Update 6/10/2021: Berlin Free University has rescinded Giffey’s doctorate. According to the university, the degree was obtained with, “Deception over the independence of her academic achievement.” Giffey had already stated she would not use the title “doctor.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has lost yet another one of her ministers to allegations of plagiarism, making it the third such resignation and fourth such scandal in a decade.
This time, the Minister in question is Franziska Giffey, the now-former Minster for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The allegations against her first came to light in early 2019 when the VroniPlag group, a volunteer group that investigates potential plagiarism in the academic work of German politicians, noticed the issue.
The problem was with Giffey’s 2010 thesis at the Free University of Berlin. According to VroniPlag, the thesis had “careless” referencing, misquoting, appropriated text and other significant attribution issues.
Giffey responded by asking the university to investigate the matter, insisting that she wrote the thesis herself.
Initially, the university only issued a reprimand, but additional investigations found other issues with the thesis. What followed was years of uncertainty and multiple investigations by the university.
Recently, the university recently concluded its third investigation and, though it has not published its findings at this time (Giffey has until June to respond), Giffey has announced she will stop using the title “Doctor” and is stepping down from her Minister position.
However, this is not the end for Giffey in German politics. She has said that she will be focusing her time and energy on the election for Berlin’s Mayor, transitioning from the national government to local elections.
All in all, it’s an all-too familiar story, a high-ranking German official being accused of plagiarism and being forced to step down because of it. That said, this case does feel a little bit different, and it is easy to see why.
A Long, Long History of Plagiarism Scandals
As a high-ranking German politician facing plagiarism allegations, Giffey has a lot of company.
- In March 2011 German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned after was accused of plagiarism in his 2006 thesis at Bremen University. He had his Ph.D. revoked and even faced criminal proceedings over alleged copyright violations.
- In February 2013, German Education Minister Annette Schavan faced allegations of plagiarism in her 1980 thesis. She quit her position after Heinrich Heine University revoked her doctorate.
- In September 2015, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was accused of plagiarism in her 1990 dissertation at the Hannover Medical School. Though the school confirmed that plagiarism took place, they allowed her to keep her degree. She also did not resign and is the current President of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union.
However, in all these stories there is one common thread. If the school revoked the doctorate, the politician felt they had no choice but to resign. This is why Guttenberg and Shavan left their posts but von der Leyen not only remained at her post for four more years, but even progressed even farther politically.
That, in turn, is where Giffey’s case stands out. She has not yet lost her degree and has other opportunities to fight it. Even if the school’s report recommends her Ph.D. be revoked, there’s still time to fight and challenge it.
However, it’s very likely that Giffey sees the writing on the wall. Even if she can protect her degree from this round, it’s the third such investigation in as many years. This issue shows no signs of going away. It’s likely she knows, or at least believes, that her degree will be revoked at some point.
Couple that with the fact that she already has local political aspirations, she may be taking this as an opportunity to reset her career a bit. It will be interesting to see if she seeks out another degree should she lose this one.
Still, only time will tell if her degree is revoked and how this impacts her career long term. So, while it is a familiar story, the conclusion is yet to be truly written.
Germany, when compared to the U.S., takes higher degrees much more seriously with its politicians. Where it’s unusual for politicians, even upper echelons of government, to have Ph.Ds. it’s practically a requirement in Germany and one that we’ve seen enforced in plagiarism scandals multiple times.
But while that desire for better-educated leaders is admirable, it leads to a perverse incentive where some end up going to school not because they believe in the value of what they are learning and their contributions to academia, but as simply ticking a box required to assume higher office.
Whether that is what happened here or not is unclear. Giffey still insists that she wrote the thesis to the best of her abilities and blames any citation issues on mistakes. Ultimately, it is up to the university to decide if she acted in good faith or not.
Still, it’s interesting to see that, in Germany, plagiarism scandals like this one still carry very serious consequences for politicians. Compare that to the United States, where even very serious allegations are often just speed bumps.
It will be interesting to see if there are many such plagiarism scandals with dissertations and theses written after Giffey. She wrote her paper in the late 2000s and received her degree in 2010, just one year before the Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg scandal broke.
Will plagiarism remain a problem for German politicians or is it possible that they’ve already learned their lesson and are being more careful with their work? Time will tell.