Over the past few years, a number of German politicians and ministers have resigned over plagiarised and annulled doctorates. Yet former members of the East German state security force, the Stasi, who were awarded doctorates on the flimsiest of academic pretexts, are legally allowed to retain them. Germany’s Green Party, in particular, is incensed by the injustice and double standards.
Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to the regime’s collapse in 1989, was not exactly a renowned promoter of research and did not finish high school. Nevertheless, he ran the Stasi’s own university. Although it was not officially listed in the German Democratic Republic as an educational institution, it was formally known as the University of Law for the Ministry of State Security, and its rector was a major general whose immediate superior was Mielke.
Evidently, the “students” of this university were a motley crew, including many high school dropouts, and they worked in an environment without approved study plans or approved research projects. Hundreds received doctoral degrees, among them members of other secret services in the Eastern Bloc.
What is so remarkable is that these graduates are still allowed to use their degrees and doctoral titles in the reunified Germany. According to Article 37 of the Reunification Contract of 1990, academic degrees from the GDR remain valid. In a curious irony, doctoral titles can be revoked only by the awarding university, which in this case was disbanded in 1990.
If one considers the cases of former minister of education Annette Schavan and former minister of defence Karl-Thedor zu Guttenberg, who lost both their titles and jobs through proven doctoral plagiarism, the fact that these GDR doctorates cannot be touched is a paradox of the first order.
Some of these East German doctoral dissertations are only about 80 pages long and were not even written by one person, but by a group. While this may have accorded with the ethos of socialism at the time, it is hardly acceptable for someone to receive a doctorate for writing 20 pages. The standard of these documents has been compared to that of an A-level essay or an undergraduate term paper.
While this may be good for a laugh in one sense, it intensifies the unhappy aura that now surrounds doctoral degrees in Germany. Even though PhDs are still highly sought after, continue to help people along in non-academic careers and are, of course, essential for academic ones, things are not what they used to be.
Many Germans now treat doctorates with some scepticism and do not trust them as they did prior to the recent political scandals. The Stasi revelations have only made the situation worse.
A decade ago, a German professor told me that he had learned over his career to research and check what people really can do, rather than believe what they claim they can do. Such attitudes will no doubt intensify in political and other arenas.
Perhaps people should just be more honest about their achievements and titles. Fans of British radio from the 1960s may recall Lord J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock (from Round the Horne), who had no qualms in revealing the origins of his title: “I give it meself.”