Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Project Guttenberg II: The Minister Remains

A few hours after I published my last post about Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German Minister of Defence made a speech before a meeting of Christian Democrats in the town of Kelkheim in Hesse. In it he admitted that he had made “grave mistakes” in his dissertation. He had spent the weekend examining his thesis once more. It was possible that in one place or another he “had lost his overall view over his sources.” It was, however, his own work and therefore he had to accept the responsibility for the “stupidity” he had produced.

He would therefore renounce his doctoral title and had already informed the University of Beyreuth of his decision. This decision was painful for him, he went on. The fact that portions of an article from the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung had found their way into his introduction was “embarrassing.” “I am a man with mistakes and weaknesses and I publicly acknowledge my weaknesses,” he went on, stating that he wanted to apologise to those he had offended with respect to his dissertation.

He further stated that he would continue to carry out his office as minister with all his strength and then quipped, “I didn’t come here [this evening] as the Minister for Self-Defence.”

Zu Guttenberg is being backed by his party colleagues, including Chancellor Merkel; the general tenor of their position is that his job is to be a government minister and not an academic, so that with his decision to relinquish his doctoral title the issue is basically closed.

Comments from the University suggest that, while they welcome the minister’s decision, it is up to them and not to him to decide whether the recognition of his doctorate should be withdrawn. They will examine the case and make their decision in due time.

So, zu Guttenberg thinks that admitting that there were “grave mistakes” in his thesis and therefore giving up his doctorate is sufficient to deal with the matter. And Merkel, whose party lost an important election in Hamburg last Sunday and thus is not prepared to relinquish one of her most popular ministers, finds his decision “good.” The opposition will howl but, as long as the minister has the backing of his own party, he seems likely to continue in office.

It is very hard to believe that all the plagiarisms contained in zu Guttenberg’s thesis were the result of honest mistakes, particularly as in many of the passages in question a number of words and phrases were slightly changed, which makes the author’s claim that he had simply lost his overall view of the sources ridiculous. This copying, pasting and amending on such a scale cannot be seen as anything but intentional. It is cheating – pure and simple.

Apart from being a blow to his vanity, giving up his doctoral title costs zu Guttenberg nothing. He does not work in the academic area, where such an action would have cost him his job. In a country in which a refuse collection worker can be summarily fired for taking a child’s bed, which was put out on the pavement, home rather than bringing it to the incinerator, his attitude seems supremely cynical.

The whole affair shows that basic moral character no longer plays any role in the fitness of a minister to hold office in Germany. In a number of discussions with Irish friends about the abysmal lack of responsibility shown by Irish politicians over the past few years, I have given the example of many German politicians who have accepted the consequences of personal mistakes and resigned their positions – the most notable being Willy Brandt in the seventies. I will no longer be able to use this argument.

I wonder how German parents are now supposed to make clear to their children that cheating is wrong. At the end of my last post I expressed the view that the German political class would not risk losing the last vestiges of moral authority they had and that therefore zu Guttenberg would be told to go. Obviously I am still far too naïve.

The quotations in this post are taken from two articles in Der Spiegel from February 22, 2011 (,1518,746886,00.html,1518,746888,00.html)
The translations are my own.

Picture retrieved from:


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