The ascent of lying

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 1 March 2011

When Prime Minister Gillard announced her intention to tax carbon despite her election promises to the contrary, radio talk show host Alan Jones changed her given name to “Ju-liar”. When opposition leader Tony Abbott then rejected a carbon tax out of hand, commentators called him a hypocrite since it was Abbott himself who had previously favoured such taxes over an ETS.

Yet our political leaders’ sometimes strained relationship with the truth pales into insignificance when compared with the extent of fraud and deceit on display at the highest level of government in Germany.

It is the affair of a man with many names: Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, the German Minister of Defence. The charismatic 39-year-old aristocrat has been a federal MP since 2002 and was the rising star of German politics, even a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. But Baron Guttenberg’s attempt to add a doctoral title to his long name may now thwart his political ambitions, at least for the time being.

In 2007, Guttenberg submitted a legal thesis to the University of Bayreuth after seven years of working on it part-time. The title, Constitution and Constitutional Treaty – Constitutional stages of development in the US and the EU, was as impressive as the sheer volume of his magnum opus: 476 pages, 1,218 footnotes, 49 pages of bibliography. Consequently, he was awarded his doctorate with the greatest distinction summa cum laude.

Two years later, Guttenberg’s political career took off when he became Minister for the Economy at the height of the global financial crisis. His public opposition to taxpayer funded bailouts of struggling companies made him popular almost overnight. His approval ratings reached stratospheric heights, and after the 2009 election he was promoted to the top defence job.

The secret of Guttenberg’s success was that he portrayed himself as different from other politicians – and in many ways he certainly is. Guttenberg is young, good-looking and eloquent, even in English. He lives in his family’s castle in Bavaria; his ancestors were part of the resistance against Hitler.

The Guttenbergs’ private wealth is estimated around half a billion euros. His glamorous wife Stephanie, née Countess of Bismarck-Schönhausen, is a great-great-granddaughter of the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the German Empire.

Guttenberg had always used his elevated social position to claim that he was not in the business of politics for either power or money. There was an underlying message: Because he could afford to quit any day he would use his personal independence to speak his mind and bring a sense of honour and honesty into politics. Thus he would be a politician for people who had lost faith in politics.

This façade of honourability has now cracked faster than you could say all of Guttenberg’s ten given names. The reason is not only that he was caught cheating but that his own behaviour has revealed a personality built on deception. He suddenly looks like a very ordinary politician.

A law professor reviewing Guttenberg’s thesis for an academic journal became suspicious when he stumbled across passages that sounded familiar. He detected the first few copied paragraphs of the thesis. When reports of a potential case of plagiarism in Guttenberg’s work then appeared in a newspaper, the collaborative power of the internet demonstrated its impressive force.

A whole Wiki project was started to subject Guttenberg’s doctoral thesis to a thorough check. After a few days, it became apparent that the text was perhaps the worst case of academic fraud ever revealed in Germany. On 69 per cent of all pages the online community found cases of plagiarism.

Whole chunks of books, articles and speeches had been copied into Guttenberg’s thesis without giving proper references. Even the introduction was taken word for word from an article that had first appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.

Der Spiegel later revealed that Guttenberg had not only copied freely available material. He had also tasked the academic service of the Bundestag, the federal parliament, with research jobs. The results of at least six such projects were then inserted into Guttenberg’s thesis, largely unchanged and without proper reference. Needless to say that Guttenberg did not bother to ask parliament for permission to use these taxpayer funded documents in his private thesis.

Perhaps worse than this breathtaking case of academic fraud was Guttenberg’s public reaction to the affair. After the first allegations his response was to call them “fanciful”. When more evidence of misconduct appeared, Guttenberg announced to temporarily suspend using his academic title until he had a chance to review his thesis. Had he really forgotten the contents of a thesis on which he claims to have spent seven years? However, he also insisted he still had far more important things to do since there had been more German casualties in Afghanistan – an insidious diversion from his personal problems.

Finally, after the evidence had become overwhelming Guttenberg asked the university to withdraw his title. However, he maintains that the massive chunks of copied text in his thesis were just due to his own sloppiness but that there had never been an intention to deceive.

As a lawyer he should know that the high degree of plagiarism leaves no legal doubt about malice. Guttenberg then took the cake when he told parliament that his straightforwardness in giving up the academic title and admitting his mistakes would set a good example for all of academia. The nerve to turn a moment of shame into a source of pride was impressive.

The unexpected revelations triggered a closer look into Guttenberg’s other claims about his life. His assertion that he had worked in Frankfurt and New York? True, but only if you count internships. His statement that he was a journalist with a leading German newspaper before he became an MP? Yes, but he only managed to publish a handful of short articles under his name. His insistence that he had gained business experience in his family’s company? Perhaps, but this company’s only task was managing the family fortune.

And did it matter that a company, partly-owned by his family and on whose non-executive board Guttenberg sat, funded a new chair at the University of Bayreuth to the tune of about 750,000 euros? Or that one of his academic supervisors was a fellow party member?

From a political superstar to a figure of fun in less than two weeks, it must be one of the quickest falls from grace in history. And yet, Guttenberg still clings on to his cabinet job.

Though his popularity has obviously taken a dent there are still enough people who desperately want to believe that he is different from the rest. Why fire a minister just for a few footnotes? For people unfamiliar with the rigours of academic research it may be hard to understand the severity of Guttenberg’s case.

The tabloid newspaper Bild keeps defending Guttenberg almost regardless of his actions. Perhaps the absence of an actual royal family makes these journalists yearn for a substitute king? Or perhaps it has something to do with the newspaper’s advertising deal with Guttenberg’s Ministry of Defence, as some MPs claim?

Then there is Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose position ahead of crucial state elections would be further complicated if she quickly had to find a replacement for the only star in her cabinet. However, pressure is mounting after 20,000 people with a Ph.D. signed an open letter to the Chancellor protesting against her decision not to fire Guttenberg.

For these reasons, Guttenberg may survive for now, at least until the state elections. But his survival comes at a high price. The credibility of academia and politics has been severely damaged. Not just by a fraudulent thesis but also by a minister whose arrogant self-righteousness beggars belief.

The longer Chancellor Merkel backs her defence minister, the more her own reputation (she holds a Ph.D. in physics) will suffer. And what does it say about the moral state of Germany when an impostor can keep his seat at the cabinet table? The next time the Germans admonish the Chinese over product piracy, the Chinese will certainly have a good laugh.

The only positive side-effect of Guttenberg’s misdemeanours is the many jokes it has created. Such as this one: The new intern at the Ministry of Defence asks his boss “Where can I find the copy machine?” “Ah, sorry, he’s currently visiting the troops in Afghanistan.”

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