Appearances are deceptive

The German government minister who was accused of plagiarism really just wants to be loved, claims Christopher Reid

March 24, 2011



Credit: Elly Walton


Numerous commentators on the Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg academic plagiarism scandal have disdainfully compared the former German defence minister to Thomas Mann's protagonist in his final novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years (German, 1954; English, 1955). To what extent does this actually hit the mark?

Mann injected humour into the classic German Bildungsroman genre by creating a protagonist who has no interest in achieving his personal aims through soul-searching. Unlike the usual heroic figure, who strives for a virtuous life and grows morally and psychologically, Mann's character leads the antisocial life of a con man. He is only true to himself to the extent that he is false to everyone else.

Felix does not believe that there is such a thing as a "real self", let alone one that is authentic or virtuous. His individuality means nothing more than the ability to wear different masks and be any "self" he chooses.

Using this innate chameleon quality, Felix, the son of a manufacturer of cheap sparkling wine, is elevated from the lower middle class to the globe-trotting aristocracy.

Felix would thus appear to have much in common with current phoney financiers such as Bernie Madoff and political charlatans such as disgraced White House candidate John Edwards. They, too, could rub elbows with the cosmopolitan elite only by taking on bogus identities.

One notable difference stands out, though. For Felix, there is no malice in his dishonesty or even awareness of doing any harm to others. Felix is more artist than rogue. He understands the world as a stage and his ability to play upon it as his special God-given talent; he's a Shakespearean actor and his Globe is quite simply the entire globe.

An article in the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt last month contends that because Mann has created a protagonist who is ultimately sympathetic, it would be inaccurate to call a political con artist a "Felix Krull".

The authors, Thomas Andre and Katharina Miklis, highlight the scene in the novel in which Felix turns down the opportunity to go off with a Scottish lord, thus losing the chance to inherit the nobleman's fortune.

The reader may find something authentic in Felix's rejection of a potential title and money. But there is a more compelling reason for his behaviour that explains why Felix gains the reader's favour. We know Felix is a liar and a thief. Nevertheless, we also recognise that Felix fools people, even steals from them, with a single motivation - to be loved.

It is for this reason that he pretends at the age of eight to be a wunderkind violinist; plays the role of the boy-god Hermes for a woman who loves classical antiquity; and finally assumes the identity of an aristocrat named Marquis de Venosta. The novel's famous last chapter is a eulogy to love, and the importance of "making one out of two".

Guttenberg told the Bundestag that he lied because he believed he could "square the circle by combining (his) passion for politics, scholarship and intellectual ambition as the father of a young family". He later added that the more joyfully he accepted his ministerial responsibilities, "the more lovingly I am treated by others".

Did he, then, cut and paste his dissertation because he was trying to be loved? Was he, like Felix, trying to be all things to all people?

Plagiarism implies just the opposite. One plagiarises to cover up for some inadequacy or lack of intelligence - in short, to hide.

But Guttenberg - who was once heralded as Germany's Barack Obama and marked as a future Chancellor - has Felix's self-assurance in front of audiences large and small, and he seems to have believed that he could get away with the lie and thereby get others to love him, not for what he is, but for what he appears to be.

It could be argued that Guttenberg wanted to cover up his inferiority by stealing other people's work, but his life is so public and his act was so brazen that he put himself in a situation where hiding was all but impossible. People who hide simply don't draw attention to themselves as Guttenberg has.

In answering reporters' questions about his dissertation, Guttenberg clung to his role as politician with white-knuckled determination. Unfortunately, there is no other stage for him to play on, and his recent resignation could mean that his political career is over. But, then again, maybe not.

The name Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has a distinct literary quality. The first name means "a gift from God"; the surname's etymology is the same as Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type, without which the novel would have been impossible. Felix Krull is styled in the novel as Hermes, the gift-bringing god, and his first name means "good fortune".

Yet the similarity in their names belies one difference: where Felix plays an aristocrat, Guttenberg already is one. Guttenberg has the gift that Felix only pretends to have. Unlike the fictional character, however, he should hope that he does not finally wind up in prison.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Felipe Fernández-Armesto takes issue with a claim that the EU has been playing the sovereignty card in Brexit negotiations

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

John McEnroe arguing with umpire. Tennis

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman explain how to negotiate your annual performance and development review

Man throwing axes

UCU attacks plans to cut 171 posts, but university denies Brexit 'the reason'

opinion illustration

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald