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Monday, 21 February 2011

Project Guttenberg: Did the Minister Cheat?

The project looked promising; a Bavarian Chancellor, for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, in 2017. For Bavarian Christian Democrats, drinking beer in the many Bierstuben in the Free State and reviewing their prospects, it was something that should have happened a long time ago; after all, Bavaria had been firmly under the control of their party since the foundation of the Republic and they had always delivered a solid Christian Democrat majority in federal elections.

But that was where the problems started. Always sensitive to local patriotism and the “special position” of the former Kingdom of Bavaria within the German Federation, the Bavarian Catholic Christian Democrats had, at the time of their founding immediately after the war, decided not to become part of the federal Christian Democrat Party (CDU) but instead to found a “sister party” for Bavaria, the CSU; in permanent alliance with their federal counterpart yet still a different, independent entity. It gave the Bavarians more local autonomy, but served to somewhat diminish their influence on a national level.

But now they had a candidate, one whose prospects would be so attractive that the larger federal party would have no choice but to accept him as a common candidate. Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.

In 2017, Angela Merkel would be sixty three years old. She would either have finished her third term as Chancellor (twelve years) or would have been voted out of power four years earlier – in which case she wouldn’t be playing a role anyway. Zu Guttenberg would not yet be forty six. Hell, the occasional enthusiastic Bavarian Christian Democrat could enthuse (after drinking another couple of beers), if Merkel wasn’t particularly popular towards the end of the present legislative period in 2013 and looked tired of the job, “K.T.” could even challenge her then! After all, he’s already by far the most popular minister in the government. But no, on reflection, it would probably be better to wait till 2017. Baron zu Guttenberg had so many optimal qualities; they would keep well for another four years.

Indeed, zu Guttenberg seemed to have sprung fully formed from a PR designed résumé. He is the scion of an old Bavarian aristocratic family, dating back to 1178 and imperial barons since 1700. His grandfather was a politician in the fifties; a great-granduncle had been executed for his involvement in the July 20 1944 plot against Hitler. Since the end of the Kaiserreich after World War I, German aristocrats have no special privileges, but are allowed to keep and carry on their titles and Herr zu Guttenberg is still addressed by courtesy and tradition as Herr Baron in his home town of Guttenberg in Bavaria. Germany is, in many ways, still a conservative society with abiding respect for tradition and hierarchy and titles are seen as important – a subject I shall return to presently.

Having graduated from High School, zu Guttenberg did his military service with the Gebirgsjäger, the elite and tradition-rich mountain infantry brigade, finishing with the rank of reserve sergeant. He then proceeded to study politics and law at the universities of Munich and Beyreuth. In 2000 he married Stephanie, Countess of Bismarck-Schönhausen, a great-great-granddaughter of the Iron Chancellor.

After a brief period working in various areas of the family’s business interests, zu Guttenberg was elected to the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) in 2002, at the age of 30. A fluent English speaker who had spent some time representing family interests in New York, he became quickly known as a foreign policy expert. But it was only two years ago that his career really took off.

Having spent a few months as General Secretary of the CSU, Merkel appointed him economics minister in February 2009, at the height of the financial crisis. Though the measures being implemented at the time were general cabinet decisions and most of them had originated in the Finance Ministry, zu Guttenberg quickly showed that he had an excellent media presence and an ability to market himself well. By the middle of the year, opinion polls were already describing him as the most popular member of the cabinet. After her election win in autumn, Merkel made him her Defence Minister.

K.T. is the dream of every PR man. Good looking, well built, his gelled hair always immaculately combed back, you can imagine him drinking vodka martinis with James Bond. The glasses he wears only serve to give him that slight intellectual look favoured by Indiana Jones. His wife is blond and beautiful and is active against the sexual abuse of children. He’s an aristocrat with that quality all the really good aristocrats have; the common touch. He’s the first German Defence Minister to call the involvement of German troops in Afghanistan for what it is – a war. In a number of well publicised actions, he’s portrayed himself as a hands-on boss of the Bundeswehr, prepared to kick ass and take names. Whether his ass kicking has worked and whether the right names have been taken are questions that more serious observers have asked – but we don’t want to get petty, do we? It has all worked very well in the popular media.

