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Guttenberg and the price of decency

The Local · 1 Mar 2011, 16:22

Published: 01 Mar 2011 16:22 GMT+01:00

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Yes, jealousy and resentment played a role in this drama. An outstanding talent, one who had long been Germany most popular politician, needed to be brought down. He was a good-looking aristocrat, articulate, likeable and charismatic. He was a hands-on kind of guy who didn’t baulk at making unpopular decisions.

And yes, it was about power. Germany’s political opposition had a tough time with Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The harder they attacked him, the more powerful he became. It was almost enough to drive them to despair. Even without a direct comparison to the baron, the leading lights of the centre-left Social Democrats – Sigmar Gabriel, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Kurt Beck – look rather bland. Put next to Guttenberg and the three suddenly shrink down to grumpy garden gnome size.

And yes, it was also about a media battle: left-leaning broadsheet newspapers and magazines against right-wing tabloids (with a few exceptions).

But Guttenberg’s downfall was, in fact, completely his own doing.

He’s not the victim of insidious machinations or a smear campaign. He’s not a skittish deer, hounded and eventually slain by a bloodthirsty pack. Instead, he simply failed to stay on his feet during the first serious crisis of his political career.

It wasn’t a plagiarized doctoral dissertation that sealed his fate, rather his behaviour after the allegations first surfaced two weeks ago. Discounting the charges as “abstruse,” the coquettish manner in which he dealt with his own mistakes (claiming he was “the original, not the copy”), the defiant way in which he refused to show regret, and how he tried to spin the affair. The public can forgive mistakes, even big ones. But what people won’t pardon are instances of equivocation, semantic dodges (“no deliberate deception”) and faked humility.

The Guttenberg we saw on Tuesday during his resignation speech was the man that many of us would have liked to have seen ten days ago – honest, personal, real.

“It’s the most painful decision of my life,” he said, and many believed him. “I’ve reached the limits of my strength,” he said, and that, too, was believable. “This office became my lifeblood,” he said, and there was no doubt. But it was simply too late.

A resignation with class is made either right away or not at all. Just like the departure by Margot Käßmann, the former head of Germany’s Protestant churches who immediately stepped down after being caught driving drunk. She was quickly forgiven and rehabilitated in the public eye.

The curtain has now closed on this tragic drama. The line between saint and hypocrite, righteous and self-righteous, was often blurred. And plenty of damage was done.

But the wounds can now be healed, the malice forgiven, the taunts silenced. Justice hasn’t been subverted by this affair, but rather served. Values put under strain have been renewed.

Guttenberg is still young. And while one life may be firmly behind him, there are many possible ones still on the horizon. Germany, with its serious dearth of political talent, can ill afford to do without him in the long run.

Angela Merkel, however, is about to embark on one of the toughest periods of her chancellorship. With Guttenberg’s departure, her conservatives lose their only other high-profile politician in a year full of key state elections. Who now is going to draw crowds to election rallies?

Story continues below…

For many conservatives, Guttenberg, rightly or wrongly, offered a kind of ideological home and that kind of yearning can’t simply be replaced. Merkel had already gutted her party of conservative ideas long before the Guttenberg affair. Now, there's no-one to fill the void for her.

Yes, decency has won the day, but the price for that victory will be extremely high.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

18:17 March 1, 2011 by Surferjoe
Low have the mighty fallen. And deservedly so whatever the consequences for he nation. Whatever those consequences are it could not afford to excuse Guttenberg and his arrogance.
18:46 March 1, 2011 by Major B
Shame. Shame. Germany FINALLY gets a star international poltician and can't even work with the situation. A hard working conservative at that!!!! I've read some of the self-serving criticisms of Herr Guttenberg and they usually reveal themselves for what they were - hollow fumings in which the commenters sounded more like they just didn't LIKE the guy. Geez. Criticize Americans all you want but there are some Teutonic urges that seem just as petty. True, plaigarism is wrong and in my own previous work and graduate studies I just had too much pride to use something without proper credit. But in this era, when politicians continually let us down, in every way, this STINK was brough up from the sewer unnecessarily by detractors and the jealous. O.K. Now back to the boring bland bla bla bla German politician, with absolutely NO international leadership commensurate with Germany's economy and influence.
12:28 March 2, 2011 by Wim van Couveren
Regarding the comment above about this being some sort of a ¦quot;shame¦quot; [sic].

We should be proud that in Germany the antics of someone even so high as this worthy can be shown the public opprobrium he rightly deserves and is forced to resign.

Zu Guttenberg has always been close to the US ­ his infantile attempt to name a street in Berlin of all places after the loser Ronald Reagan is a case in point.

