FIELDS: Plagiarism and politics in Berlin

Germans fiercely committed to historical accuracy

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BERLIN

The Germans play “gotcha” with decidedly Teutonic skill and attitude. The latest victim is Annete Schavan, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s education minister, who resigned her position in a gathering storm of accusations that she plagiarized the doctoral dissertation she wrote 32 years ago. The title sounds particularly apt: “Person and Conscience.”

She held on and fought back for a week. She insists she will sue to regain her title of “doctor,” revoked by Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf. In the age of the Internet, obscure dissertations once relegated to the memory hole, out of mind, unread or assigned to a remote dusty shelf in a library illuminated in the dull glow of computer screens, live again to trap the unwary. A modern militia of aggressive bloggers, as resolute as Inspector Javert in getting their man (or woman), keep their search engines fired up in anonymous pursuit of fraud, hypocrisy and sometimes revenge. Politicians make particularly satisfying targets.

“I just think that many Germans have a police gene in their genetic makeup,” Volker Rieble, a law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, told the International Herald Tribune, which then splashed the scandal across the front page. “In other countries, people aren’t as vain about their titles. With this obsession for titles, of course, comes the title envy.” Such a malady may be peculiar to Germans, who originated the doctorate of philosophy in the liberal arts at Humboldt University in the 19th century, where it was considered a prestigious credential for identifying a learned man. You now hear the title of “doctor” used across a spectrum of professions. More than 25,000 Germans earn doctorates yearly.

This gives rise to “title envy” or “title arousal,” as it’s also called, and seems to emerge from the German love-hate relationship with academic accomplishment. A strong populist streak toward teachers also runs in the German temperament, as the world witnessed when Adolf Hitler found a sympathetic following in anti-intellectual attitudes. Der Fuhrer ridiculed the academic “gentry,” with their degrees and diplomas and “pedagogical airs.” Goethe’s Faust, one of history’s great literary characters, remains a Teutonic warning about striving too hard to know too much beyond traditional learning.

Germans nevertheless seem to consider a doctorate a more important credential than Americans do, and German politicians brandish these degrees even though they aren’t particularly seminal to their skills or accomplishments, but manage to impress nearly everyone. Mrs. Merkel wrote her doctoral dissertation on quantum chemistry, which is a source of pride frequently remarked on in conversations about her intelligence, depth and breadth as a leader who passed up the narrow academic life.

Germans in Berlin with or without doctorates are engrossed in presenting historical facts and setting the record straight, a preoccupation that has beset them since the fall of the Third Reich in 1945. In my frequent trips to Berlin, there is always a new marker or symbol to understand, intended to make amends for the Nazi past. This year is no exception.

On the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s ascent to power on Jan. 30, 1933, Mrs. Merkel opened an exhibit at the Topography of Terror, the memorial museum built on the site of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office, where the administrative and torture network ran the police state from 1933 to 1945. Its exhibition about early victims of Hitler’s power is part of a comprehensive citywide theme examining Berlin’s robust social, cultural and political diversity that was mercilessly extinguished during those years. The Berliners harassed and abused include the famous, such as Albert Einstein and Bertolt Brecht, and the not-so-famous cabaret artists, poets, photographers and scientists. They were all labeled “decadent.”

The chancellor urges Germans to fight for their principles and to stand against the complacency that enabled the Nazis to come to power, reminding them that democratic freedoms could not have been erased had not so many German students and academics joined the Nazis with such enthusiasm, cheering the burning of books by “subversives,” including American authors Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and even Helen Keller.

“Human rights do not assert themselves on their own, freedom does not emerge on its own, and democracy does not succeed on its own,” Mrs. Merkel said, suggesting that such words have special meaning for the world today, too.

The book-burning of 1933 is remembered through a glass plate set into cobbles of a square, with a view of empty bookcases buried below ground. It’s across the street from Humboldt University where a plaque quotes Heinrich Heine, the poet who attended the university: “Where they burn books they will in the end also burn people.” That was an astute prophecy, and it wasn’t plagiarized.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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