The Guttenbergs
His wife was involved last year in a TV show in which men with possible paedophile tendencies were enticed to meetings they had arranged on-line with teenage (13 and 14 year old) girls, only to find that the girls didn’t exist and that the meetings were being filmed. Yes, I know, a little bit tacky, of dubious effectiveness … but it went down well with the viewers. Last autumn she joined her husband on a visit to the troops in Afghanistan (emphasising that she was paying her own way); they took a popular talk-show host and his team with them too and did a show there for the troops. There were murmurs from some more serious commentators, but these were dismissed as “typical lefties” and that action played well to the gallery as well.

No doubt about it, Herr Doktor Freiherr zu Guttenberg was a rapidly rising star. Up to last week. Then …

I’ve only just mentioned the “Doktor” for the first time. From around 2000 onwards, apart from all his political and family commitments, K.T. was working on his doctorate as well. A busy man. In 2007 he submitted his thesis with the title, Verfassung und Verfassungsvertrag: Konstitutionelle Entwicklungsstufen in den USA und der EU [Constitution and Constitutional Contract: Stages of Constitutional Development in the USA and the EU] to the University of Beyreuth and was awarded a doctorate with the highest distinction, summa cum laude. From now on, the baron had the right to call himself “Doctor.” I mentioned that Germans take titles seriously; if you’ve managed to get two doctorates you will be called Herr or Frau Doktor Doktor (seriously!) and, in their rather formal use of their language, people will often be accorded their position or job description as a kind of title (e.g. Herr Vorstandsvorsitzende [Mr. Chairman of the Board], or Frau Schuldirektorin [Ms. Headmistess]). In politics, academic titles are highly regarded and three quarters of the present German cabinet have doctorates of one sort or another.

Last week, Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a professor of law in Bremen was looking at zu Guttenberg’s doctorate and did some, as he put it, routine testing. He googled some parts of the text he was wondering about and, lo and behold, he got results. Fischer-Lescano found eight passages in Guttenberg’s dissertation which, he claims, had been copied from other sources without attribution. The “Copy-and-Paste” affair, as the press are gleefully calling it here, had begun.

The internet is a wonderful thing. A wiki group has formed online, with many willing helpers, and they now claim to have found evidence of plagiarism in 247 of 407 pages of the thesis. This figure is almost certainly too high, but the group has promised that by this evening they will be far advanced enough to publish an interim report, independently reviewed, of passages which have been copied from, or are extensively based on external sources without attribution.

There seems to be little doubt that zu Guttenberg took some short cuts with his dissertation. What remains mysterious is that he never seems to have reckoned with the possibility that somebody would find this out. Couldn’t he imagine that a doctoral thesis from someone of his prominence in the political arena (an area where one does not solely have friends), particularly when it was awarded a summa cum laude, would, sooner or later, come under closer examination? Or has he so far succumbed to that chronic sickness of politicians – complete disconnection from reality, exacerbated by boundlessly overinflated ego – that he really believed he could get away with it?

Despite what non-academics might be inclined to think, writing a doctoral dissertation is not rocket science – except for rocket scientists. 95% or more of it is simply soul-destroying, slogging hard work. Personally, I broke off my academic career before the threat of doing a doctorate had really loomed on the horizon, but, having seen many friends struggle through it, it was not something I was remotely looking forward to during the years I considered staying in the academic area. You have an insight, a discovery which you research and which you and your mentors feel is suitable for a thesis. And then you set down to a couple of years of hard work reading everything anyone has ever written which is remotely related to the subject you have chosen and then you set down to write it up in around five hundred pages of good logical argument, making sure that you cite correctly, that you use footnotes to refer to the ideas and arguments of others you have used and hoping that you haven’t missed anything important. It’s like mixing enough cement and concrete to build a house with a spoon and being awarded the title is, more than anything, a formal recognition that you can actually do this.