Perhaps he is not as ¦#39;popular¦#39; in the CSU as the rightwing gutter press ¦#39;Bild¦#39; would have us believe and maybe the question of whether he ¦#39;jumped or was pushed¦#39; will take some time to unravel.
14:58 March 2, 2011 by pacali
It makes me feel sick to watch how Germany's one good politician is pushed away and the media saying he could not withstand the pressure (that has been laid on him by the media itself).

Seriously, Which one of you has never cheated in an exam. I bet most of the "Dr.s" out there have plagarised part of their thesis.

And what does a title have to do with good or bad politics? Isn't lying what most politicians do anyway? If you had been accused of plagarising your thesis, would you immediately admit to it?

If you ask the German people, most of them would not want Guttenberg to resign. Don't assume that the media's opinion is the same as that of the people. It very commonly is not!

Guttenberg's resignation is not a result of pressure put on him by the German people, much rather by jealous politicians who will never come close to his poplularity (thinking they can bring down the good by using any opportunity to attack it instead of doing better themselves) and the media with its lust for scandals, not caring about crushing people in order to make money.

Read (or look up) "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum" by Heinrich Böll and you will see what I am talking about.

Guttenberg's resignation because of two letters and a dot is a shame comparable with Clinton's (someone who had been voted for a second time) resignation because of a lie in his PRIVATE life,

I wonder how long my pro Guttenberg comment will stay up on this site before it is deleted for the use of the freedom of speech...
21:34 March 2, 2011 by fryintl
OK, clinton did not resign. He stayed his full term. He looks everyone in the eye and has not been affected one IOTA by his lying, cheating, petty political assassination of several honorable people. I agree with Wim above, probably a great Dutchman, honor and integrity dictated Herr Guttenberg must do something. If resigning was it, fine. But to talk about Germany's 1 good politician, is slanderous at best and insufferable at worst. Germany has many great politicians. At local levels, minor political appointees in the embassies, they work hard to do what is right and never get attention- and so it should be.

Maybe Herr guttenberg's problem was that he was so famous, someone was gunning for him due to that one thing- Popularity. He is missed almost immediately, and his causes will be sacrificed to make favors so that the Chancellor can keep her majority together. Germany loses because the writer failed to follow his charter, because his committee didn't do their work, and because some idiots who hated him for his politics came after him for his mistakes, whether they were intentional; or not.

If I could meet this man, I would be proud to call him a friend. I would tell him that he is a great man, with a great future in front of him, and encourage him to remember his country needs him now more than ever. If he can work the crowds in the background to help his party stay in power, he can help his country stay on a path to growth.

Germany needs less socialism and more conservative thought and politicians who have the guts to do right.

This article, above, which I am commenting on, is one of the best written articles I have seen in German print in decades. It is candid, direct, not self serving, and tells it like it is.

Herr Guttenberg, feel free to write me at whpmgr@yahoo.com

I know you will never see this, but if you do, I would be proud to say I once talked to you. God Bless you, and give you strength to withstand the attacks.
01:58 March 3, 2011 by Surferjoe
@fryintl - no only has Guttenberg proved not to be Germany's 1 good politician, he's proved to be a millstone around the neck of the whole of german politics. Whether or not someone was "gunning for him" is beside the point that he has been caught out acting so dishonorably . If I were an educated german I would endeavor to slap this man's face for devaluing any german university I had worked to acquire. God help you if you think this guy is someone worth emulating, never mind voting for. With God's good grace he will sink from sight to lick his substantial self inflicted wounds, never to be heard from publicly again.
09:50 March 3, 2011 by EVANGELIST, MICHAEL J FRANCIS
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
15:31 March 3, 2011 by Talonx

Though I think their are some good points made here, I think it's a bit of an exageration to say, "Germany, with its serious dearth of political talent, can ill afford to do without him in the long run."

Just because, the rest of Germany's politicians aren't nearly as caustic does not make Theo a good politician. I would argue the reverse, in fact. Germany, with its wealth of political talent, can ill afford to continue an association with him in the long run.

No place for cheaters at the top.

@ pacali

Thank's for the amusement, it's fun to watch how people out themselves as cheaters and plagiarists in order to support Theo.

I've never once copied in my academic and research career. To most, this is a point of personal pride. For you and Theo, it's public shame. Cheaters like you and Theo are what's wrong with the world.
19:44 March 3, 2011 by zargorn
@pacali: "I bet most of the "Dr.s" out there have plagarised part of their thesis."

Exactly this is why there was no way Guttenberg could stay in office after this. I have spent 10 years working 60-80 hours a week for below minimum wage for my dissertation. And thanks to people like Guttenberg the common belief is that I copied it anyways so why care about it. I have fellow PhD students seen expelled and barred from ever doing their job again for much less than what he did. He copied almost 50% of his text and may have had part of the rest written by someone else. I was a fan of him too. But this I can not excuse and I don't see how any serious academic can.

