Don’t Call Me Doktor

German politicians are obsessed with earning Ph.D.s—but plagiarism scandals tend to catch up to them and derail careers.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg
Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg arrives to testify at the Bundestag commission investigating the Wirecard scandal in Berlin on Dec. 17, 2020. Andreas Gora - Pool/Getty Images

On Oct. 30, 2009, a 31-year-old graduate student at the Free University of Berlin named Franziska Giffey submitted her doctoral thesis, on the subject of “Europe’s Path to the Citizens.” As required in most countries’ university regulations, Giffey prefaced her dissertation with a statement vouching for its academic integrity.

Eleven years later, Giffey—now a rising star in Germany’s government—has already had her wrist slapped by her old university over plagiarism in her dissertation. When a new investigation into it is completed, she may have to resign from her position as a cabinet minister. So go political scandals in Germany, where other ministers have already had to resign over doctoral plagiarism. It raises the question: Do learned people make for better politicians?

As doctoral dissertations go, Giffey’s oeuvre in political science was a relatively slim volume of 266 pages including annexes and an index. Giffey’s evaluators considered the dissertation worthy of the doctoral degree, which she was awarded in February 2010. Giffey, a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, went on to a political career, and in 2018 she was appointed federal minister for families, youth, women, and retirees. She’s considered a rare political star-in-the-making in the otherwise moribund party.

The minister, however, hadn’t reckoned with academically trained sleuths on the internet. In 2019, volunteers who specialize in identifying academic plagiarism announced they’d found serious plagiarism in Giffey’s doctoral thesis: A significant number of pages were more than 50 percent plagiarized material; some even were over 75 percent. The sleuths found that 76 of the 205  pages contained some form of plagiarism. Even though Free University decided that Giffey should be able to keep her title of Dr. Giffey, the debate didn’t subside; it blew up.

As a result, in November 2020 Giffey said she’d no longer use the title—a big deal in a country where people are customarily addressed with their surnames and titles—and the Free University has decided to examine her thesis again. It promises to deliver its verdict soon. No doubt Giffey, too, is hoping for a swift resolution, as she is planning to run for mayor of Berlin. Fellow minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, of the rival Christian Democratic Union party, says Giffey should resign if she loses her Ph.D.

This is what constitutes a political scandal in Berlin’s political circles. Indeed, it’s a thoroughly German political scandal. Whereas Sweden is ably led by a former welder—Stefan Löfven—and the United States was until recently led—considerably less ably—by a man who has a smaller vocabulary than any president since Herbert Hoover and by his own admission doesn’t read books or even briefings, Germany prides itself on its learned politicians.

In 2011, for example, the Bundestag’s 622 members included 115 with a doctorate (18 percent), while in the cabinet an astounding 10 of 16 ministers (63 percent) had Ph.D.s—though one of the 10 infamously resigned that year amid a similar dissertation plagiarism scandal. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself famously has a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry; her cabinets have also had sundry doctors of law, medicine, management, sociology, education, and even theology.

In the current parliament, nearly 82 percent of lawmakers have a university degree, and around 17 percent have Ph.D.s. Merkel’s predecessor Helmut Kohl had a Ph.D. in history; Bavarian premier—and potential Merkel successor—Markus Söder has a doctorate in law. In the Christian Democrats’ Presidium, a governing body typically comprising political leaders at the federal and state level, three of the seven members have doctorates.

In other countries, Ph.D.s in parliaments and cabinets are a rarity, so rare that unlike in Germany there are no regular media updates on the percentage of ministers with doctorates. In the current Swedish government—as in most preceding ones—there are no Ph.D.s.

In the current parliament, nearly 82 percent of lawmakers have a university degree, and around 17 percent have Ph.D.s.

The British Parliament’s rare examples include Julian Lewis, the chairman of its Intelligence and Security Committee; in the United States the Ph.D. league includes Alma Adams and Mike Gallagher in the House and Ben Sasse and Raphael Warnock in the Senate. No other group of elected politicians, though, comes close to Germany’s Ph.D. rate—not even Austria, whose doctor-politician tradition resembles that of Germany.

Last month, the Austrian minister of labor and families resigned over plagiarism in her master’s and doctoral theses. A researcher found that Christine Aschbacher had plagiarized one-fifth of her Ph.D. dissertation. In 2011, European Union Commissioner Johannes Hahn of Austria avoided losing his Ph.D. in philosophy when a committee decreed that the rules at the time his degree was awarded—1987—were less strict.

