A Plague on Your Doctorate

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A Plague on Your Doctorate

The group responsible for exposing the matter of unattributed sources in a number of doctoral dissertations in Germany claims its motives are pure. Are they indeed?

Two things set us wondering when the group that has since become known as Vroniplag exposed unattributed quotations in the doctoral dissertations of three high-profile people in German society, two of them being popular politicians—ex-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a prominent Free Democratic politician—the third being Veronica Sass, the lawyer daughter of one of Germany’s most well-known elder statesmen, Bavarian Edmund Stoiber.

Why initiate such an investigation? To be legitimate, such an investigation would extend on into the probing of multiple thousands of doctorates. After all, Deborah Weber-Wulff—professor at Berlin’s Technical University and one associate of VroniPlag who has come out from hiding—declared that “almost one third of the papers turned in by her students had been at least partially plagiarized” (Spiegel Online, April 21).

In the absence of such a blanket investigation, why choose the doctoral theses of the three in question? Why not choose three high-profile academics rather than three prominent people with such strong political connections? Why not choose three high-profile liberals from Germany’s Green Party?

As justification for their hidden motives in devoting their time to singling out certain individuals for this treatment, representatives of the clandestine group responsible have posted a statement on their website which reads, “The work performed here is neither politically motivated nor is it aimed at personal defamation or anything like it.”

Spiegel reports on the secrecy of the group, such secrecy immediately leading one to wonder, what does it have to hide? If its motives are simply to promote greater academic transparency in the awarding of higher degrees, then why not set the example and be wholly transparent itself? There’s something fishy going on here.

As Spiegel reports, “[T]hey are sensitive to accusations that their work is politically motivated. All the authors of dissertations that have thus far been targeted by the cyber-detectives—including a Christian Democratic politician in Baden-Württemberg—have been center-right politicians from southern Germany” (op. cit.).


For starters, when considering the motives of the Vroniplag group, we should discount completely its claim that its efforts are “neither politically motivated nor … aimed at personal defamation or anything like it.”

That’s just a load of deceitful rubbish!

The bias against center-right politicians and the damage done to the reputation of individuals through this selective targeting during Germany’s current spate of highly important state elections speaks directly against the Vroniplag disclaimer.

As we have said before, politics is a murky business. It is particularly murky in Germany right now. The rest of Europe is sending out signals of a swing to rightist, anti-immigration, increasingly nationalist political groups. Yet in Germany it’s the left that is taking full advantage of the German fear of a repetition of the nuclear meltdowns of recent Japanese infamy. The Greens have increased their popularity as a result.

There’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on now in German politics. With Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government in disarray, the knives are out seeking backs to stab and political careers to destroy. That a political crisis is looming in Germany is plain for all to see. That Germans cry out for strong and assertive leadership amid crisis is a given. Whoever is behind the Vroniplag initiatives may well find the tables turned on themselves. For in politics it is not the truth that wins out in times of crisis. It’s the power of political personality and the degree to which that is perceived by the electorate to offer a return to political stability.

But there’s something else that has been in play in German politics since Chancellor Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, challenged Germany to shake off its perpetual mood of public penance for the sins of the two greatest wars in humankind’s history. It was to this national desire for a newly confident and proud national persona that Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg so powerfully played during his starring two-year performance at center stage in German politics.

It was by no means coincidence that both Guttenberg and Stoiber—through his daughter—were the first two personalities attacked via the Vroniplag group. There’s something afoot here that may well play to the future political success of Guttenberg and to the strengthening of the resolve of that old “pit bull” of German politics, Edmund Stoiber. Neither are prone to accepting defeat.

Watch and wait for the revival of either or both amid the coming political crisis in Germany.