Just take the free-for-all at Dartmouth College this week, where a German studies professor called Veronika Fuechtner launched an online petition against a guest lecture by the “Black Baron” (in Germany, black has traditionally been the color of the Catholic clergy and, by association, German conservatism). After Fuechtner collected a hundred signatures from faculty and students, Guttenberg cancelled a scheduled appearance at Dartmouth’s International Business Council. Fuechtner’s motive for the petition? A convicted plagiarizer like Guttenberg has no business lurking around the campus of an elite institution like Dartmouth.
"Witch hunter" or concerned scholar? Prof. Veronika Fuechtner of Dartmouth College (Source: Academic Room)
And so it goes. Just last November, a lecture on “Myths of the Transatlantic Relationship” that Guttenberg was delivering in Yale ended in a walkout by outraged academics.
So just what did Baron Guttenberg do to receive such shunning, thousands of miles from home? While there’s no question that plagiarism is reprehensible and illegal behavior, Guttenberg was particularly sloppy about his own. He lifted whole sections from published books and articles and actually commissioned the Bundestag’s own research service to draft entire passages for him. After an egregiously smarmy foreword, he casually stole an entire column off the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung website and spliced it in as an introduction.
His worst crime, however, was probably in messing with the middle classes, for whom doctoral titles are more glorious than the noonday sun. Why couldn’t the Baron, with his august lineage and his ten first names, play by the rules like everyone else? College-trained commoners took as kindly to Guttenberg’s liberties with academic honors as their ancestors did to the baronial jus primae noctis of yore.
At first the Baron denied all charges, but once he was finally convicted of cheating, he got off extremely easy – by coughing up a one-time payment of 20,000 euros to a children’s cancer charity. That might sound like a lot to you and me, but with an estimated 600,000 euros in the bank, the Baron is more than good for the money.
While the Baron doesn’t seem bound for a reload in politics any time soon, the Dartmouth incident has nevertheless demonstrated that Germany’s former sunny boy, a rare populist and charismatic figure in an otherwise dull as dishwater political culture, still has plenty of friends out there: Professor Fuechtner has told the daily newspaper Die Welt that she’s been receiving a flood of hate mail. “Jewish slut” and “witch hunter” are among the friendlier terms the authors have used to describe her. With friends like that, perhaps Guttenberg is better off as far from his ancestral castle as possible.