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Why are German politicians so obsessed with PhDs?

Written by: David Matthews
Published on: 17 Jun 2021

Some 350 demonstrators, wearing masks of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, take part in the “Looking for a climate chancellor” protest, 2009

Source: Getty

It is Groundhog Day in German politics. Earlier this month, the federal families minister, Franziska Giffey – one of the Social Democrats’ few nationally recognisable figures – finally resigned after years of accusations of plagiarism in her political science doctorate.

It is a truism to note that she is only the latest political high-flyer to be brought down by an academic misconduct scandal in a country where politicians collect titles as greedily as foreign counterparts kiss babies.

At one point in 2011, the 16-strong cabinet of Angela Merkel boasted no fewer than 10 PhDs, including her own in quantum chemistry, although this dropped to nine when defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had his title suspended for plagiarism. More than one in five current MPs have doctorates.

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But what are the origins of this PhD mania, does it achieve anything, and are there any signs of it weakening?

The PhD has much deeper roots in Germany than in the UK, explained Thomas Weber, a German-born professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen who has written about the two countries’ contrasting academic histories.

In the 19th century, the PhD was seen as a “German degree”, he explained. In the 1870s, Lewis Carroll even wrote a poem mocking English intellectuals’ obsession with all things German, observing that “now-a-days no man of science, that setteth any store by his good name, will cough otherwise than thus, Ach! Euch! Auch!

Right up until the 1990s in the UK, particularly at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, there were plenty of academics without PhDs, Professor Weber pointed out, and it is only recently that the qualification became a prerequisite for an academic career.

But in 19th-century Germany, the PhD – then often little more than a “long essay” – was a crucial gateway into universities for people from less well-to-do backgrounds who were not able to take state examinations in law and medicine, he said.

“That’s why there’s such a tradition in German-speaking lands of getting these degrees,” he said.

Although German PhD-fever has strong historical roots, it has descended “almost exclusively” into credentialism, Professor Weber said, earning ambitious politicians mere “CV points”.

“The addition of ‘Dr’ gives one prestige, and on electoral lists a Frau or Herr Doktor is usually given more votes than people without this addition,” said Martin Heidingsfelder, one of the country’s most prolific plagiarism hunters, who has had a hand in several cabinet-level downfalls.

You might expect that a political culture so stuffed with the ultra-educated would be a juicy target for right-wing populists, who could point to Berlin’s surfeit of PhDs as a sign of an out-of-touch elite.

Yet the far-right Alternative for Germany shows little sign of honing this line of attack. Two of its leading lights, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, have PhDs themselves.

But is it Germany that is the oddity here? One could equally ask: why don’t voters in the US or UK want their leaders to be as qualified as possible?

In the US and UK, there is certainly a “bit of anti-intellectualism”, said German-born Thorsten Beck, professor of banking and finance at City, University of London, whose career has straddled all three countries.

In the US, this is linked to its “pioneer experience” and general “anti-government/authority spirit”, he argued. Meanwhile, the UK has an intellectual tradition of empiricism, which prizes “actual experience” over continental rationalism and “innate knowledge”, he pointed out.

The last British prime minister with a doctorate, Gordon Brown, would have “paid a political price” for styling himself “Dr Brown”, reckoned Professor Weber.

By policing academic integrity so fiercely, Germany holds a high line against political malfeasance of more troubling sorts, it could be argued. As Foreign Policy recently put it, “residents of other countries would kill for such modest political scandals”.

Yet observers saw few signs that laser-like scrutiny of politicians’ doctorates wards off broader corruption and dishonesty. During the pandemic, several German conservative MPs have been implicated in so-called mask affairs, profiting from hasty procurement deals as the country scrambled for medical protective equipment.

“The doctorate stands for a longer and higher education and thus for more competence in a scientific field and normally for more integrity,” said Mr Heidingsfelder. “So it stands to reason that people who do not have this integrity try particularly hard to get a doctorate in order to divert attention from their weaknesses.”

But there are hints that Germany’s obsession with PhDs is waning. Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria who earlier this year launched a failed challenge to lead the conservative block into this September’s federal elections, has a PhD in law – but his qualification appears only rarely in public discourse, and certainly less than Dr Merkel’s.

As for Ms Giffey, although she has stepped down from federal office, she will nonetheless run for mayor of Berlin later this year. “If she manages to [win], it will show something is changing,” said Professor Weber.