Merkel began her career as a scientist, and America’s most famous German-born politician, Henry Kissinger, was famously a real academic, too. But German politicians-in-waiting sometimes seem to get doctorates to polish their resumes for political careers. Some even do so while they’re in the middle of those careers. One recent family minister, Kristina Schröder of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, gained her Ph.D. in sociology while already holding political office; indeed, she did so using party staff to help with her research.

While some of the dissertations are decidedly thin, others have made a creditable contribution to academic knowledge. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s current president, wrote his dissertation about government intervention to limit homelessness, and Wolfgang Schäuble, a former minister and current speaker of the parliament, gained a Ph.D. examining the legal position of corporate auditors.

Giffey, alas, seems to have completed her dissertation on the fly. Unfortunately, she has company. In 2011, one of the four doctors of jurisprudence in Merkel’s cabinet, the young and ambitious Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had to resign over plagiarism in his Ph.D. thesis. He also lost his doctorate. So severe was the shame that Guttenberg decamped for the United States, where he got into technology. He recently gained a new doctorate—at a British university.

In 2013, Education Minister Annette Schavan, a doctor of education, had to resign when she was found to have plagiarized her thesis. Slightly less illustrious German politicians have trod a similar path, including the liberal Free Democratic Party’s rising star Silvana Koch-Mehrin, whose dissertation was found to contain 125 cases of plagiarism on 80 pages. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission and the holder of a Ph.D. in medicine, has also been found to have plagiarized chunks of her Ph.D. thesis.

With doctorates so prized not just in politics but in business, too, many Ph.D. students rush the matter.

In her case, plagiarism sleuths found unattributed content on 27 of her dissertation’s 62 pages, on the subject of the impact of baths on the health of mothers and unborn babies in situations of premature membrane rupture. An academic committee concluded, however, that she hadn’t plagiarized in the findings part of her dissertation.

The root of the problem may, rather paradoxically, be Germany’s strong focus on Bildung—education and self-cultivation. With doctorates so prized not just in politics but in business, too, many Ph.D. students rush the matter. According to a 2019 report from Germany’s statistical agency the Statistisches Bundesamt, Ph.D. studies at German universities encompass an average of 30 to 50 months. Two and a half years is rather sparse for serious academic work. Ph.D.s in medicine—without which German physicians don’t get to call themselves doctors—are considered particularly light. German professors also seem to have been slow in catching on to the use of anti-plagiarism software, though online sleuths have been exposing sloppy politicians for years.

Residents of other countries would kill for such modest political scandals. But the real question is: Do Ph.D.-clad politicians serve their country better? During the COVID-19 pandemic, having a serious scientist at the helm of the country has undoubtedly helped Germany.

In Finland, green party leader and Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo has a Ph.D. in sociology on the subject of food and homelessness—a highly useful background for an interior minister. Then again, it’s doubtful whether the sports science Ph.D. of Vitali Klitschko—the former world heavyweight boxing champion and current mayor of Kyiv—makes him a better politician. I can, however, report from personal experience that Klitschko’s handshake is so crushing that, Ph.D. or not, he leaves a lasting impression with friend and foe alike.

Many of the world’s wisest leaders don’t have Ph.D.s

Many of the world’s wisest leaders don’t have Ph.D.s: Finland’s much-celebrated Prime Minister Sanna Marin doesn’t have a Ph.D. Nor does another breakout star of this difficult year, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Giffey’s party colleague Helmut Schmidt, considered post-World War II Germany’s most intellectual leader, didn’t hold a doctorate either. In some cases influential leaders don’t even have a university degree: Germany’s ex-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer failed to graduate from high school and subsequently worked as a taxi driver. Thorbjorn Falldin, Sweden’s prime minister during some of the darkest Cold War years in the late 1970s and early ’80s, was a farmer with a high school diploma.

Indeed, a doctorate bestows neither an agile mind nor wisdom. Yet in German politics, the doctorate retains its hold. Even the otherwise rebellious Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the latest entrant into the Bundestag, has conformed to the apparently obligatory display of Bildung, with as high a share of Ph.D.s as the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats. The AfD even has the Bundestag’s highest share of members with a “habilitation,” the prestigious European super-doctorate that follows the mere Ph.D..

Vaclav Havel, who in his dramas and essays proved himself one of modern history’s most astute observers of the functioning of society, was denied the university education that he wanted in communist Czechoslovakia but went on to become a wise leader of his country during its painful post-communist convulsions. His plays, in the tradition of the theater of the absurd, have been analyzed by countless Ph.D. students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Havel offered the best advice that can be applied to higher education: “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.”

A Ph.D. is great. But politician or not, if you have one, don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s always a Vaclav Havel or a Helmut Schmidt who can outthink you.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw