Politics and Plagiarism in Germany

There’s a new plagiarism scandal in the German Bundestag! [link in German]

“A nation reveals the nature of its political culture in its choice of scandals.” That’s not a maxim, but it ought to be. I first thought of it in 1992, when the German economics minister and vice-chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign because of what was called the “Letterhead affair”: He had used departmental stationary to write in support of a relative’s business marketing to wholesalers a plastic chip that shoppers could keep in their wallets and use instead of a 1-mark coin as the deposit on a shopping trolley. “A clever idea!” he enthused. (“Eine pfiffige Idee.”) At the time I thought it reflected well on German politics, that they could hatch a scandal of such unrelieved banality; I compared it with Italy, where at the same time politicians in the pay of organised crime barely rated a mention in the national news unless underaged prostitutes were involved.

In the past couple of years the German government has been repeatedly roiled by plagiarism scandals. What? I hear you cry. How can a politician commit plagiarism? (Barack Obama refusing to admit that his first book was ghostwritten by Mumia Abu Jamal isn’t plagiarism.) Okay, there was Joseph Biden cribbing his stump speech from Neil Kinnock, but plagiarism is one of those crimes that only certain people can commit — like adultery, or violating the secrecy of the confessional — and those people are writers and academics. Politicians aren’t paid for original turns of phrase.

But Germans loooove titles, and Dr is one of the favourites, even for politicians. In Germany, a doctorate is seen as a valuable quality seal for a serious politician, and many aspiring young pols get themselves a PhD or some other doctorate on their way up the greasy pole, usually in history, often with a dissertation on the history and internal debates of the local branch of his party. (In this, as in much else, Chancellor Merkel is a freak, holding a PhD in physics, and a serious scientific career before she turned to politics.) The problem is, the sort of person who has the skills and the ambition to be a rising political leader is likely to want to put those skills to work avoiding the grind of actually writing a dissertation. Thus, we had, a couple of years ago, the defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was found to have copied his dissertation in law at the University of Bayreuth from a large number of other sources. This led the creation of a wiki solely for organising information about Guttenberg’s plagiarism, and to the below graphic, which I find hilarious, mapping out the pages known to contain plagiarised material:

Plagiarism bar code for Guttenberg’s thesis. White marks the pages on which no plagiarism has (yet) been found.

Guttenberg’s was a particularly sad case, because he apparently misused the services of the Bundespresseamt (the research service of the Bundestag) to write reports for him that he then incorporated into his dissertation. So he may not have known that the people who were writing his dissertation were actually plagiarising. Oh, the injustice! (This reminds me of the story, from a philosophy professor at a midwestern US university, who noticed plagiarised passages in a student essay. When he called her in to discuss it, she protested her innocence. The paper had been given to her by a student who submitted it for credit the previous year, so she had no way of knowing that it had been plagiarised.) After twisting in the wind for a few weeks, and after the university revoked his doctorate, KTzG resigned.

Of course, this made the dissertations of leading German politicians hot summer reading in 2011. And by the fall, the education minister Annette Schavan had had some dubious passages picked out in her education dissertation on (it’s just too ironic) the development of conscience. Only about a third of the the pages in her dissertation had plagiarised text, but after about a year she too went the way of Guttenberg: loss of doctorate and resignation. (She was the minister for research and education!)

Now, there’s the president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, who played a small role in censuring Guttenberg for his misuse of the parliamentary research service. Apparently, an anonymous blogger has reported finding “peculiarities” on 42 pages of the dissertation, which, in classic politician style, is on “Local organisational structure of internal party decision-making: Case study of the CDU district organisation in the Ruhr”.

The accuser contends, furthermore, that Lammert “did not read many of the sources that he cites; this is clear from his adoption of numerous typical errors from the secondary literature.” This is certainly bad academic practice, but more venial than out-and-out plagiarism, and probably very common. Though, when you think about it, it’s also plagiarism after a fashion.

At this point, the matter is unclear. Lammert has himself asked the University of Bochum to investigate the accusations.

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