German politicians suffer higher degree of embarrassment from plagiarism than from sex scandals

Third minister in Angela Merkel’s administration falls foul of the country’s fixation on academic credentials

When a political career ends in disgrace, it is usually over a dodgy backroom deal, an extramarital affair or rumours of a sordid sexual fetish. Not in Germany, where the darkest possible stain on a politician’s honour is a slapdash footnote in their doctoral thesis.

Or so it seems, after family minister Franziska Giffey last week became the third minister of a Merkel government to leave office over PhD plagiarism accusations, while the Green party’s candidate for the chancellery was forced to release her LSE degree certificate to fend off accusations she had inflated her intellectual credentials.

Giffey, a Social Democrat who will run to become the next mayor of Berlin in spite of her resignation, left her post after reports that the German capital’s Free University is considering revoking her PhD in political science over academic malpractice.

Her stepping down makes plagiarism scandals the single most common cause for premature departures from Merkel’s cabinets in the past 16 years.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg announces he will step down as defence minister in 2011 after the scandal over his plagiarised doctoral thesis. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The university’s reassessment of Giffey’s PhD was nudged by VroniPlag Wiki, a crowdsourcing platform that searches German doctoral theses for plagiarism and brought about the fall of high-flying defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in 2011.

In the 10 years since, seven further German politicians, including education minister Annette Schavan in 2013, have had their doctoral titles revoked. Doubt has been cast on the qualifications of numerous others, including the PhD of the current president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

“We have different perceptions of academic degrees in Germany and the UK,” said Gerhard Dannemann, a professor of law at Berlin’s Humboldt University who contributes to the anti-plagiarism website. “In Germany, a doctorate used to be your best passport to respectable society if you weren’t part of the nobility.

“Even if that’s no longer the case, it is still something people brandish to enhance their reputation, especially young politicians trying to make their mark,” said Dannemann, who used to teach at University College London and Oxford University.

Annette Schavan
Annette Schavan resigned as education minister in 2013 after being stripped of her doctorate. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

More than 80% of members of Germany’s parliament have a university degree, a similar percentage to that in the House of Commons in the UK, where a larger part of the general population attends higher education than in Germany.

The number of Bundestag members with doctorates is considerably higher, however: 17%, compared with 3% in Westminster.

“If a German politician is a doctor of law, he or she would add it to their election leaflet,” said Dannemann. “In Britain, they would probably hide it.”

The social pressure to gain a precious doctor title while already embarked on a time-demanding political career can lead to corner-cutting, he told the Observer.

Some politicians get around the problem by simply doing their dissertation on themselves. Franziska Giffey’s dissertation was on the European Commission’s engagement in civil society, using her own work as a commissioner for European affairs in Berlin’s Neukölln district as an example.

Former chancellor Helmut Kohl’s doctoral dissertation mainly dealt with the history of his own regional party branch of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Those who stray outside Germany’s academic tradition can nonetheless arouse suspicion, even if their alma mater is an international elite university – as Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock has learned the hard way.

After some of her political opponents had questioned whether Baerbock had the credentials to call herself a Völkerrechtlerin, an expert in international law, her spokesperson recently tweeted pictures of her degree certificate from the London School of Economics, where the 40-year-old politician passed an MA in International Public Law with distinction in 2005.

Some rightwing blogs went on to allege that Baerbock had tricked her way into the reputable British university since she had completed her studies at Hamburg with a Vordiplom but not a bachelor degree – that had not yet been introduced at German universities at the time.

“I cannot quite understand how studying four years for a first degree and then going abroad to pass a masters degree at a highly respected institution like the LSE can somehow be turned against her,” plagiarism hunter Dannemann told the Observer.


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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