Paul Pillar

Good News for Intellectual, and Political, Honesty

The defense minister of Germany, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has resigned under pressure after it was revealed that much of his doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Bayreuth in 2006, consisted of plagiarized material. Guttenberg, a popular 39-year-old aristocrat from Bavaria, had been considered a possible future chancellor of Germany. That was before a law professor at a different university began scrutinizing the dissertation, leading to further inquiry showing that more than half of the 475-page thesis contained long passages lifted from other people’s work, including newspaper articles and even the website of the U.S. embassy. As the scandal grew, the German press began referring to the defense minister as zu Googleberg or Baron Cut-and-Paste.

Some of my reaction to this story is based on being an academic who wrote his own (entirely original) doctoral dissertation, who is a potential victim of any duplicity that my own students might attempt, and who as director of graduate studies in my program has some responsibility for policing cheating. I can identify with the many German academics who signed a letter objecting to Guttenberg’s continued place in the government, and with the successor to Guttenberg’s thesis adviser, who denounced this “brazenness in deceiving honorable university personnel.”

But what is at stake in such a case goes far beyond the concerns of academics. It ought also to interest any citizen with a concern for the health of representative democracy. A person who would so seriously misrepresent what he was doing in an endeavor as extensive as writing a doctoral dissertation has a way of thinking and behaving that would make him inclined to be just as dishonest with his citizenry about affairs of state. I am not talking about white lies or polite fictions in which nearly all politicians indulge. I am talking about major misrepresentations with potentially major consequences. If you want a recent example in U.S. history, think of the Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq War and how much it diverged from actual motivations for undertaking it.

It is interesting to contemplate how the same scandal would have played out in the United States. Walter Russell Mead, in his insightful article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs about the Tea Party and foreign policy, describes how this movement—the latest incarnation of populist Jacksonianism—distrusts elites and rejects their leadership in the formulation of policy. A likely reaction of much of the American public to a Guttenberg in the U.S. Government would be that this is just another example of how most people with highfalutin degrees are phonies who don’t deserve deference anyway. The reaction would be different from the reaction in Germany, where the title doctor still commands widespread respect, even in politics, and this case was seen as a betrayal of principles that make that respect well-earned.

So good riddance to Herr (not doctor—Bayreuth had already stripped his degree) zu Googleberg, and congratulations to the German body politic for chasing a liar and a cheat out of office.

Image from Bundeswehr-Fotos