Even some of the first paragraphs in zu Guttenberg’s Introduction to his thesis are allegedly copied from an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung (one of Germany’s most respected quality newspapers) by an author called Barbara Zehnpfennig, published in 1995. It can only be described as mind-boggling; in his introduction, in which he lays out his fundamental insight and arguments on which the whole dissertation is based, zu Guttenberg copies from someone else (and that not even an academic publication). What can he have been thinking?

In the past few days the suspicion has been murmured that K.T., pressed for time by his many other commitments yet determined to achieve his title, took a well-travelled but obscure and potentially fatal road; the use of a ghostwriter – perhaps to write portions of the thesis, which he himself then reviewed and integrated into the final work. It would explain a lot. In particular, it would explain why the minister didn’t realise that many passages weren’t “clean,” because it was his ghostwriter and not himself who had taken the shortcuts and made the mistakes.

As yet the minister has been defensive. Initially calling the accusations of plagiarism “abstruse,” he then went on to admit that he certainly made mistakes (implying that this is something that happens to nearly everyone in this area) but that the thesis was all his own work. However the opposition have scented blood and the calls for his resignation are growing louder. The University of Beyreuth, which awarded the title is reviewing the thesis anew and has given him until the end of next week to present his considered position. In the meantime, he has stated, he will desist from using his doctor title.

I see his position as being very difficult to defend. Worldwide, every student knows that if you are caught cheating that’s it. You’ve failed, without any recourse. Defenders of the minister are arguing that we should wait for the university to report, that everyone has a right to the presumption of innocence until guilt has been proved. The piquant point here is that, only a few weeks ago, zu Guttenberg, as Minister for Defence, suspended the captain of a naval training ship on which a cadet had died under mysterious circumstances, before a formal investigation had been carried out, and this decision – another sign of political decisiveness and consistent action in the view of K.T.’s supporters – was controversial. The old culinary adage about using the same sauce for geese and ganders readily comes to mind.

The majority of Germans still don’t think that zu Guttenberg should resign. The most popular daily paper, Bild, which sells on the basis of lots of pictures (including a few of almost completely naked models) and short articles which are – let’s say – not terribly intellectually challenging, and which as always been a fan of the handsome aristocrat, advised him last Friday, in its own understated way, to “Scheiss auf dem Doktor [Fuck the doctorate]!.The paper is playing to the German equivalent of Sarah Palin’s “Joe Sixpack,” a not insignificant group in every society. But, personally, even if only a fraction of the plagiarism accusations are true, I think he’ll have to go.

Professor Peter Landau, the former dean of the law faculty at the University of Munich, said today that the regulations of the University of Beyreuth leave them with no choice but to deprive zu Guttenberg of his title. At the latest, should this happen, Chancellor Merkel (who herself holds a doctorate in physics) will tell him to go (if he hasn’t tendered his resignation by then). The shining aristocratic star will simply have become too big a liability. If this does not happen, then the German political class will have lost the last vestiges of moral authority they still possess. And, even as cynical as I often am about politics, I don’t think they want to risk that.

It looks like Germany and the world will have to wait a while longer for a Bavarian Chancellor.


February 23: Since publishing this essay, matters have taken a new twist. Therefore I have written a sort of continuation.


March 1; The minister resigned this morning.

I nearly put up Patsy Cline singing "Your Cheatin' Heart," but then decided in favour of Freddie!

 

Sources J:
The facts cited in this essay come from a number of articles in English and German available at http://www.wikipedia.org/, http://www.zuguttenberg.de/, as well as various reports published by http://www.spiegel.de/ between February 16 and 21, 2011.

Pictures retrieved from:

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