BERLIN — For 32 years, the German education minister’s 351-page dissertation sat on a shelf at Heinrich Heine University in Duesseldorf gathering dust while its author pursued a successful political career that carried her to the highest circles of German government.
The academic work was a time bomb, however, and it exploded last year when an anonymous blogger published a catalog of passages suspected of having been lifted from other publications without proper attribution.
The university revoked the doctorate of the minister, professor Annette Schavan, on Tuesday, and on Saturday she was forced to resign her Cabinet post.
In an emotional news conference, Schavan said she would sue to win back the doctorate, but in the meantime she would resign for the greater good. “First the country, then the party and then yourself," she said. Standing beside her, hancellor Angela Merkel, her friend and confidante, said she accepted Schavan’s resignation “only with a very heavy heart," but that politically there was no alternative.
Small-bore stuff, maybe. Except it was the second time a minister had quit the Merkel government over plagiarism in less than two years.
Coming after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to step down as defense minister over plagiarism charges in 2011, Schavan’s deja-vu scandal can only hurt Merkel (who has a doctorate herself) ahead of September’s parliamentary election. And the two ministers are far from the only German officials to have recently had their postgraduate degrees revoked amid accusations of academic dishonesty, prompting national soul-searching about what the cases reveal about the German character.
Doctorates for all
Germans place a greater premium on doctorates than Americans do as marks of distinction and erudition. According to the website Research in Germany, about 25,000 Germans earn doctorates each year, the most in Europe and about twice the per capita rate of the United States.
Many Germans believe the scandals are rooted in their abiding lust and respect for academic accolades, including the use of “Prof." before “Dr." and occasionally “Dr. Dr." for those with two doctoral degrees. Professor Volker Rieble, a law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, calls this obsession “title arousal."
“In other countries people aren’t as vain about their titles," he said. “With this obsession for titles, of course, comes title envy."
A surprising number of doctors of nonmedical subjects like literature and sociology put “Dr." on their mailboxes and telephone-directory listings. The website of the German parliament, the Bundestag, shows that 125 of 622 people elected to the current parliament (including Schavan and then-Dr. Guttenberg) had doctorates when sworn in.
Merkel appointed professor Johanna Wanka, the state minister of science and culture in Lower Saxony, to take over Schavan’s position. Wanka got her doctorate in 1980, the same year as Schavan.
The finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, is a doctor of law. The vice chancellor, Philipp Roesler, is an ophthalmologist — and thus the only one most Americans would call “doctor."
Muckraking as sport
For the plagiarism scalp hunters, the abundance of titles provides what in military circles is known as a target-rich environment, and digging up academic deception by politicians has become an unlikely political blood sport.
There is even a collaborative, wiki-style platform where people can anonymously inspect academic texts, known as VroniPlag.
Here in the homeland of schadenfreude, the zeal for unmasking academic frauds also reflects certain Teutonic traits, including a rigid adherence to principle and a know-it-all streak. “I just think that many Germans have a police gene in their genetic makeup," Rieble said.
The University of Heidelberg revoked the doctorate of Silvana Koch-Mehrin, former vice president of the European Parliament and a leading member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party, in 2011, and she is still fighting the charges in court.
In many countries, busy professionals with little interest in tenure-track positions at universities do not tend to bother writing dissertations. In Germany, academic titles provide an ego boost that lures even businesspeople to pursue them.
Professor Debora Weber-Wulff, a plagiarism expert at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and an active participant in VroniPlag, suggested getting rid of superfluous doctoral titles outside of academia. “A doctor only has meaning at a university or in academia," she told German television. “It has no business on political placards."
But she is originally from Pennsylvania. Here the attitudes are deeply ingrained, and few think habits will change anytime soon. “It is a proof that you can handle academic stuff and that you can keep on task for quite a while," Peter Richter, a correspondent in New York for the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, who holds a doctorate, said in an email.
Unheard of in America
It can be a shock to Americans unfamiliar with the practice, as Richter has experienced in New York. “Here people instantly think that I’m a medicine man when they read my name," he said.
Even within Germany the practice differs by region, he said, with those in the conservative south insisting on titles more than those in northern cities like Hamburg. There are other divides, with many members of the counterculture generation of 1968 rejecting titles, though many have come to enjoy them as they have grown older.
Schavan, 57, whose parliamentary district is in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, was granted her doctorate in 1980. The accusations against her surfaced in 2012 on a bare-bones, anonymous website. But they were particularly significant because she led the federal Ministry of Education and Research.
“A health minister doesn’t need to be a medical doctor, but if he is one, then he can’t have committed malpractice," Rieble said. “An education minister doesn’t need to have a Ph.D., but if he does, then his dissertation cannot be plagiarized."