03.02.11

The Cheating German Baron

Germany’s young, aristocratic defense minister, touted as Angela Merkel’s successor, quit this week after Internet activists caught him plagiarizing.

One of the glitziest, high-flying careers in German politics came to a crashing halt this week when the country’s most popular and fastest-rising politician resigned amid crushing evidence that he’d plagiarized large stretches of his recently completed Ph.D. thesis—and lied about it afterward.

The 39-year old Baron Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg (full name: Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, or KTG for short) had long been tapped by the German media as a possible successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lead Europe’s most powerful country. KTG and his equally aristocratic wife, Stephanie (born Countess von Bismarck), were widely considered Germany’s up-and-coming power couple—the country’s answer to Barack and Michelle, or to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Serving as defense minister until Tuesday's resignation, KTG consistently topped polls as Germany’s most popular politician.

Internet activists brought him down over the past two weeks by exposing his 2006 Ph.D. dissertation (a comparison of U.S. and European constitutions that got him a Doctor of Law degree) as blatantly faked. After a February 17 article in a Munich newspaper alleged that much of the paper’s introduction was identical to another publication, Netizens set up a wiki site on which some 1,100 people collaborated anonymously to sift through every word of the dissertation, using Google and various plagiarism-detection tools. The newspaper report turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. By Tuesday, the wiki had documented not just a few paragraphs, but an astonishing 891 plagiarized segments from 120 sources on 324 of the dissertation’s 393 pages, or 50 percent of the document’s line count.

The cheating baron used every trick in the plagiarism textbook. Some 72 pages were direct cut-and-pastes from other sources, including an entire eight-page stretch, sections from several undergrads’ papers, plus parts taken from the U.S. embassy website. The equivalent of another 70 pages was copied but camouflaged, with just a word tweaked here and there. More than 23 pages were word-for-word translations of English-language sources, including six pages lifted from an article in Foreign Policy. Another 33 pages’ worth was copied with misleading citations—especially nifty tricks that include footnoting just one sentence of a much longer stolen text, or making an oblique reference to the original source without any hint that the text is copied. It’s the subtle tweaks and misleading citations that constitute the smoking gun, making it all but inconceivable that there was no intended fraud involved, as the baron has claimed. The University of Bayreuth has revoked his Ph.D. "We were duped by a fraudster," says Bayreuth law professor Oliver Lepsius. Because of additional allegations that KTG had library of parliament staff prepare research reports to help him with his thesis, German prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into misuse of public office, fraud, and copyright infringement that could lead to legal proceedings once the baron’s parliamentary immunity expires.

The cheating baron used every trick in the plagiarism textbook. Some 72 pages were direct cut-and-pastes from other sources.

The glamor couple won't be without things to keep them busy. The Guttenbergs have a family castle in Bavaria to retreat to, along with private forests, hunting grounds, and other real estate that has been in the bloodline since the 14th century. There's also an estimated $800 million family fortune to manage. Stephanie, a direct descendant of Count Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century German chancellor who invented social security and universal health care, has launched a high-profile campaign against pornography, publishing a bestselling book on child abuse last year in which she bashed Lady Gaga and the German model Heidi Klum for their "porno chic" and "excessive sexualization" that should be kept away from young girls. KTG has used his independent means and proud family heritage—his grandfather was executed by the Nazis for his ties to an aristocratic circle of resisters who attempted to assassinate Hitler—to position himself as an incorruptible politician above the everyday partisan fray, write Guttenberg's co-biographers Eckart Lohse and Markus Wehner. How ironic that his noble birth didn't keep him from stumbling over some very ignoble deeds.