Do you seriously wanna believe that the person that is operating on you, that oversees your supply of food, electricity and drinking water or that uses millions of your tax money for fighting cancer was not properly educated and has no problems openly lying to you for their own benefit?
21:36 March 3, 2011 by smaky

"Read (or look up) "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum" by Heinrich Böll and you will see what I am talking about."

That's a joke, right? It's precisely the BILD-Zeitung which praised von und zu Guttenberg despite his lies because he feeded them information. Exactly the same BILD which Böll criticised for having its agenda.

"shame comparable with Clinton's (someone who had been voted for a second time) resignation because of a lie in his PRIVATE life"

That's a second joke, right? Perjury and his public statement that he "did not have sex with that woman" can hardly be considered a private lie.
22:13 March 4, 2011 by Jupp
Mir gefaellt der Satz:

"Sigmar Gabriel, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Kurt Beck ­ look rather bland. Put next to Guttenberg and the three suddenly shrink down to grumpy garden gnome size."

Da fehlt nur noch der Kriegsdienstverweigerer, ehemaliges Mitglied im "Kommunistischen Bund" und Hausbesetzer, der die Vereidigung unserer Soldaten als "perverses Ritual" bezeichnete, sich selbst aber als peinlich laut schreienden Saubermann im Bundestag verkauft. Diesen Herren war die Hexenjagd auf Guttenberg sehr wichtig denn anders konnten sie ihm nicht das Wasser reichen.

Jupp Kerckerinck zur Borg
17:58 March 5, 2011 by pacali
oh, now I get it. Seems to be the academics who are outraged...

@fryintl: Sorry, I got something wrong there. But they did try to get him out of office for something that in my opinion has nothing to do with politics.

@Talonx: Where in my previous comment can you read anything about me outing myself as a cheater/plagarist? As one of those "intellectuals" you should be able to see that this is not the case (btw. I am not an academic). And if you have really never cheated: It is an honor for me that you wrote to me, Buddah. :)

Come on, you don't want me to believe that humans can be perfect.

@Zargorn: Yes, I do not care whether "the person who is operating on me" is a "Dr." or not. You do not need to be an academic to be properly educated, and your title has absolutely no influence on whether you are a good politician or not. A "serious academic" should know that.

Making promises and not keeping them is a sign of a bad politician, not lying about your thesis. I prefer "Jupp"s comment basically saying the witch-chase after Guttenberg was important for alot of people, because they had nothing on him.

@smaky: Yes, it is a joke if you read it with a narrow mind. The book might be criticizing Bild but that was almost 40 years ago. Do you really think "Bild" is the only media that needs to be criticized nowadays?

Regarding the second "joke": Once again, you must read more carefully. I did not call it a public lie, but a lie (call it public if you want) about his private life. And most adulturers would lie about it, not because they want to keep their jobs, but because they do not want to lose their spouse. Once again, the affair had nothing to do with politics.

Now please don't come up with "if they can lie about one thing, why should I trust them with another?" We would not be able to trust anyone, not even Talonx!
21:33 March 5, 2011 by DrStrangelove

So it's a crime if people point fingers at Theo, a proven cheater, but it's o.k. for you to call anyone with a degree a cheater on absolutely no evidence?

You should allow for the possibility that some people actually are smarter and work harder than Theo or yourself and therefore simply have no need to cheat. From my past and ongoing experience, I can say the vast majority of people at the PhD level are honest. As Talonx rightly said, this is a point of pride to them.
08:34 March 6, 2011 by tallady
It is amazing how some of you justify cheating and lying and attempt to turn it around with everyone has done it..It is ok because this guy was a great politician,bu;;ls--t,he was what he is a liar and a cheat .I don;t need friends like this, so I will pass with the email address and s--ck h--le remarks.
12:11 March 6, 2011 by pacali
I never called "anyone with a degree a cheater on absolutely no evidence" Seriously, where do you people get all these ideas from?

You still don't get it... How often will I have to say I never said I cheat? In fact, I do not cheat when it comes to degrees or anythig similar. All I said is that it is sick to judge people you don't know. If you saw an article about a random person plagarising you would not care about what happens to him and forget about it in two minutes. If you saw an article about, someone famous, let's say Matt Damon, cheating you would become outraged and want him out of his new movies...

And when did I justify cheating? I did not say that it was okay for Guttenberg or anyone to cheat. But I did say everyone (except for maybe Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or Buddah) has done it and I stick to that opinion.

What I am saying is Angela Merkel was right when she said that she hired a defence minister and not a scientist.

That is exactly the point I have been trying to prove (even if I have been led away from it by people claiming I said things I did not). It was a shame he was bullied out of office (by cowards) just because of two letters and a dot.
16:50 March 6, 2011 by rjones857
Pro or con on Guttenberg, I wouldn't want to be the person with egg on my face.

