Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and the Infinite Sadness

A popular figure since the first Angela Merkel cabinet, Karl-Theodor’s political future seemed secure after he became minister of defense in 2009. In early 2011, it came to light that he had plagiarized portions of his PhD. During the ensuing scandal...

I know that I shouldn’t feel sorry for Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former German minister of defense, whose scheduled lecture at Dartmouth College was cancelled Tuesday, after a petition protesting the event received over 100 signatures in three days of circulation, but I can’t help myself. Poor Karl-Theodor! It’s just normal human empathy: the Dartmouth cancellation is the latest in a string of scalding humiliations for this fallen fortunate son, who only two years ago was one of the most powerful politicians in Germany.   

A popular figure since the first Angela Merkel cabinet, Karl-Theodor’s political future seemed secure after he became minister of defense in 2009. In early 2011, it came to light that he had plagiarized portions of his PhD. During the ensuing scandal, Karl-Theodor was stripped of his doctorate, resigned from his post, and quickly retired from public political life. He has since retreated to the land of milk and honey for disgraced politicians, Connecticut, where he maintains a home in close proximity to the US college lecture circuit. Throughout the turbulent scandal, Karl-Theodor’s financial future has never been in jeopardy. A PhD, after all, is merely a piece of paper certifying time spent in a library. He now serves as a “distinguished statesman” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. Having been the German Minister of Defense is the real credential, the experience that actually matters.  

This, at least, is what the Yale International Relations Association, who arranged a lecture at Yale University for Mr. Guttenberg last November, seem to have thought. But others had a less forgiving attitude: as the former defense minister took the podium to speak, half of the audience stood up and walked out dramatically, in what turned out to be an organized protest action led by a group of German graduate students. As the jeering crowd began to march out of the hall, Karl-Theodor was put in the awkward situation of pleading with them to stay and hear him out. The Yale Daily News reported a humbling exchange:

“I would say something about it if you could stay,” Guttenberg responded. “And also about shame, also about failure.”

“No, we actually have to work on our dissertations,” one protester responded, sarcastically. “We’re heading to the library.”

“Fair enough, fair enough,” Karl-Theodor said, nodding.

As defense minister, he had been an unusually colorful character on the German political scene. “Hell’s Bells” had been played as a sort of pro-wrestler-style intro to get the crowd going before his public speaking events. He was known for blasting hard rock from his tent when he visited troops in Afghanistan. The “bad boy” image he liked to project ran contrary to his aristocratic lineage. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s full name is actually Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. Besides being a hard rocker with chiseled good looks, Karl-Theodor is also an old-fashioned nobleman.

Germany, like many post-imperial nations, has a complex relationship with its royalty. The era of kingly courts is not that far in the past, but these days the aristocracy are stripped of any real power, so the dukes and counts and barons hang around in Europe serving as high society tabloid fodder. It is not an unusual career choice, of course, for the blue-blooded to go into politics. The German corridors of power are filled with the flotsam of nobility. The Guttenberg plagiarism scandal resonated deeply in German society because, like Mitt Romney’s 47 percent speech, it revealed something not only about the perpetrator, but about the social milieu of the super-rich: we saw the arrogance of power, the sense of entitlement of the ruling class, the cynical assumption that you deserve a PhD without doing the work, that you can buy an election with the right sponsors. 

What is strange is not Karl-Theodor’s disappearance from public life, nor his retirement to the friendlier climes of New England; the odd part is that he seems pathologically unable to stay out of the public eye. He could act quietly distinguished and statesmanlike over at the think tank, but he seems to crave the limelight, to need the recognition and respect of the public. This makes life difficult for the man nicknamed “the rocking Baron.”

The Dartmouth College petition against Karl-Theodor was initiated by a German professor, Veronika Füchtner. She was offended by Karl-Theodor’s casual dismissal of his academic misdeeds as simply a “mistake,” and felt that he had never offered a “full apology” for his plagiarism. In actuality, though, Karl-Theodor did offer just such an apology, during his talk at Yale, although his critics had by then all marched out of the room and were not there to hear it. “I’m ashamed of what I did,” he is quoted as saying. “But I also decided, in coming over here, that I am now obliged to give something back to a community which I treated not in the right way.”

One wonders: was this a sincere apology? Or is Karl-Theodor giving us more of the pompous posturing of pseudo-nobility? Has he truly seen the error of his ways, or does he merely still think he has something to teach the serfs? Lecturing at Ivy League universities, in any case, hardly amounts to social work. If Karl-Theodor is sincere in his desire to “give something back,” there is an abundance of opportunity for him to do so. There are still plenty of schools out there on the lecture circuit. And once again, I feel sorry for him: Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, condemned to an eternity of giving speeches at America’s community colleges, explaining to the students over and over again why plagiarism is wrong. It sounds like a punishment from Dante’s Inferno