If you are following the political landscape in Germany or news in general you might have noticed that for a couple of months one of the main topics has been around politicians stepping down because they were caught cheating in their dissertation.
It all started with Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, an up and coming star of the conservatives and minister of defence at the time, followed by three politicians of the liberal party and now (oh the irony) Annette Schavan, minister of education had to step down after the university deprived her doctor’s degree after finding plagiarism in her dissertation.
Besides the interesting fact that many people seem to either have kind of a frowsy attitude in terms of correct citation of their sources, it is also quite telling that some even go a step further and actively cheat by stealing entire passages pretending that they were their own thoughts.
But why do Germans commit a criminal offence in order to get a doctor’s degree? What is Germany’s fascination with titles?
Dr. Merkel appointed Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka to take over Dr. Schavan’s position (Germany’s fascination with titles) nytimes.com/2013/02/10/wor…
— Eric Beerkens (@Beerkens) February 10, 2013
Though it is hard to really tell the exact reasons, here are some potential factors that explain the importance of the doctor’s degree in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. In short, there is nothing else that gives you a social edge today.
After the breakdown of the German Empire in 1918 a title of nobility did not get you far anymore. Yes, there is still a fascination for the remaining high nobility and it surely does not hurt to have a “von” or “zu” in your name, but on the other hand there are no new titles of nobility created anymore as there is no king or emperor. Therefore, the chances are limited to join a noble family, if you are a woman you can of course marry someone with a title, as a man your only chance is to get adopted – but that is a story for another day.
While the military played a major role in the Weimarer Republik and of course during the Third Reich its importance and charisma vanished in the Bundesrepublik. Other than in many countries across the world an officer’s rank won’t get you much attention or benefits in daily life.
The same is true for decorations. While the Iron Cross, the Knight’s Cross or Pour le Mérite were highly important before the Second World War, decoration nowadays is of no benefit in social life. The only accepted order is the Bundesverdienstkreuz.
There are also no major orders in Germany one could get appointed to whereas in other European countries like France you have the Légion d’Honneur or in Great Britain you have the Order of the British Empire.
Last but not least the only renown title you might get in working through the ranks in administration is that of a State Secretary which is again a very limited option as there are only a handful positions available.
Thus the remaining option to “make it in life”, open to anyone and that anyone can basically achieve through one’s own work, is the doctor’s degree. Everyone understands what a doctor is and yes, you might get benefits in your social life like admiration, priority seating in restaurants and a boost in your political career. One could say that a doctor’s degree somewhat became obligatory to get into the higher ranks of politics and administration.
And because all of this, people seem to be willing to do a lot for a doctor’s degree and most of those who made it will insist that you address them with their entire title.
I always find that those who don’t insist on their title are usually the smarter ones.
But this behavior gives you a good look into the German mind. Most Germans long for titles and being superior to their fellow citizens and they want others to acknowledge that.
There is even a famous response if someone forgets to address you by your full title. For example if I had a doctor’s degree and would insist to be addressed by my title all the time this dialog might happen:
A: Guten Tag, Frau Winkler.
B: Dr. Winkler. Soviel Zeit muss sein!
“Soviel Zeit muss sein” is rather hard to translate. Literally “That much time needs to be (spent)”, meaning you should really take the time and say doctor. Everything else can wait as this is important.
The other facet of the whole doctor title witch hunt is of course the good old German Schadenfreude. Germans love to see that pretenders face their rightful punishment and they enjoy others falling deep which also adds an extra dash of Schadenfreude to the latest resignation.
Back when zu Guttenberg announced his resignation via SMS to chancelor Merkel she showed the text to Annette Schavan and the scene has been caught on camera. You can watch it below with commentary of Harald Schmidt who hosted a popular German late night show.
Schadenfreude at its best and even better now that Schavan had to resign for the same reason. Balm for the soul of the German citizen.
I hope this clarified Germany’s fascination for titles a bit. Below you will find a list of related vocabulary. And in one of the next posts we will take a look at adoptions and other ways to get your title of nobility.
- der Bundesverteidigungsminister = minister of defence (male)
- die Bundesbildungsministerin = minister of education (female)
- zurücktreten = to step back, to step down
- jemandem etwas entziehen = to depry so. of st.
- die Doktorarbeit = dissertation
- der Doktortitel = doctor’s degree
- schluderig = frowsy
- betrügen = to betray
- der Adelstitel = title of nobility
- der Hochadel = high nobility
- das Eiserne Kreuz = Iron Cross
- das Ritterkreuz = Knight’s Cross
- das Bundesverdienstkreuz = Federal Cross of Merit
- der Staatsekretär = State Secretary
- der Mitbürger = fellow citizen
- die gerechte Strafe = rightful punishment