Obviously Guttenberg wasn't going to own up to his mistake before being caught at it - he cheated. Can he be trusted? He appeared to be a good defense minister.

If he returns in some manner remains to be seen. Since I can't foretell the future or what's on Guttenberg's or the political elite's mind, I reserve judgment. Hopefully we'll all do the same. Yes, I'm annoyed at Mr Guttenberg's lack of judgment and fortitude in the face of his indiscretions but at least he resigned.

Pacali: It is hard in the sharing of opinions in text form that we all can conceivably overreact to what is said because text has no emotion and can be easily misunderstood. You are right in some form that we all can possibly insert another person's ideas into a submitted paper without thinking of giving credit for everything said. but this said, Plagiarism is a huge problem in academia and there is no excuse for it...
18:38 March 6, 2011 by DrStrangelove
@ pacali


"Seriously, Which one of you has never cheated in an exam. I bet most of the "Dr.s" out there have plagarised part of their thesis."


"I never called "anyone with a degree a cheater on absolutely no evidence" Seriously, where do you people get all these ideas from?"

You obviously have the same problem with truth and consistency as your hero. No wonder then that you defend him. Carry on. Over and out.
14:13 March 7, 2011 by erdinger
Without the lime-lite his wife will be the next to abandon him.
14:41 March 7, 2011 by pacali
1. There is a difference between "I bet" and "I know".

2. "most of'" and "anyone" is also not the same thing.

But okay, that part is easy to misunderstand and I must admit to having used the wrong words. I did not intend to say that most academics cheat like Guttenberg did. Sure, 50 % is way over the top and I too think it is a good thing that he lost his title. And of course I do not think most academics plagarised 50% of their thesis but I believe it is very likely that smaller parts (say 5% to 20%) have been plagarised by alot of people.

Then, again, you are right that I should not say something like that because I do not know if this is the case. I am only guessing based on how I have experienced people in my environments cheating. I apologize if I have offended you.

Guttenberg is certainly not my "hero" but I stick to the opinion that politics and academia have nothing to do with each other and that using one thing that has nothing to do with the other to "destroy" the other thing (can't think of anotherepression right now) is a common problem at German schools and workplaces: mobbing

And of course I can understand that if a shepherd cries "wolf" too often without there being a wolf, alot of people will question his honesty. Obviously Guttenberg cheated in order to have better chances in obtaining a high position/or just a good job.

But you can only lie about your intentions as a politician until you come to your actions. When you start acting out your job as a politician, everyone can see if the promises were a lie or not. A lie about a thesis requires alot more to be found out. So despite his cheating as an academic, I think he would have to think more than twice before lying as a politician.

Because of this, I do not care if someone is a cheater as an academic, an arrogant p**** in their private life, an adulteror, or what ever else there is that makes a person unpleasant to you as long as they do their job right.
01:53 March 8, 2011 by Johnny Cash
Well look on the bright side folks. I am sure he would do a lot better on Germanys next top model. No integrity needed there.
12:58 March 8, 2011 by Talonx
@ Pacali

You wrote, "Seriously, Which one of you has never cheated in an exam."

I would say that you are directly implying that you have. Thus, you are a cheater defending a cheater.

As others have said, among academics it's a point of pride, not being a cheater, I'm sorry you don't share such values. The world would be a better place if more people took pride in being honest.
16:23 March 8, 2011 by tallady
Talonx...well stated..dishonesty is counterproductive to a better world.
18:24 March 8, 2011 by pacali
Talonx you are being ridiculous!

Umm, yes, I have cheated twice or thrice... When I was like 13 - 14. After that I never did... because I did not need to.

But I was never proud of not needing to cheat nor did I ever look down on those who did need to cheat, they did not affect me in any way.

I look down upon those who think that being good at complex thinking makes them better people, a thought that turns these intelligent people into complete idiots. Sadly, alot of "intellectuals" think that way.

But our discussion seems to be going in a different direction that is irrelevant for those who are actually interested in the content of the article. Please, if you must discuss with me any further, send me a private message. Maybe I will find it amusing to insult and be insulted by a random stranger on the internet who has a different opinion than me ;-)
22:57 March 8, 2011 by Talonx
@ Pacali

Theo isn't 13 or 14 is he? His cheating was well beyond in extent and meaning the cheating of a 13 or 14 year old. He's a grown man. If your story is that some people cheat when they are in middle school and highschool so what theo did is OK, you really need to reevaluate.

People that try to better themselves, in any way, be it manual labour (skilled or unskilled) or intellectual work should be celebrated. This has nothing to do with 'complex thinking skills'. I do not think that valuing honesty is peculiar to 'intellectuals', I'm quite positive most people, value honesty.

People who lie, like Theo, should not be defended. Especially when they don't even apologize. Theo is scum.
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