From The New York Times, February 12. An article by Anna Sauerbrey, op-ed contributor.
In the week since Annette Schavan, the German education minister, resigned over a plagiarism scandal involving her doctoral thesis, Berlin has been feeling a bit hung over.
Expressions of regret have spread among the political classes, with an undertone of remorse and a tinge of melancholy. Political pundits and academic representatives have stressed Ms. Schavan’s expertise and lauded her accomplishments. Yet no one questions that, especially in an election year, she had to go.
At the same time, the scandal has opened up a conversation about Germany’s hunger for scandal and moral self-flagellation wherever it is found, however minor – a condition that has fed a deep, slow-burning crisis in our political culture.
Germany is remarkably free of serious cases of political misbehavior. The last rich-in-saturated-fats political affair emerged in 1999, when Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other leading members of the conservative Christian Democratic Party admitted to having accepted more than a million German marks in illegal contributions.
Compared with this, recent scandals have been skim milk. There was the case of Health Minister Ulla Schmidt who was found guilty of taking her official car on a vacation in Spain. There was President Christian Wulff, who resigned a year ago for, among other reasons, letting a film producer pay for a hotel room and accepting a toy car for his kids.
Then there was the case of Karl-Theordo zu Guttenberg, the young defense minister who had cut-and-pasted a pompous doctoral thesis; the resulting outcry led him not only to resign but also to move to Connecticut.
And now comes Ms. Schavan, who wrote her dissertation in 1980 at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. After a blogger highlighted misattributions in her footnotes, a university committee revoked her doctorate – a particularly noteworthy move in a country where academic titles are among a person’s most prized possessions. And yet: footnotes?
You don’t have to compare these affairs to the corrupt doings of Chinese officials or Afghan presidents to find them rather mediocre. Frankly, we’re starving for more.
For years, German investigative journalists have been looking across the border, drooling at the juiciness of French domestic affairs. Nicolas Sarkozy accused of taking illicit campaign contributions from the L’Oréal billionaire Liliane Bettencourt! The secret service wiretapping journalists! The paternity suit filed by the former minister of justice, Rachida Dati! D.S.K.!
There we are again, stuck with our own cliché: while our neighbors are feasting on oysters and Champagne, the Germans are chewing their black bread.
Strangely, the lack of scandal, and the hunger for it wherever it arises, has fed another tendency in the German psyche: a historically induced mistrust of the political system.
Though Germany has been a nation of goody-two-shoes for decades, many Germans remain convinced that there is evil lurking in each of us, especially our political elite. Isn’t that the one thing history has taught us, that every political system is fallible, that there can never be enough control over the political leaders?
When we don’t find that evil, we look deeper, until we find something, anything, to prove us right. Instead of taking pride in our comparatively low level of corruption and our fairly high level of prosperity, German voters and the news media are busy scolding their leaders and constantly feeling mistreated.
All of this would be funny if it didn’t have a dire consequence. Fewer and fewer of the young and talented are choosing politics as their field of work. Who wants to work in a supposedly wicked profession, where everyone is watching you? The political parties, which function as the magnet and training ground for future bureaucrats and political leaders, are having trouble attracting enough people to work in the federal government, not to mention the states.
True, there are other factors: the money is definitely elsewhere; politics in Germany is not as lucrative as it is in America. But the idealism that drives young politicians everywhere is gone, too.
In the reactions to Annette Schavan’s resignation, however, there has been a new tone. Berlin, capital of vain negativity and furious criticism, seems to be on the brink of self-reflection. People are starting to ask whether we should be so cruel toward leaders who make such minor mistakes, just to satisfy our own righteousness. Seeing a decent, upstanding minister of education leaving the stage for minor reasons could be a turning point in our political culture.