Letter from Germany - what's in a footnote?

In his latest Letter from Germany, Ray Rees looks at plagiarism in high places.

When Germany’s head of government, Angela Merkel, made her now famous off-the-cuff response to a hostile question about her support for Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: ‘I appointed a defence minister, not a research assistant’, she could hardly have expected the storm of indignation that it would arouse from Germany’s university community. Though not her intention, the remark seemed to encapsulate perfectly the apparent lack of understanding among politicians of the norms and values of the academic world, and in particular, of the weight it attaches to appropriately-placed footnotes when using the words of other academics in one’s own writing.

The story

For those unfamiliar with the story: Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Sylvester Joseph Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, often referred to as ‘the Baron’, was Germany's most popular politician, highly prized by the leaders of his own party, the Bavarian CSU, and its coalition partner, the CDU, as a vote-catcher extraordinaire. A young, handsome aristocrat, with an element of charisma totally lacking in all leading German politicians, he was seen as the potential rescuer of the electoral fortunes of both the Bavarian party, still reeling from a series of banking scandals and poll setbacks, and of the ruling government coalition, losing badly in regional elections and slumping dangerously in the opinion polls. With his equally attractive and aristocratic wife, born Stephanie Graefin von Bismarck-Schoenhausen, a great great granddaughter of the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, they made a Kennedy-esque couple who had become the darlings of the illustrated magazines, bringing glamour and sex-appeal to a political world that was totally lacking in both.

His abilities as a minister seem to have been much more modest, despite his meteoric rise following his first becoming a member of the national Parliament (Bundestag) in 2002. After less than seven not particularly distinguished years as an MP he was in 2009 suddenly appointed Economics Minister, and just over a year later Minister of Defence. His performance in the former position was remarkable only for his threat to resign over the bailing out of the Opel car company, caught up in the financial crisis of its parent General Motors. In general his lack of experience was palpable. A lawyer by training, he seemed out of his depth in economic affairs, and must have been relieved as well as delighted when he was promoted to Defence Minister. Here he was much more at home, and despite some difficult moments, again reflecting his lack of political experience, seems to have been doing an acceptable job, in particular pushing through the decision to end conscription in Germany and to reorganize and professionalise the German armed forces. His public popularity was in any case sky high. Then came the crash. Not because of a sexual scandal or shady financial dealings but something which professional politicians found almost laughable as a threat to a stellar political career: allegations of plagiarism in his PhD thesis.

The political fallout

On the 16th of February of this year the leading national newspaper the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, based in the Bavarian capital Munich, published a story based on some checks carried out by a Law professor at the University of Bremen, Andreas Fischer-Lescano, which showed that a number of passages of Guttenberg’s PhD thesis on ‘Constitution and Constitutional Contract’ (Verfassung und Verfassungsvertrag) had been taken verbatim from the work of others without acknowledgement or citation.

Guttenberg’s response was to plead carelessness, confusion and overwork. He had submitted his dissertation, containing 475 pages and over 1200 footnotes, in 2005, well after his political career had begun. He had a young family that also placed heavy demands on his time. He had lost track of all his sources, spread over 80 diskettes and several laptops, and in the desire to have his thesis out of the way had simply been very careless. His examiners, incidentally, awarded the dissertation the highest possible grade, Summa Cum Laude. He denied categorically any deliberate attempt to plagiarise. As the criticism from the academic world intensified and the evidence mounted, he handed back his PhD to the University of Bayreuth (which had only symbolic significance, since the granting body alone can reverse the award of the qualification), and finally, sixteen months after taking office, in what he called ‘the most painful step in my life’, with his ‘strength exhausted’, and to the disappointment of the senior politicians who had supported him, he resigned.

German PhDs

What is an academic from a different tradition, whose only experience with the German PhD system is in economics, where PhD standards are far more rigorous, to make of this story?

The response of the politicians to the charges of plagiarism, as evidenced by Angela Merkel's remark, is easy to understand. She really meant to say, I think, that it did not matter whether a politician has a PhD or not (she herself has a PhD in physics), but of course she ignored the wider issue of whether an act of plagiarism is a good signal about the integrity and moral scruples that we would like our politicians to have. On the other hand, a cynic could imagine a German equivalent of Sir Humphrey Appleby saying something like:

Well, Prime Minister, one might have thought that the ability to take the work of others, present it as one's own and achieve great success with it, is exactly what one needs to be a leading politician.

I think the most interesting aspect of the story is what it tells us about the German PhD. In the Anglo-Saxon system, we are used to thinking of the decision to do a PhD as by and large a commitment to an academic career path — it is an academic qualification in the narrow sense. In Germany that is decidedly not the case. In my experience, even in economics fewer than half of those who are awarded a PhD aspire to an academic career, the others see it as a qualification for a career in the economy more generally, in consultancy, banking and finance or the public sector. In areas such as law and medicine, apparently as much as 90 per cent of those graduating with a first degree see it as desirable or even necessary to acquire a PhD, as a purely professional rather than academic qualification, conferring status rather than scholarly research skills and deeper knowledge of a subject area. It is hardly surprising that in these areas particularly there will be a high demand to do a PhD from people who do not have the interest or ability to carry out serious research. In the end, it was estimated by the Bayreuth University committee, which has just stripped him of his PhD, that around 70 per cent of Guttenberg’s law dissertation was directly copied, without attribution, from other sources.

Is his however really a unique case, or is he just a public figure whose prominence and success make it worth the while of someone, with possibly a political motivation, to run a plagiarism check? Two further cases of alleged PhD plagiarism have made the headlines, one concerning a prominent politician in the European Parliament, another the daughter of the recently retired Prime Minister of Bavaria. There seems to exist a fertile fishing ground in which only the biggest catches are worth reporting.

What of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s future? He is going to spend the next two years with his family in the USA. His support from senior politicians remains strong and his popularity among the public remains high. Will he make a successful come-back as a politician or will his case remain just a footnote to the political events of the past few years? My money is on the former.

From issue no.154, July 2011, pp.3-4.

Page Options